The end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq this month has been an anti-climax. There is no defining image for us to remember – nothing like the last helicopter out of Saigon or the last Russian tank out of Afghanistan. 50,000 American military trainers remain in Iraq.
Even if there has been little drama, historians may conclude that this was an important moment. As the U.S. is pulling back from Iraq, strategists and policy-makers are starting to question if the troubled superpower can keep devoting vast sums to defense spending.
One skeptic is Robert Gates, the man who runs the Pentagon. The Secretary of Defense has announced initial cuts to his department’s budget. He hints that far more is required.
A more outspoken critic is Michael Mandelbaum, a senior Democratic foreign policy intellectual. In a book published in the U.S. in early August, he argues that Washington will need to devote more and more money to supporting America’s ageing population.
One result, Mandelbaum says, is that there will be no more Iraqs: “avoiding military interventions and state-building is one way to lower the expense of American foreign policy.”
This will sound familiar to Europeans. The EU’s few significant military players all want to shrink defense budgets. The Afghan campaign has destroyed public support for foreign adventures. Most surprisingly, the Conservative-led government in London is contemplating cuts that would end Britain’s long tradition as a global military power.
The West is not in headlong retreat. U.S. Special Forces kill terrorists in weak states like Yemen. French troops recently attacked an Al-Qaeda base in Mauritania. But it’s hard to imagine NATO engaging in more huge state-building operation like those in Kosovo or Afghanistan. If the Afghan campaign ends in failure, it’ll get even harder.
Some American military experts don’t worry about this. U.S. power recovered after Vietnam. Washington doesn’t like losing wars, but it can afford occasional defeats.
That isn’t true for Europeans. Over the last decade, NATO and the EU staked their credibility on stabilizing the Balkans and Afghanistan. The Balkan wars have taken longer to fix than expected, but Afghanistan made the former Yugoslavia look simple.
Even if the U.S. regained its interventionist spirit, most EU members wouldn’t follow it.
But it is too soon to argue that the age of interventionism and state-building is over. Rising powers like Brazil, China and India may replace the Europeans as the world’s state-builders. The U.S. may find it easier to work with these powers than with NATO.
This is actually happening already. While NATO focus on Afghanistan, the UN has 100,000 soldiers and police in other weak states around the world – the vast majority are from Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Look at the international response to Haiti’s earthquake in January. Latin American troops under UN command – supported by a contingent of Chinese policemen – were already responsible for security in Port-au-Prince. The earthquake shocked the mission, but it managed to maintain order. U.S. marines deployed to Haiti were impressed by the UN troops’ professionalism.
This would shock European officers who served under UN command in Bosnia in the 1990s and viewed the organization as inefficient and cowardly. It might come as rather less of a surprise to Europeans who have worn blue helmets in southern Lebanon since the 2006 war, because the UN has made huge efforts to improve how it runs peacekeeping.
The Lebanon force, now commanded by a Spanish general, is a mix of EU troops and soldiers from as far apart as China, Ghana, India and Indonesia. It more or less works.
The UN is unable to block Hezbollah importing missiles in readiness for another war with Israel. But it has kept a lid on tensions on the border. When a firefight broke out in an area patrolled by Ghanaians this August, the UN played a big part in restoring calm.
Nobody would pretend that the UN forces in Haiti and Lebanon are perfect. Nor are they typical of the organization’s missions elsewhere. The tragic UN force in Darfur reels from one crisis to another. On 18 August, unidentified rebels murdered three Indian peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo using only spears and swords.
But the reality is that, while NATO members look to cut their military spending, supporters of the UN like Brazil and India are increasing their military reach. The Brazilian defense budget grew by nearly 25% last year. These are tomorrow’s warriors.
Faced with these dynamics, the U.S. and European governments must make a strategic choice. Will they hide behind the high walls of the NATO alliance (and in the American case, keep projecting power in the Pacific) or will they cooperate with the rising powers?
Cooperation may be confusing. It might mean working less through the long-established structures of NATO and more through the loose, unfamiliar mechanisms of the UN.
It will also mean respecting what non-Western powers think. Some European officers in Lebanon are said to view their Asian and African counterparts as “exotic”. This makes them sound like rare animals in a zoo. But we have to accept that, once we have slashed defense budgets to a minimum, European soldiers may be among the rarest animals of all.
This article first appeared in Spanish on Publico.es
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.