An increasingly uncertain and unpredictable America, a China and other emerging powers that don’t seem to like power or want to take over the role as the global policeman, an increasingly multipolar context: the time as arrived for Europe to accredit itself in the field of defence as a genuine regional power. Here is what has been done and what remains to be done.

Maran scia mare

It may very well be that this time, as Giuliano Ferrara writes, “astounded by the re-emergence of a serious, relevant political dimension, on the line that connects Paris and Berlin… the sleepiness of reason in Washington and London” ends up (finally) generating “the monster of a new continental Europe which is understood as a player in global politics and a model of administration and governance”.

Donald Trump has outlined an international political prospective closer to the nationalism and protectionism of the 30s than anything that has been seen from the White House since 1945. He has liquidated institutions that from the foundation of the world order established after the Second World War. Trump’s unpredictability, irrationality and populism have definitively compromised the legitimacy of instruments that regulate capitalism (already under attack since the 2008 crisis) and stripped of credibility, their security. A situation that Chancellor Angela Merkel sanctioned when saying, “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over… Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands”.

Obviously it is no coincidence that in trying to identify possibilities that would permit the re-launch of European integration, one of the first proposals to be advanced is that of giving life to “common defence”. “Gold and iron”, coin and defence, have always been at the foundation of any state construction. The European Union has already taken away the responsibility of member states to manage their currency. And if we want to be serious, after coin, it’s iron that becomes the common patrimony of all European member states, overcoming the monopoly of the single States.

In the site of European Union reconstruction that will open at the end of the current electoral cycle of the most important member states, efforts could very well be concentrated in the construction of the fundamental pillar of common defence. This is especially true if we consider that many, starting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are convinced of the necessity to transform Europe (or Germany anyway) from a simple economic power into a decisive and global military and diplomatic actor.

For some this is a fantastic idea, for others it’s a terrible one. Any self-respecting federalist is convinced that common defence is precisely what Europe needs in order to re-launch its position in the world, but there are many who (not only in London) hate the idea of a potential rival to NATO.

Let’s take if from there. The transatlantic partnership between the United States and Europe has been the cornerstone of America’s Great Strategy and the architrave on which European construction has been based for more than half a century. But now it is losing stability. During the 2016 Presidential campaign Donald Trump repeated numerous times that NATO is obsolete, he accused European allies of not paying their fair share of the costs and said that “the U.S. must be prepared to let these [European] counties defend themselves”.

Unsurprisingly, his election sounded the alarm in Europe and his unpredictable behaviour since he has taken office has only further raised concerns on the Continent. How can European partners of America trust their main ally when the President of the United States lives in a virtual reality established by Fox News and Steve Bannon’s obscure conspiracy theories? And how can we trust a President who instead of using normal governance channels for delicate diplomatic questions prefers to count on shady Ukrainian politicians, fraudsters and his attorney?

At the Munich Security Conference Defense Secretary James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence attempted to reassure America’s allies. Both issued robust statements in favour of NATO and Pence stressed America’s unshakable commitment to European security. Such messages, however, were not without some ambiguities. In particular, Mattis warned his NATO counterparts that United States may lessen its commitment to Europe if Member State defence spending failed to reach at least 2% GDP.

The reoccurring concern for European defence spending is comprehensible, but that’s not the point. Why, you ask? Because the main problem is not the insufficient potential capacity or the lack of mobilized resources. The only concrete military threat that Europe is facing today is the resurgence of Russia (even if it may not be as big as some alarmists are claiming) and the European members of NATO have the means to confront it alone. Without the United States and Canada, the European members of NATO have nearly four times the population of Russia and their combined GDP is nearly 12 times larger. And perhaps more importantly, even at the current (apparently inadequate) spending level, each year NATO’s European members (without considering the US and Canada) spend at least five times more than Russia on defence.

In other words, the problem is not so much about the money that European nations spend on national security. The problem is rather that they fail to spend their budgets in an effective and coordinated manner. Despite numerous attempts, Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy (a long-time promise) remains little more than an aspiration. To be sure, its failure is not a surprise because it is after all an EU initiative and we all know that the EU is still not a completely integrated community.

The key point is, however, that problems are not resolved by throwing money at them, whether you are talking about Euros, Krone, or zloty. This also tells us that if NATO were to meet the demands of the US, bringing all Member States above the 2% GDP objective would not be enough to rebalance the global equilibrium of power unless spending becomes more efficient. In other words, focusing only on spending in terms of GDP is a short-sighted and misleading notion.

The pressure from America to spend more so that it can reduce its own commitment is contradictory. Defense Secretary Mattis alluded to his European counterparts that they will no longer be able to depend on the United States if they don’t increase spending. What this implies, the other side of the coin, is that if they are indeed able to reach the objective of 2% GDP that Washington’s commitment is guaranteed. But this is a recipe that would allow Europe to limit itself to the minimum necessary to keep Uncle Sam quiet, maintaining America as the first and last resort.

From a strategic point of view, ensuring that Europe carries its own defence weight only becomes significant if it allows the United States to reduce the resources that it dedicates to European security, allowing it to focus more on other areas, such as Asia. Given the significant imbalance between a potential European military and those of its potential enemies, this kind of formula shouldn’t be difficult to negotiate.

Instead of the usual dance in which the Americans threaten to do less when they don’t really intend to, the US and European countries should develop a long-term plan to reduce American commitment more or less permanently, or at least until there isn’t a serious threat to the equilibrium of European power. As John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt have explained, until there is a potentially predominant country in Europe (Russia doesn’t have the prerequisites) it will not be necessary for the US to assume a key role in defending it.

Upon close examination, all this talking about relative spending levels is nothing more than symbolic politics. What American politicians are saying is that it’s not right that America spends 3.5% of its GDP on defence and that in Europe (and also in Asia) their allies spend less than 2%. And they are correct, it really isn’t a nice situation. But if American politicians manage to get even just a little more money out of their European allies they can go back to their electorate and claim success, even if it actually in no way reduces the American defence burden and doesn’t make Europe any more secure.

In the end, insisting on sharing this burden distracts from more serious threats to the transatlantic partnership. The first true challenge is the lack of a convincing and strategic motivation. Let’s be honest – Trump isn’t completely wrong when he says that NATO is obsolete (at least in its current form), because it was created to deal with a problem, the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. It’s difficult to justify such a significant American commitment to European defence when no potential hegemony exists and when post-Cold War NATO missions have done so poorly (Afghanistan, Libya, etc.). And not even the other implicit scope of NATO (“to keep the Germans down”) is able to create enthusiasm despite the central role Germany plays in the EU. With a rapidly ageing and declining population Germany can no longer aspire to be the European hegemony.

The second challenge derives from European disunity, especially following the financial crisis of 2008, the Eurozone crisis and Brexit. Centrifugal forces in Europe make it even less likely that its Member States can develop efficient armed forces that are completely European, even if each country managed to slightly increase spending levels. And Europeans are certainly not are not going to exhaust themselves to create an authentic pan-European defence capability if they are convinced that Uncle Sam is prepared to rescue them from danger.

Trump has worsened the situation by embracing Brexit and offering rhetorical support to xenophobic leaders of the far-right like Marine Le Pen who are openly hostile to the idea of a united Europe. Thankfully things in the Netherlands and France are going in the right direction, but the approach that Trump has taken is precisely what Washington needs to avoid. If America wants Europe to take more responsibility for its own security, the last thing it should do is undermine the increasingly delicate European political order. A Europe led by politicians like Le Pen or Geert Wilders wouldn’t be sufficiently stable and secure to take care of itself in a way that would allow the United States to turn its attention elsewhere. If Trump really wants to cease worrying about Europe, supporting xenophobic Europeans and sucking up to Vladimir Putin is not the right way to go about it. But of course there is no reason to expect a clear, coherent and strategic consideration from this President.

That is also the reason why Germany is taking the matter seriously and why the German government is demonstrating that it is ready to move towards an integration of European military forces. And this year, far from the attention of the media, Germany and two of its European allies, the Czech Republic and Romania, silently took a radical step towards something that resembles a European army, avoiding the political complications that are inherent to this kind of initiative: the countries announced the integration of their armed forces. As Foreign Policy wrote, “Romania’s entire military won’t join the Bundeswehr, nor will the Czech armed forces become a mere German subdivision. But in the next several months each country will integrate one brigade into the German armed forces: Romania’s 81st Mechanized Brigade will join the Bundeswehr’s Rapid Response Forces Division, while the Czech 4th Rapid Deployment Brigade, which has served in Afghanistan and Kosovo and is considered the Czech Army’s spearhead force, will become part of the Germans’ 10th Armored Division. In doing so, they’ll follow in the footsteps of two Dutch brigades, one of which has already joined the Bundeswehr’s Rapid Response Forces Division and another that has been integrated into the Bundeswehr’s 1st Armored Division.”

In this way, “under the bland label of the Framework Nations Concept, Germany has been at work on something far more ambitious — the creation of what is essentially a Bundeswehr-led network of European miniarmies.” We can then conclude that a silent defence revolution is already underway partially outside of the public opinion radar. It goes without saying that history continues to play its part and a more active military role from Germany can only be within the context of the EU. With the election of Emmanuel Macron in France, however, we see another turning point. His first decisions and positions on defence matters demonstrate that Macron is taking the matter seriously. With respect to defence and security “political will” is everything.

This is also true because as General Giuseppe Cucchi reminded us, in order to give life to European Defence we must first resolve a number of problems. Starting with the existence of another international organization, NATO, which has “presented itself for decades as the undisputed monopolist of the defence market and of Western security” without considering the obstacles that result from “the presence of defence industries in Europe that apart from co-production agreements and attempts in the past to rationalize output in the creation of the European Defence Agency (EDA), have essentially remained national” and “the difficulty of integrating the nuclear component constituted by the French ‘Force de frappe’, the last atomic recourse in Europe after the succession of the United Kingdom”.

Nothing, however, is insurmountable. According to Cucchi, “over time Germany could in fact grow and in gaining self-awareness, could take on the same role in Europe that the United States plays in NATO. The European Defence Agency could be assigned powers to rationalize the general production context, possibly attempting to compensate by being more aggressive on the international market making up for what our industries would lose on the European one. With time the French nuclear doctrine, as already suggested, should move towards the concept of ‘shared dissuasion’”.

The real obstacle that remains, however, is the absence of a common EU foreign policy. Now while the nature of the world order is under discussion, while the world is moving towards the formation of regional blocks that will play the same role of states in the Westphalian system; in a world in which continental structures like America and China, and maybe India and Brazil, have already reached a critical mass, it is necessary for Europe to transition to regional unity.

The international system as it was established after the Second World War is unrecognizable today. The cause? The emergence of powers such as China and India, the globalization of the economy, the historically unprecedented transfer of wealth and power from the West to the East, that which Fareed Zakaria has called “The rise of the rest”, and the growing influence of nonstate actors (companies, tribes, religious organizations and even criminal networks). Not long from now the international system will be a multipolar global system with an ever-smaller discrepancy between developed and developing countries. It’s not just the protagonists that are changing, but also the importance of transnational issues that are decisive for global prosperity – it’s the ageing populations of developed countries, the growing concerns for energy, food and water and fears of climate change that risk limiting what has been an era of unprecedented prosperity.

The problem is that historically, emerging multipolar systems have been more unstable than bipolar or unipolar ones. In other words, it’s likely that strategic rivalries will continue to revolve around trade, investments, innovations and technological acquisition, but an arms race, territorial expansion and military rivalries similar to those of the 19th century should not be excluded. This is also true because the United States will continue to be the most powerful country, but it will be less dominant. And declining economic and military capacities will lead to the emergence of new contradictions between internal and foreign policy priorities.

It is clear that if the United States, which has acted as the global governor for years, starts to act as any other country, that the world will be less governed. It is not given, in fact, that China and the rest of the world have the financial capabilities and the inclination to take over America’s responsibilities. Isn’t it time for Europe to truly foster a more meaningful unity?