The Arc of Decline in Europe’s Military Capabilities

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In the aftermath of the Cold War, the decline in European military capabilities has been precipitous, but to a certain extent understandable. The three major European powers with the tradition of being great military powers, Britain, France, and Germany, responded in different fashions to the disappearance of Soviet military power from Central Europe. Any resurgence of European power will inevitably come from these powers, or it will not come at all, and the latter is far more likely than the former.

In effect the collapse of Warsaw Pact military power removed the existential Soviet threat that had been hanging over the Germans since the end of the Second World War. Not only was Germany reunited at no military cost–although at enormous economic cost–but the Germans for the first time in their history realized the obvious: namely that Poland represented a wonderful buffer state between them and the Russians. Moreover, the Poles, occupied for 45 years by the Russians, were and are more than happy to take on the role of serving as the protector of Germany’s eastern frontier from potential Russian aggression. Secure on all of its frontiers, the Germans have fallen into the illusion that war could not possibly occur in Central Europe, especially since they started the two major world wars of the twentieth century. But now that they have given up that aspect of their strategic policy, they no longer see the need for any serious military capabilities. And given the fact that there is no apparent threat in sight, German disarmament seems to make sense, as did that of the British in the 1920s.

For the British and the French the journey has been a bit longer. Both initially maintained the illusion after 1990 that they were great military powers with some ability to project military power beyond their borders. Both participated with division-sized forces and air units in the 1991 Gulf War and their efforts represented far more than simply showing up to be seen at the side of the Americans. However, in the second war against Saddam’s Iraq the British found it far more difficult to cobble together a division to support the drive on Basra. The French, of course, sat on the sidelines, perhaps wisely, as the United States destroyed Saddam’s regime, but then had not a clue as to what it should put in the place of the evil Ba’athist regime.

But over the past two decades we have seen a steady decline in the out of area capabilities of these two powers. The French are still capable of reacting to the ill-trained Islamic murderers in central Africa as long as they have American logistical support. For the British the major cuts they have made in their military capabilities have made short-term economic sense, but once-lost capabilities are hard to reconstitute. Most important, they have virtually no ability to project military power. Simply put, they could not replicate the Falklands Island campaign of thirty years ago, which resulted in such a devastating victory over the Argentine military forces.

Nevertheless, the traditions of all three nations and their past history suggest that they are indeed capable of putting together serious military forces, if the national will were to demand a rebirth of military strength. However, for most Europeans, just as with the British and French in the early to mid-1930s, there appear to be no serious strategic threats on the horizon. Thus, without the will to rearm, it is highly unlikely that the Europeans, led by Britain, France, and Germany, will make any effort in the future to reconstitute military forces that are useful for something beyond looking good on parades.

Nevertheless, there are dangerous possibilities in the external world that most in Europe are unwilling to consider. Unfortunately history has a nasty way of wrecking the comfortable assumptions of those who believe that they live in a world ruled by law and order. A massive collapse of the political order in the Middle East–a real possibility–where most of their oil originates, might awaken Europeans and their leaders to the dangers surrounding the comfortable gated community of the European Union. Would they respond to such a possibility? Perhaps. But far more likely in such a case would be hand wringing and Monday-morning quarter-backing by the Europeans of those nations which might step in to protect their interests. After all it is well to remember the wretched, pusillanimous response of the European powers to the events in their own backyard during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, when they had real military capabilities.