The cosseted safety most Europeans feel since the end of the Balkan wars inclines them away from the need for effective military forces. The “Swabian housewife” model of thrift and narrow interests that Chancellor Merkel exemplifies for Germany is both what Europe is becoming and what it wants to become. It’s enough to make an American nostalgic for the days when the prime minister of Luxembourg could arrogantly declare “this is the hour of Europe, not the United States.” The European Union no longer even believes it has the power to affect choices of existing members–undemocratic politics in Hungary, corruption in Bulgaria–much less shape the international order.
But we Americans exacerbate this crisis of confidence in Europe by constantly harping on their inadequacies (as Secretary Gates did so abrasively in his farewell). It is true that European governments will not spend for defense what it would take for them to keep pace with the technological and operational innovations occurring in U.S. forces. But a better metric of their value would be whether they could defeat enemies they would conceivably fight. And here we don’t give Europeans nearly enough credit.
Europeans have fought twelve long years alongside us in Afghanistan. They were willing to intervene in Libya–Norwegians and Swedes, not just British and French. The French did good work in Mali, showing a model of successful limited intervention. Europe has at least seven of the world’s ten most capable militaries. And they have long experience of retaining combat power on limited budgets–something the American military has not demonstrated any great ability at. Instead of complaining that Europeans are not doing what we are doing, we might try our hand at doing what they are doing well.