It’s CSDP – or live in a world run by others

In a response to an article by Jan Techau attacking Common Security and Defence Policy, Nick Witney argues that Europe can and must take on more shared responsibility for its own security in the multipolar 21st century.  

This article is a response to 'Forget CSDP, it's time for Plan B' by Jan Techau.

Click here to listen to an audio podcast debate involving Nick and Jan

Jan Techau – see ‘Forget CSDP, it’s time for Plan B’ – is not the first analyst in recent months to write the obituary of Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). As he summarises his argument, “Four severe shortcomings render CSDP expendable: lack of legitimacy, lack of ability, lack of motivation and lack of necessity.”

I think he is half right – that is, he is right on two of these counts, but wrong on the others, including the critical point of necessity.

Yes, Europeans between them muster strikingly inadequate real military capability, in relation to the huge sums they continue to spend on defence (more than 30% of non-US global defence expenditure in 2010). And yes, this state of affairs has a lot to do with a basic lack of motivation. The fact is that few Europeans believe that there is any real threat of conventional attack on their continent – and see Afghanistan as a painful lesson in how bad armed forces are at dealing with unconventional ones. So it is not just CSDP that fails to light their fire – it is NATO equally, indeed the whole military business.

Jan Techau’s attack on CSDP’s legitimacy, however, I find strange. If “the ability of citizens to participate in the system’s decision-making” is to be the criterion, then NATO is illegitimate, and the EU in its entirety, and indeed all forms of representative democracy. In fact, polling over many years shows that Europe’s citizens rather like CSDP, with its emphasis on peace-keeping. And, as a strictly ‘intergovernmental’ policy – ie one where the member states call the shots, not any Brussels institution – then CSDP is a better reflection of what those member states want (or do not want) than most EU endeavours.

My real beef, however, is with the argument that Europe could not defend itself even if it wanted, and need not bother anyway since America will always be there. Given the scale of European defence spending noted above, and the fact that two of the world’s nuclear weapon states are EU members, the first of these propositions really does not stand up. Of course, Europeans have conditioned themselves over decades to believe that ‘without Uncle Sam, we’d all be doomed’. The role of client to the American patron has been convenient – but in today’s world looks increasingly absurd. Also counter-productive, since lazy European subservience is nowadays more likely to annoy than to gratify the US. They have their own problems, and their own priorities – notably the critical trial of geostrategic strength with China in the Western Pacific which will be the focus of US defence thinking for years to come. In Washington’s eyes, Europeans need to start taking responsibility for themselves (cf ‘leading from behind’ on Libya): and as for the idea that America will always there to look after the improvident, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently devoted his valedictory address in Brussels to a blunt effort to disabuse Europeans of just that idea.

In the multipolar world of the future, Europeans will sink or swim by their own exertions. ‘Swimming’ will involve marshalling the will, and the instruments, to assert European power and influence. So the point of CSDP is to sharpen up European defence efforts in support of a more effective European foreign policy.

As for ‘sinking’, Europe’s fortunate geographical location means that this would be unlikely to involve invasion or occupation – so to that extent the current climate of ‘demilitarisation’ (Gates’s word) in Europe is not illogical. The process, if it happens, will be one of progressive marginalisation – of adapting to a world run more and more on terms which reflect the values and interests of others. Not, in my view, much of a Plan B at all.


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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