The future of European defence: An interview with Daniel Keohane

Daniel Keohane interviewed by Annabelle Vuille

Leaders gather for a photo at the February 2016 meeting of the European Council. Source: Wikimedia

Annabelle Vuille: What would you say are the most pressing security challenges faced by Europe today?

Daniel Keohane: Let me answer this question slightly differently, as there are numerous security challenges to be listed – from Russia to ISIS, failing states in the Middle East, the refugee challenge, and terrorism etc. What is more interesting, is to think about which challenge is a priority for whom. I have been struck on recent travels by the level of diversity; in Berlin at the moment, the priority is the refugee crisis; in Paris, the priority is terrorism; in Warsaw, the priority is Russia; and in the UK, the government is consumed with the Brexit referendum debate. Added to this is the fact that everybody is still recovering and, indeed, still suffering from the economic crisis, which is also a security challenge in a way as a healthy, growing economy is requisite to deal with other pressing security challenges. No doubt, there is an incredibly complex confluence of crises at the moment. So, rather than prioritizing, I prefer to understand which challenge is a priority and for whom.

In the 2016 Strategic Trends Report published by CSS, you argued that European defense cooperation is no longer primarily driven by the EU and NATO, but rather by the interests of national governments. To what extent does this dilute the strength of Europe’s collective security environment?

Well, this is a good question and I should start by explaining the reasoning behind my argument. Of course, there are some people that would say that my argument is not very new and that defense policy in Europe has always been driven by national governments. The point I am trying to make is that during the 2000s, even if you just look at operations, governments cooperated and acted mainly through the EU and NATO. The difference today is that they are doing it in a whole host of ways, be it bilaterally, regionally or ad hoc like the coalition against ISIS. Of course, governments still act through the EU and NATO, but these two institutions are no longer the central option and this is a major change from five to ten years ago. Let’s take France as an example: in Congo 2003 and Chad 2008 France acted through the EU, but since the 2011 Libya intervention, the government has mainly acted alone or as part of an international coalition, i.e. anti-ISIS. This is a change that I find quite interesting because it is not the renationalisation of policies, it is a renationalisation of cooperation; making it more complex, more messy, more widely driven by the national governments and hence, all the more interesting.

With the ‘Big 3’ (France, UK and Germany) making up the bulk of European defense expenditure, how can we expect their national interests to shape the operational priorities of NATO?

First off, it is important to note the difference between the three states. Traditionally, France and Britain have an interventionist culture with a global outlook. As permanent members of the UN Security Council and as nuclear-armed powers, both have a certain sense of responsibility for global security and, as such, are more willing to carry out external military interventions unilaterally or as part of a coalition. This is quite different from Germany. Whilst comfortable pursuing ad hoc, bilateral or mini-lateral cooperation on capability projects, as with the Dutch, Germany is much more hesitant when it comes to operations and the use of robust military force. In such instances, Germany prefers to act in conjunction with the United States, NATO, or the EU, even as it has come to take on a more active, and central role in European politics and foreign policy. Not only has Angela Merkel led the European response to the Ukraine Crisis but also, in a surprising response to the Paris attacks, Germany sent a relatively robust support team, including frigates and reconnaissance aircraft to the anti-ISIS coalition. Whilst no full-blown combat role, I think that Germany has come a long way since its abstention on the Libya intervention in 2011 and that, in contrast to the assessment by some German experts, it may slowly assume a more advanced leadership role. Additionally, Britain and France cannot do it alone; with their resources reduced, they need Germany’s help diplomatically and militarily even if only in a beefed-up role. Consequently, these three states have come to cooperate closely and this has provided some potential for convergence: All three are supporting NATO to deter Russia in Eastern Europe. All three have deployed forces to fight ISIS and other Islamists, whether in Syria, Iraq or Mali. And all three are keeping a close eye on what is going on in Libya. However, the potential for divergence still exists, particularly concerning the EU referendum in the UK. At the end of the day it is about politics and if the UK votes to leave the EU it could cause a major rift that could negatively impact defense cooperation. Another possible divergence exists over operations in the Middle East and North Africa. If in the future Britain and France are required to step up their anti-ISIS campaigns and Germany is unwilling to contribute, there could be a rift on burden sharing over who is doing what against Islamists in southern neighborhoods. Elements of both convergence and divergence are in play.

What role will Poland play in shaping NATO’s future priorities?

Poland’s main concern is Russia and territorial defense. It has long wanted a beefed-up NATO, and particularly American presence on Polish soil and things are moving in that direction. I think where Poland could come to play an interesting role is in NATO’s southern strategy, which will be discussed at the NATO summit in Warsaw in June this year. Whilst it is relatively clear on what measures need to be taken to deter Russia, it is much less clear what role NATO has in fighting ISIS, stabilizing Libya etc. If Poland demonstrates its willingness to contribute to these efforts, it would suggest a mood of, and desire for coherence among the NATO allies. If, on the other hand, Poland proves unwilling then I fear that there will be some divergence; some southern countries, such as Italy, will expect more engagement from Poland in return for supporting the deterrence efforts against Russia.

 A 2016 RAND wargaming study showed that Russia could reach the capitals of Estonia or Latvia on NATO’s eastern flank within 60 hours. How well equipped is the Alliance in responding to possible Russian aggression?

That’s a good question because in strictly military terms, so far, the NATO efforts would not be enough in terms of conventional deterrence. The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) is relatively small, compared to the Russian forces on the other side. Additionally, whilst the United States is quadrupling its Reassurance budget and investing more resources into deterring Russia and beefing-up NATO’s defense, it’s still a relatively small amount; less than 1% of the Pentagon’s entire budget, which is nothing compared to the money that Russia has been investing into its military structure over the past few years. However, whilst there is more that NATO could, and even should do, that would be to miss the political and strategic point. The reason why NATO is not doing more is mainly because the United States does not want to push too hard. It is highly unlikely that Putin would attack a NATO member state and it would be unwise on his part to try and test NATO’s and U.S. resolve. Thus, I think the feeling in Washington is to strengthen deterrence and signal an alertness of a possible military threat from Russia, but at the same time, to avoid provocation or any move that would provide Russia with an excuse to attack; essentially, it is about striking a delicate balance between deterrence and détente. So, in strictly military terms NATO’s efforts are not so impressive, but in strategic terms it might be the wiser course.

In the 2016 Strategic Trends Report you also discussed the UK security and defense review of November 2015, and mentioned that its ‘main political message’ was that ‘Britain is back as a serious military power’. Additionally, Britain is NATO’s strongest European military power. Therefore, if the referendum on EU membership did result in a ‘Brexit’, what impact would this have on European defense and, more specifically, on the internal cohesion among NATO member states?

My own view is that, in theory, from a military standpoint a Brexit should not change that much for European defense cooperation as Britain will remain a member of both NATO and the UN Security Council, and it will remain a major military and nuclear-armed power. In practice, however, it might all be a little bit different. Certainly, it will make political alignments with France and Germany more difficult, which will directly impact defense policy. It has been a longstanding dream of many in Paris and Berlin to have separate EU military structures – by that I mean operational headquarters – and until this point, the UK has always been able to block such efforts. However, if Brexit were to take place, there would be nothing to stop France and Germany from doing so and would, at the very least, throw the gauntlet to them. There is another aspect to the Brexit business that has not been widely covered: the damage that it could have on the UK’s military ambitions. I think that Brexit could have the same impact on the UK defence budget as the economic crisis of 2008; diminishing government revenue and hence, taking a toll on defense expenditure. If you look at the forecasts, such as the one provided in last week’s issue of The Economist, none of them are particularly positive on the outlook for the UK’s economy if there was a Brexit. Consequently, if the UK economy suffers badly then the government’s budget will suffer badly, and this will have a negative effect on defense spending. Even if Britain sticks to 2% nominally, in real terms, it could really hurt their military ambitions as the cost of advanced equipment rises by 5% a year. The other impact of Brexit is that Britain would be diminished as a diplomatic player because it would lose its voice in guiding EU foreign and defense policy. Britain would simply matter less, particularly to the United States. Essentially, Brexit could potentially damage relations with the United States, make Britain less valuable at the UN and NATO, and it could hurt the UK’s own defense ambitions. I think the consequences are quite serious.

Could it make Europe more vulnerable?

It would – at least psychologically. Primarily because there is already a perception that Europe is frail and struggling to cope with the various crises ranging from terrorism, Russia, and ISIS to the refugee crisis. If Britain did indeed vote to leave the EU, it would create a whole host of questions: Will other countries, particularly non-Eurozone countries hold their own referendums? Will they subsequently want their own special relationship with the EU? Will the original founding members – or some of them at least – come to pursue a strategy of selective integration? In other words, you could end up having a very introverted debate about the future of European governance at the very moment when everything is falling apart around us; potentially akin to shifting the deckchairs while the Titanic is sinking. So from a psychological standpoint I think it would have a dreadful impact. Yet, it is difficult to make any definitive assessment. Some people believe that Brexit could drive France and Germany toward more integration. It might, but it might not because it could legitimise the arguments of populists and nationalists including Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. Ultimately, although there is much uncertainty as to what will happen, I am pretty sure that the effects will not be positive.

Is there any other aspect of European defence and security you would like to touch upon?

This isn’t directly a question for European security, but rather for global security. I think that the military aspects of the U.S.-China relationship will constitute the big question for the 21st century and for the international system as a whole. Europe, I believe, is only just starting to wake up to this reality because, understandably, we have been focused on the immediate crises at our doorstep. The other issue will concern what happens next in Libya and Syria. The Syrian war, we hope, will not go on forever and we will have to ask ourselves how we will remedy the situation and rebuild the Syrian state. Additionally, what will we do about Libya? Are we prepared to invest the military resources necessary to stabilise the state? These are questions that will confront Europe relatively quickly. From a long-term perspective, say 20 years, it is clear that Europe will be occupied in the broad neighbourhood; not only are there so many weak states that could potentially become beacons of instability, such as Egypt, but who knows how the situation in the Caucasus and the Sahel will develop. My experience, to paraphrase Macmillan, is that there is no certainty in predicting future events and their impact on international politics. As a consequence, political leaders across the globe will have to remain relatively flexible whilst being able to distinguish between the urgent and the important. What is urgent will not always be the most important issue at hand.



Annabelle is currently based in Switzerland and in her final year of the MA programme in International Relations and Contemporary War at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Having studied International Business in Rome, she is specifically interested in applying her economic background to the sphere of conflict and security. Her main research interest is the interplay between geopolitics and energy security, particularly in the maritime domain.

Daniel Keohane is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zürich. He previously held positions at the Foundation for International Relations (FRIDE) in Brussels and Madrid, the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris and the Centre for European Reform in London. His work has been published in journals such as Survival and the Journal of Common Market Studies, and he has conducted studies (both alone and as part of consortia) commissioned by the European Union and NATO.

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