Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: European Powers Down

My column at Foreign Policy wonders what the possible unraveling of the European Union might mean for NATO. Also, the Pentagon takes a Mulligan on the 2010 QDR -- and will likely deliver a better product on the second try.


The European Union might be falling apart. Could NATO be next?

The hourly swings in Greece's debt drama continue to fascinate onlookers in much the same way as a multi-car highway pileup. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou seemed to back away on Thursday from his proposal to submit the strict austerity terms of Greece's latest bailout to a referendum. Such a referendum would actually amount to a vote on whether Greece will stay in the European Union and keep the euro as its currency.

Papandreou's own future as prime minister, and who might replace him, is very much in doubt. Stepping back from the hourly political maneuvering and increasingly desperate financial engineering behind the bailouts, what remains is a Europe that is quickly running out of money, and whose leaders have grown tired of their colleagues' brinkmanship. This does not bode well for the NATO alliance, which will need funding for military investment and leaders who can cooperate.

Policymakers in Germany and the other hard currency countries in northern Europe also seem to be tiring of the routine. There doesn't seem to be an end to the bailouts they are paying for. Both the European Central Bank and the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development are predicting another recession in Europe this winter, which would reduce the likelihood that Greece will be able to get its finances in shape to near-zero. For Brussels, the purpose of the bailouts was to keep Greece in the common currency and thus prevent capital flight out of the euro from occurring in any other of the weak countries around the Mediterranean. Now however, Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the eurozone's committee of finance ministers, says that plans are in place to handle Greece's exit from the euro.

If this happens, the focus in Germany, France, and elsewhere in the north will likely shift from saving Greece to preventing contagion and saving their banks. If Greece enjoys a relatively successful return to the drachma, it will encourage Portugal, Italy, and Spain to consider the same escape route from their troubles. The result would be the end of the European Union in its current form. It would also inflict damage on Europe's financial system that would take years to repair.

The consequences for NATO would be profound. Economic dislocation and financial austerity would mean more downward pressure on European defense spending. Manpower cuts could make a long-lasting NATO stabilization effort such as the one in Afghanistan, requiring the constant rotation of ground combat forces, out of the question. During the 1990s, when the Soviet threat to Europe collapsed and NATO completed missions in the Balkans, leaders looked to "out of area" missions to keep NATO thriving. But the cost to supply NATO's military forces in Afghanistan has been substantial -- gutted defense budgets in Europe could put an end to future out-of-area interventions.

Cutbacks in equipment inventories and modernization would make it more difficult and risky to sustain an air and naval operation such as the one recently completed in Libya. If, in the future, NATO had to replicate a Libya-type operation with fewer and older aircraft, its pilots could be at greater risk going up against a challenging enemy air defense system. And fewer aircraft would mean fewer missions per day, which would likely extend the campaign, perhaps beyond the bounds of political patience. Less money for modernization in Europe would further widen the technical gap between European and U.S. military capabilities, making defense cooperation across the Atlantic more difficult.

At a cultural level, a bust-up of the European Union would cripple the long-standing dream of greater European solidarity. Instead of greater European cooperation and cohesion, the recession and resulting possible crack-up of the European Union has instead revealed perceptions of selfish scheming, manipulation, broken promises, brinkmanship, and arrogant domineering. Those perceptions will not help the differing cultures in Europe sustain an effective military alliance.

NATO has provided U.S. policymakers and military planners with familiar allies, some of whom have joined the United States on recent military expeditions. Sour experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused that benefit to the U.S. to wither a bit. Now, a political and financial crack-up in Europe risks drying up much of Europe's military capability. That will increase Europe's risks and leave a hole in U.S. policymaker's plans.


The Pentagon does a quick re-write of its 2010 strategy

Last month, the Defense Department formed the Strategic Choices Working Group, a panel charged with updating -- by Thanksgiving or thereabouts -- the Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). As its name implies, the QDR is supposed to provide a long-term review of defense strategy at four-year intervals. The fact that the 2010 version is in need of a Mulligan well before its expiration date shows that there is something awry with the Pentagon's strategic planning process. Not long after it was released in February 2010, the QDR was criticized for failing to do its most important job, namely taking a long-term view of defense strategy. It also failed to set any priorities among missions and resources. Now with between $450 billion and $1 trillion in cuts looming, the Strategic Choices Working Group will lay out the tough alternatives that were avoided in 2009.

The 2010 QDR actually did accurately describe the increasingly difficult challenges facing U.S. military forces. The report discussed the proliferation of precision missiles and submarines, non-state actors with advanced weapons, and threats posed to U.S. cyber and space systems. But although the report listed actions the department needed to take to address these challenges, it deferred important decisions into the future. Rather than making tough calls, the report called for yet more studies and white papers on a variety of esoteric subjects, a standard tactic of a bureaucracy incapable of taking decisive action.

In 2009, when the QDR was written, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates scorned what he termed "next-war-itis" and called on his subordinates to not lose focus on Iraq and Afghanistan. The result was a hesitation to shift Pentagon investments toward, for example, naval and air threats in the Asia-Pacific region.

The QDR is the result of a seemingly endless slog of staff meetings, where all of the services are encouraged to defend their "equities" in the interest of inter-service harmony. Such a bottom-up deliberative process ensures broad acceptance of the result. But it also guarantees that disruptive proposals will be hammered flat. Equally important, like other key government strategies, the QDR becomes a public document. Top national security policymakers will strenuously resist publicly declaring in such documents which objectives or allies rate higher than others. As a result, no priorities are set.

But, to badly paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the prospect of a trillion-dollar budget cut concentrates a defense planner's mind wonderfully. The Strategic Choices Working Group is tasked with formulating a rational strategy in light of much more difficult conditions than were assumed in 2009. The group will likely bypass the QDR's laborious, consensus-driven, bottom-up process, which affords it the chance of recommending some much-needed changes in force structure and weapons programs. The Navy and the Air Force may be the relative winners from the review, with the Army coming up short. If this turns out to be the case, it will be interesting to observe whether the Army avails itself of an appeals process through Defense Secretary Leon Panetta or Capitol Hill.

A congressionally-mandated independent review of the 2010 QDR recommended scrapping the process in the future, due to some of the weaknesses mentioned above. The urgency of the looming budget crunch may now force the Pentagon to make some of the tough decisions it should have made in 2010. But tough strategic decisions for the Pentagon are only beginning. What remains to be seen is whether top policymakers will establish a decision-making process that will be up to the challenges ahead.




Sat, 11/05/2011 - 4:03pm


I would think that the end of the euro would simply return the EU to the status quo ante. The single market is still a benefit to most of its members, even if the degree of associated harmonization has been controversial. The lesson seems to be that Europe either needs to coordinate monetary and fiscal policy better as a group or needs to return both kinds of policy to national governments.

The question, as you note, is defense. Further cuts in NATO spending will impact out-of-area deployments. But I'm sure you would agree that NATO's capabilities before and during the Libya operation should not be the standard for military readiness; the prospect of further cuts points to a deeper problem than the likely cuts themselves. NATO has been downsizing for a long time.

Here the larger political drift is the danger. The American people could decide that we shouldn't be spending as much money to defend Europe as we do, if Europeans see fit to cut their own defense spending further. The challenge is how to make a case to public opinion on each side of the ocean over the need to prevent further drift and agree on a more sustainable basis for the alliance.

Regarding the QDR, if procurement decisions really require us to choose now between preparing for high-intensity war in the Asia-Pacific region or low-intensity conflicts in southwest Asia and elsewhere, then we confront very stark choices. The British had to make choices in the interwar era that really amounted to deciding whether to be everywhere at once with too little, or whether to concentrate on one region and let the others go. They resisted the latter alternative until the events of 1941-42 made the choice for them. The question is whether we can make such choices sooner, if we have to do so in a more multipolar world.

I'm very much in agreement with you that we need to think about more basic questions of grand strategy. I hope the Strategic Choices Working Group understands the need to think in terms larger than the next budget cycle.