Tuesday 24 Apr 2018 | 11:16 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Apr 2018 | 11:16 | SYDNEY

Europe's strategic weight



13 October 2009 07:28

Sam's excellent op-ed over the weekend reminds us that Europe has more going for it than most Australians are inclined to admit.

I suspect that's thanks to a little bit of English heritage we find hard to shake off. We underestimate Europe because we still tend to look at it from across the English Channel, unthinkingly adopting Britain's inability to come to terms with the political and strategic miracle on their doorstep. 'Miracle' too strong a word, you think? Not when you consider how Europe today would look to those who watched the coming of war only 70 years ago last month.

But I think I'd go a bit further than Sam in some ways in appraising Europe's strategic position. Europe's military weakness is seriously exaggerated. Taken together, the Europeans have vast forces, many of them very sophisticated by world standards. Of course, they have never operated together as a single force, but in NATO they have the basis to do so. Moreover, Europe has in abundance the deeper foundations of strategic power: economic, demographic and technological. If Europe chose, it could be a global military power of the first rank.

Of course Europe has so far chosen not to behave as a strategic power. Some see this as a reflection of inherent weakness in its political institutions or inherent pacifism among its people. I think it is much more likely to be simple absence of need. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been willing, even determined, to uphold the global order on terms quite congenial to the Europeans, and has shown itself quite unwilling to allow the Europeans any independent say in how the world runs. 

Why then should the Europeans not sit back and let the US do the work? If their only role is to support a US-led order which the US seems quite capable of upholding without their help, why should they bother?

This kind of posture is not so unusual in history. We have two recent examples of great powers that have chosen not to exercise their strategic weight, but leave it to others to sustain an international order that works for them. One was America in the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries, before it became globally engaged. The other is Japan today.  

But these parallels suggest that Europe's attitudes to strategic power could change if its circumstances did. I think it would change very fast if Europe faced a serious strategic challenge of its own. And that is not a remote possibility.

Russia is not a status quo power in Europe, because there is a systemic tension between Russia's aspirations to a sphere of influence over its near neighbours and some Europeans' rejection of that. An aggressive Russia could easily make Europe a serious strategic player. Many people miss this because they assume America will keep Russia in its place. But this is not the Cold War. Today, unified and prosperous, Europe is easily strong enough to see off Russia without America's help. 

I'm not sure Europe even needs American nuclear weapons. Europe's two nuclear powers between them have a perfectly adequate minimum deterrent capacity against Russia, and because they do not have the Atlantic between them, and can balance Russia's conventional forces too, they do not need the larger nuclear warfighting capacities that America built to hold Western Europe during the Cold War. And look at it from America's side: in 20 years time, will American interests in Europe justify the risk of nuclear war with Russia to keep the Russians out of Kiev, or even Warsaw?

Photo by Flickr user G.Ivanov-Kuhn, used under a Creative Commons license.

You may also be interested in...