It is nothing new to see European defense spending trailing behind that of the United States, or lately, as I wrote in an earlier post, that of other emerging parts of the globe. Although many tend to emphasize the decades old transatlantic gap between the US and European allies, the disparities between European nations defense spending are equally challenging for NATO and the EU common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). What is new in the current economic crisis is the extent to which it is having an impact on also the relatively better performing members of the Alliance, such as the UK, France, the Netherlands, or Denmark. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with their share of European defense spending and capabilities, the impact of the British and French defense cuts is of course the most significant development. To name just one significant feature of the impact of austerity, the UK will not have an operational aircraft carrier until at least 2012, the ultimate symbol of the capability for power projection.

The only European nation with the size and resources to slow or maybe even stop the current decline of defense is Germany. Of course, because of the legacy of the 20th century, this could pose a major dilemma for European nations: should they support a considerable improvement of German defense capabilities, making it the premier nation in European security issues also, or from fear of a “German Europe”, they would rather stick with the current trend. No other option seems more likely at this point.

Even if Europe manages to avoid a collapse of the Eurozone, its economic growth prospects are not encouraging, including that of Britain and France. A federalized European security and defense policy, the only way pooling and sharing could reach the size and scope with a significant strategic impact, seems almost as far away than a decade ago.

However, Germany does not seem to be interested. The general pacifism, the rejection of the use of force in the German public as a legacy of the 20th century is still a powerful factor, however it is worth noting that Germany is the world’s third largest arms exporter. Germany’s foreign policy is still driven by geo-economics rather than geopolitics. Its special relations with Russia driven by energy cooperation and German investments, lack of interest in NATO’s military interventions out of area, while taking the lead in trying to reshape the EU according to its own economic rules are clear indication of this policy. If no dramatic event occurs which would reshape German security perception, this policy will likely remain unchallenged for the following years. However, if for any reason Germany would decide to create much stronger defense capabilities and play a more active role in international security policy, it is worth considering what would its main features likely
look like.

One of the reasons of German passivity in the broader Middle East, the premiere region for major conflicts of the past decade, is of course that it has traditionally less political, strategic interests in the region than France or the UK had. Its geopolitical location has always forced Germany to look towards the East. This feature is unlikely to change, while deepening strategic economic partnership with Russia will likely remain a major priority, and to its immediate East NATO and EU member Central European nations pose no threats. Hence it is unlikely that Germany would considerably strengthen its defense posture towards the Eastern Europe. Germany is unlikely to initiate out of area military engagements either around the world even if it would have more capabilities to be involved or take the lead in them. The one thing Germany is really interested in and could be concerned about is trade.

As the engine of German economic growth, international trade is crucial for Germany. As the rise of Asia, the most dynamically expanding a region for German goods, will continue, it will increasingly rely upon the security of international trade routes on the high seas. Today the security of the high seas, the freedom of international trade is to a large extent guaranteed by the US navy. No competitor can be seen on the horizon, even China, which could in the foreseeable future question the primacy of the US in that domain. However, as the US will be increasingly focused to demonstrate its presence in the Pacific and the Indian ocean, and increasing tensions, conflict from time to time could not be ruled out in those vast areas, European nations could be forced to play a larger role in the security of this vital global common, especially in Europe’s vicinity. The absence of confronting this challenge would likely contain great costs, and Germany would have equally a lot to lose.

Gergely Varga is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group

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