By Anders Fogh Rasmussen

NATO's sea and air mission in Libya is the first major military engagement undertaken since the global financial crisis. With European NATO allies drastically reducing their defense spending, there were legitimate fears as to whether they could still afford to respond to such complex crises. But the unprecedented speed, scale, and sustained pace of execution of Operation Unified Protector tell a different story.

Operation Unified Protector has shown that European countries, even though they spend less on their militaries than the United States or Asian powers, can still play a central role in a complex military operation. Indeed, after the United States, Europe still holds the world's most advanced military capabilities. The question, however, is whether Europe will be able to maintain this edge in five or ten years.

This is particularly worrying when one considers the ongoing redistribution of global military power, a shift embodied in the relative decline of European defense spending compared to that of emerging powers or the United States. As European countries have become richer, they have spent less on defense.

Many observers, including some in government circles on both sides of the Atlantic, argue that the biggest security challenge facing the West is rising debt levels in Europe and the United States. They have a fair point; after all, there can be no military might without money. Others even argue that there is little need to worry if European nations invest less in defense, since this reflects a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. But these arguments fail to consider three important facts.

First, military might still matters in twenty-first-century geopolitics. The security challenges facing Europe include conflicts in its neighborhood, such as in Libya; terrorism from failed states further away; and emerging threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyberwarfare.

Second, new economic and military powers, such as Brazil, China, and India, are entering the field. It would be wrong to see their presence simply as a challenge to the West or to assume that they pose a military threat to NATO. Those countries have little interest in overthrowing the global system on which their prosperity was built. Instead, Europe should welcome what these nations can offer to international security in terms of military capabilities.

If Europe is creating a security gap, then these powers could, in theory, reduce this gap. Yet this is unlikely to happen because the interests of these powers and the interests of Western ones may not coincide, and it is not certain that emerging powers have the same approach to addressing security challenges. The paradox, then, is that the global order enjoys more stakeholders than ever before and yet it has very few guarantors. Europe is still one of them, but for how long?

Third, the transatlantic partnership remains the main engine of global security. The partnership has been successful in sharing common goals and values, while boasting interoperable and rapidly deployable forces. But the United States is facing its own budgetary challenges, and as Libya has shown, Washington will not always take the lead when it comes to power projection.

The obvious solution to all these problems would be for Europe to spend more on defense. But given the economic environment in Europe, it is highly unlikely that governments there will make any significant changes. Thus, the way forward lies not in spending more but in spending better--by pursuing multinational approaches, making the transatlantic compact more strategically oriented, and working with emerging powers to manage the effects of the globalization of security.

First of all, Europe should pursue a "smart defense" approach. Smart defense is about building security for less money by working together and being more flexible. It also means encouraging multinational cooperation. As the price of military equipment continues to rise, European states acting alone may struggle to afford high-tech weapons systems such as the ones used in Libya.

Second, European countries can help bridge the gap with the United States by increasing their contribution of two ingredients, deployable and sustainable capabilities, as well as mustering the political resolve to use them. To pair both ingredients, Europe and North America should strengthen their connections through an open and truly strategic dialogue, with both sides sitting around the same table to discuss issues of common concern.

Third, Europe and the United States should work more closely with emerging powers. This is not going to be easy, so building confidence will be essential. The process can begin by fostering a mutually assured dialogue with these countries, which would help defuse crises, overcome disagreements, and clear up misperceptions.

The economic challenges that European nations face are immense, but that must not prevent them from seeing the wider strategic picture. Uncoordinated defense cuts could jeopardize the continent's future security. Libya can act as a wake-up call, but this mission needs to be followed by deeds. Making European defense more coherent, strengthening transatlantic ties, and enhancing NATO's connections with other global actors is the way to prevent the economic crisis from becoming a security crisis.


Anders Fogh Rasmussen is Secretary-General of NATO


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