Georgian lessons for EU generals

As the dust of the August war in Georgia begins to settle, the EU is emerging as the nearest thing around to a winner. An article published in E-Sharp!

Improbably, as the dust of the August war in Georgia begins to settle, the EU is emerging as the nearest thing around to a winner.

The list of losers is impressive. It begins, of course, with Georgia – but with Russia a close second. Russia may have ended up in possession of the disputed enclaves. But its overreaction has put it in the wrong with most of world opinion – and by subsequently pressing on to recognise the two new ‘republics’ of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russians have slung a diplomatic albatross around their own necks. Only Nicaragua has been induced to follow suit; Moscow was conspicuously rebuffed on the issue by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (the ‘league of despots’, bringing together Russia, China and the central Asian autocrats).

In the words of BoBo Lo of the Centre for European Reform, ‘Russia has been left more friendless than any time in the last 60 years’.

The list of losers also embraces the US, exposed as both imprudent in pushing for premature NATO membership promises for Georgia and Ukraine, and then ultimately powerless to protect its client. And NATO itself, a big part of the Georgia problem, has been unable to offer any part of the solution.

 In contrast, Europe has achieved an improbably prominent role, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and High Representative Javier Solana brokering ceasefires and putting together the observer force which will allow the protagonists to disengage and get on with the rest of their lives.

Handling Russia has been, and remains, an especially divisive issue in the European Union, with a real gulf of perception between the new cold warriors such as Poland and the Baltic states on the one hand, and the likes of Germany and Italy on the other, pursuing their gas-fuelled special relationships with Moscow. Nonetheless, and against the odds, the European Union has not only found common ground on how to react in the Georgia crisis, but has translated that common approach into effective action.

This success is both modest and fragile. It is also welcome and timely, for three reasons.

First, after the shock of the Irish ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty, Europeans badly needed to be reminded of a fundamental point of their enterprise – the positive influence they can exercise in global affairs when acting with their combined weight. The crisis also usefully underlined the importance of recovering from the Irish setback as rapidly as possible, and finding a way to get Lisbon into force. Only by good fortune was the EU Presidency in the hands of an able and dynamic leader, supported by an effective diplomatic machine; it is only too easy to think of other potential Presidencies who would not have been up to the challenge. The Georgia crisis has underscored the need for Europe to be led at such moments by a full-time President of the European Council and an up-gunned foreign policy chief, both supported by an effective European diplomatic service.

Second, it is no bad thing that the EU has demonstrated its ability to play a constructive role on the world stage at the point when power is changing hands in both Moscow and Washington. President Dmitri Medvedev is patently a tough-minded Russian nationalist. But he is also a strikingly young man – still in his early 40s – and has already demonstrated himself to be less his predecessor Vladimir Putin’s puppet than many observers originally supposed. He seems to understand the long-term economic and demographic problems that Russia faces – only temporarily masked by the present surge in oil and gas prices – and the consequent need to secure Western technology and investment. So it should be salutary that so early in his presidency he has encountered in a moment of crisis a European Union behaving both firmly and constructively.

Across the Atlantic, the new US president will enter the White House surrounded by a sea of troubles. US power and influence is in retreat across the world, with the erosion of prestige and moral authority over the eight years of the Bush presidency now overlaid by the widespread view that the Anglo-Saxon capitalist financial model has failed. In their different ways, Iran and Afghanistan will present daunting foreign policy challenges, with not only no obvious solution, but not even any obvious strategy to pursue. It is good that Europe should have given some small demonstration of its potential value as a strategic partner at just the time when the new Administration will be working out where to invest its time and attention.

Third, the Georgia crisis may have a helpful impact on the current efforts of the French Presidency to boost European defence – if not adding wings to those efforts, then at least providing a supportive up-draught. And support is certainly needed. Almost ten years on from the Franco-British summit at St Malo which launched Europe’s security and defence policy, the enterprise badly needs a shot in the arm. The problem is not primarily about money: between them the 27 members of the EU spend over 200 billion euros a year or defence – almost one quarter of global defence spending, and comfortably more than Russia and China combined. The problem is the inadequacy of the useable defence output achieved form this financial input – and the palpable reluctance of many member states to put what they do have to use.

In NATO as much as in the EU,  Europeans subscribe to the view that 21st century risks and challenges require a different approach to defence and security – an approach no longer based on manning the ramparts and preparing to resist invasion, but on proactively tackling crises and instability in Europe’s neighbourhood or even further afield.

In part, this reflects the moral sense of Europe’s citizens; the present operation in Chad represents an impulse to do something, however inadequate, to relieve the suffering of Darfur. But it is also a self-interested recognition that the best way to tackle terrorism, or international trafficking, may be to intervene in the failed societies or regional conflicts where such evils germinate.

Such operations require a very different kind of military from the armed forces of the Cold War era – a military able to operate with much greater precision, agility and restraint, in more distant and more challenging environments.

What such operations do not require are the 2,500 combat aircraft that Europeans keep in service, or the continent’s 10,000 main battle tanks (enough, if lined up nose-to-tail, to surround Paris in a double ring of steel round both carriageways of the Boulevard Peripherique, finishing off with an unbroken column from one side of the city to the other). Nor do they require the almost 2 million men and women in uniform, whose costs consume well over half the totality of European defence expenditure, yet 70% of whom are incapable of operating outside national territory. Almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the bulk of Europe’s armed forces remain oriented on a threat that no longer exists.

The need for Europeans to pool their defence efforts and resources, from the research laboratory to the front line, is similarly widely acknowledged and widely ignored.  As President Sarkozy observed soon after taking office: “Europe cannot afford the luxury of five ground-to-air missile programmes, three combat aircraft programmes, and twenty-odd armoured vehicle programmes”. He might have added that Europe could not afford the luxury of a comparable number of manufacturers, each protected from the disciplines of competition by a national government unable to resist the pleasures of playing sponsor, or sometimes owner, to a ‘strategic’ industry. (As with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘strategic’ privatisations of the 1980s, the true meaning of the word is simply “this, dear tax-payer, is going to cost you…”.)

It is this combination of misdirected and duplicative defence spending that the French are trying to target in their current Presidency, hoping to build coalitions of Member States who will undertake to join forces in tackling some of the more conspicuous capability gaps, from helicopters to long-range airlift. Such a ‘variable geometry’ approach is pragmatic, not least when, for different reasons, their two main potential partners are showing such reluctance to help.

After the aberration of the early Blair years, when they suddenly realised that defence was an area where they could exercise leadership in Europe at little cost but considerable advantage, the British have reverted to their traditional posture of sceptical detachment; whilst Germany’s attitude currently combines its usual suspicion of hidden French agendas with a determination not to be dragged into any more active or extensive deployment of its armed forces.

Nonetheless, others will try to help – the Swedes and the Spanish preparing for their upcoming Presidencies, and the consistently muscular Poles.  And the backdrop of Georgia should concentrate minds, with EU personnel now deployed on the ground.

There is of course a risk that conservative defence establishments may try to argue that ‘the Russians are back’, and that the emphasis on defence modernisation and expeditionary operations should be reversed. So it will be important to be clear both that, however reprehensible Russian behaviour, their military machine has decayed over two decades to the point where it now offers no serious conventional threat to NATO or EU members — and that the real lesson of Georgia is the need to deliver on the strategy of proactive engagement in areas of tension or crisis. The EU had the chance to take up a border-monitoring role in the disputed Georgian territories in 2005, and flunked it.  It should draw the appropriate conclusions as it considers how best to lend support to Ukraine, and Moldova, in the current uncertainties.

So the French Presidency will conclude not with any grand ‘St Malo 2’ – but with enough step-wise progress to be presented as the boost to European defence which will justify France’s return to NATO next spring. In the long run, however, it may take outside influence to coax from the Europeans that bigger contribution to global security to which, on their better days, they aspire.

So if the new US Administration is smart, they will temper their predictable calls for ‘the NATO allies’ to ‘shoulder more of the burden’ with a readiness to engage directly with the EU on defence and security affairs. Nothing will encourage the Europeans to take themselves seriously as defence players as much as the Americans demonstrating a readiness to do so.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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