December 4, 2009 — NATO staggers on. News reports indicate that NATO nations are prepared to send 7,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to supplement the 30,000 additional troops President Barack Obama will send. But as they have for years in Afghanistan, these European troops will face limits on what they can and cannot do, which means that the United States will still carry out most of the fighting.
Still, just keeping Europe on the ground, in uniform, in Afghanistan represents an achievement of sorts that we should not belittle. For this commitment comes from a Europe that the Britain-based military analyst Colin S. Gray describes, in his 2005 book, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare, as "thoroughly debellicized": that is, a Europe whose "aversion to military solutions is not simply an opinion of the moment" but something deep-rooted and "cultural."
Because the cause of international peace and security sometimes requires a willingness to fight, and humanitarian rescue missions often rely on skills honed in combat, the U.S. has, since the end of the Cold War, had to try to enlist Europe in its grand strategy, despite what some might legitimately consider Europe's neopacifism. The caveats placed on European troops in Afghanistan aren’t the only problem. The anemic level of European military spending in general is also a factor: only four countries (Great Britain, France, Greece, and Turkey) allocate at least two percent of their GDPs to defense—a requirement of all NATO members. And Greece and Turkey are well-armed only in the anticipation of fighting each other. Then there is Europe’s continuing failure to form a rapid response force for out-of-area military emergencies. At home, Europe's social safety net is estimable. But what will the European Union, now with its own president and foreign minister, work toward abroad? After all, a neopacifist Europe is the result not only of the continent's ethical awakening following centuries of war, but of a new strategic context in which Europeans simply face no credible security threat.
The continued presence of European troops in Afghanistan, and the hope of a few more, demonstrates how Europe's apathy can be worked around. Washington can still pressure governments to lead their populations rather than merely follow their wishes. And it can be pointed out that combat, which is what European publics are specifically averse to, constitutes only a small part of the military activity we are likely to see in the 21st century. True, warfare will always be about killing, but militaries will be used in more and more ingenious ways. Counterinsurgency, in and of itself, while it requires monopolizing the use of force in any given space, is often about avoiding manhunts and concentrating on rural development projects, as well as the training of indigenous forces. There is much work in Afghanistan that European troops can theoretically perform without alienating citizenries back home who are conflicted about the use of force -- more so now that counterinsurgency will be emphasized over counter-terrorism.
The way the world is shaping up, America will have no choice but to yank Europe kicking and screaming into conflict zones, even as America will have to learn to live with all of the restrictions that come with European forces. Consider: China is rising as a great power, particularly in the naval sphere. The U.S. will not fight a war with China, but it will leverage like-minded, democratic others such as India, Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, and Japan to help manage Chinese ascendancy in the maritime rimland of Eurasia. This will take a lot of work, and a lot of ships. And with the U.S. increasingly tied up in the Indian and Pacific oceans as the years and decades march on, it will help to rely increasingly on European forces to cover the the Atlantic and Africa for them. Imagine a state collapse in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, and then think how a neopacifist Europe could still help with humanitarian assistance, relieving the U.S. of some of the burden.
In fact, if one is looking for a way in which a debellicized Europe can make a difference, it is in the naval sphere. European countries such as Holland, Norway, Germany, and Spain have, in fact, been investing over the years in various kinds of warships. Since Europe increasingly seeks to avoid conflict and geopolitics altogether, an emphasis on sea power makes sense. Sea power is inherently less threatening than land power. It is the limited capacity of navies to extend force inland that makes sea power no threat to liberty, wrote Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1900. Sea power allows for sizable military missions with a small on-shore footprint. And because of the slow rate at which ships travel, sea power enables more diplomacy than is possible with lightning quick air maneuvers and airborne insertions of ground forces. Sea power is also perfectly suited for many types of rescue missions, as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 demonstrated.
Furthermore, as absolute increases in human population continue in the world's most environmentally and seismically fragile zones, more human beings will be killed or made homeless by Mother Nature. Thus, we are about to see the militarization of disaster relief, as only navies and air forces have the lift capacity that enables massive rescue efforts. All of which means that Europeans should be able to send their troops overseas, even as they continue to hate war.
As the U.S. slowly loses its dominance, it will increasingly need to rely on Europe. For we cannot take on the world on our own. The fact that Afghanistan has revealed a multi-tiered NATO should not dissuade us. NATO was always multi-tiered, even during the Cold War -- with the northern countries taking on most of the military burden. Only the lack of a shooting war with the Soviet Union masked this reality.
Even as it continues to field some of the best-trained uniformed forces in the world, Europe is post-military. And if the U.S is to forge a multipolar world to its liking, it will have to turn that contradiction to its advantage.