Pressing Europeans on Defence: A US Power Play

American UN ambassador Samantha Power explains why the EU needs to up its contributions to global UN peacekeeping

Senior Policy Fellow

American UN ambassador Samantha Power has been in Europe this week, adding her voice to the US chorus urging Europeans to spend more on defence. But in an interesting speech in Brussels on 9 March, she pointed to another way in which Europeans can earn merit in the eyes of Washington – do more in support of UN peacekeeping operations.

Europeans have preferred to regard UN operations as insufficiently professional to merit their involvement.

On the whole, Europeans would rather not hear this message either. In the last half-dozen years, they have reduced their collective contribution to UN operations by more than half, to around 6,000 troops. If more defence effort is required to keep the US engaged, then let it be alongside US forces, and – now that the Russian threat is back on the board – in the comfortably familiar European theatre. European militaries are not over-fond of jungles or deserts, especially when they are home to suicidally violent fanatics – and if the only support on hand is a battalion of Bangladeshi or Indonesian infantry. So, honourable exceptions apart – Power name-checks the French, as well as the Dutch and the Nordics – Europeans have preferred to regard UN operations as insufficiently professional to merit their involvement, and as irrelevant to transatlantic burden-sharing.

Wrong, says Power. “Some critics claim that UN deployments detract from NATO’s core mandate or missions. Others claim that the United States does not respect these deployments, or views them as “soft”. Both claims are false. The United States values Europe’s military contributions to peacekeeping…the United States and Europe each must find a way to do our fair share in protecting our common security interests.” She chides the EU for never having deployed its vaunted battlegroups, and points out that Europe’s collective contribution of 6,000 troops amounts to a mere 7% of the currently-deployed total of more than 90,000 UN troops. (With police, it is even worse – the European contribution is 4%.)

And as for the ramshackle nature of the forces that the UN must sometimes put into the field, at a time when “two-thirds of UN peacekeepers are operating in active conflict areas, the highest percentage ever” – well, that is precisely the point: the UN is in urgent need of high-end European capabilities, from engineering to intelligence to attack helicopters. Conversely, though Europeans are prone to take this for granted, Europe is in urgent need of the UN, as a sort of security provider of last resort, someone to hand off to when European forces have played their part, made their impact, and wish to avoid getting mired in an interminable operation.

The UN is in urgent need of high-end European capabilities, from engineering to intelligence to attack helicopters.

Power is diplomatically agnostic about whether European contributions to UN operations are best made on a national basis, or through the EU. But as my colleague Richard Gowan and I argued in a recent brief precisely on the need for Europeans to do more for the UN, there would be significant advantages to working through the EU. The EU is a good “brand” (no taint of neo-colonialism); it can draw on significant complementary resources (such as humanitarian aid); it should have the money to facilitate rapid response; and it could provide a helpful one-stop interface for the stretched UN staffs in New York, eliciting and coordinating European contributions.

Power closes with the announcement that “this coming September in New York, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, President Obama will convene a summit of world leaders to help catalyze a wave of new [peacekeeping] commitments”. It will be interesting to see who steps up and who prefers to hide in the crowd – and whether the EU member states will demonstrate their commitment to working together on defence by allowing the Union to play its proper coordinating role. 

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

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Senior Policy Fellow

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