The Evening Standard

2 June 1999

Europe Needs US Might to Beat the Serbs

Gerald Segal

Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies



While we all wait for Bill Clinton to decide if the Americans will get serious about winning the war in Kosovo by agreeing to send in US ground troops, the Europeans are beginning to wonder why they need to wait for the Americans. Surely a European Union with a population 29% larger and a GDP 6% larger than the US can decide how to wage war in Europe without the Americans.

Sadly, Europe is in no shape to wage a serious war on its own, even in Europe. European NATO members spend $173bn on defence while the US spends $272bn. Europeans have one third more troops than the US, but money is spent on salaries rather than the equipment that makes the troops useful in combat. Despite years of grumbling about the need to enhance the defence capacity of Europe, the reality is that Europeans are even more dependent on the US than during the Cold War. Of course we have had pious plans: Germany and France established the Eurocorps and France and the UK in St. Malo in December 1998 promised a serious European defence capacity. After the fiasco of Bosnia three years ago, a range of European officials swore that we would never be so dependent on the US again to resolve a matter of core European security.

But here we are a few years later and at best Europeans are discussing how to create what essentially will be a better planning mechanism for conflicts less than half the size of the current 50,000-man NATO force being contemplated for Kosovo. While it is surely useful for Europeans to do such planning and develop habits of closer defence cooperation, there should be no illusions that Europeans will ready to take on major military operations on their own for at least the next 7-10 years.

In hard military terms, the Europeans are in no position to undertake the mission of defeating the Serbs for four main reasons.

So when you hear European leaders at the EU summit in Germany later in the week speak grandly about creating an effective European fighting force, keep in mind they are talking about the distant future. What is more, these leaders will have to make very controversial choices about spending far more on expensive hardware and soldiers necessary to fill the military gaps.

It is also important to keep in mind that even if Europe were to suddenly get serious and decide to spend a great deal more on defence, there are good reasons to doubt that they would be prepared to deploy any new forces that they might acquire. While it is true that we are now waiting for the Americans to take some serious decisions about fighting a ground war in Kosovo, we also know that once the Americans take such a decision, they will have to browbeat many Europeans into going along with a ground campaign, or at least in not blocking it. It is the Europeans (apart from Britain and to some extent France), much more than the Americans who are opposed to a ground war.

We all know that the Greeks and Italians have come out explicitly against a ground war, but let us cynically assume that if the other European powers were in favour of a ground war, then the smaller European military powers could be "persuaded" to go along. Perhaps! But even the most cursory assessment of German views tells us that there is little support for what might be a bloody ground campaign in Europe. The Green Party in the German governing coalition has made it clear it would quit the government if NATO (let alone German) ground troops were used in a hostile environment. Even Chancellor Schroeder has dismissed talk of ground troops as a peculiarly "British debate".

Thus those most determined to be optimistic about a European military solution to Europe’s major security challenge in the Balkans will have to settle in the short term for the creation of a planning cell. Now that should scare Milosevic! If you begin to see European leaders asking their people for more money for defence, then you might have some confidence that Europeans are getting serious about an independent military capacity. Tony Blair will have to wait until his third term in office before there could be a half-way serious independent European capacity to wage a war as is needed in Kosovo. In the meantime there is no choice but to wait for the Americans to make up their minds.