Europe's military is beating the retreat just as the world's emerging powers are expanding their presence ? an early sign perhaps of a new international order.
This article was published in European Voice on 9 February 2009.
Europe's military is beating the retreat just as the world's emerging powers are expanding their presence - an early sign perhaps of a new international order.
Whenever European governments need extra troops for Africa or Afghanistan, it's rarely long before they're on the phone to Warsaw. Poland may not match the deployment levels of the UK, France, Spain and Italy - but it has a reputation for sending soldiers pretty much anywhere, and with fewer quibbles than many of its more cautious NATO allies.
But the commitments stack up: 1,130 personnel in Afghanistan, 400 more in Chad, 200 in Bosnia... At some point something was going to have to give. Last week it did. Poland declared that it would pull 800 troops out of UN missions in Lebanon and the Golan Heights, and not participate in a planned UN follow-on mission to the EU force in Chad.
This was down to money and politics. The defense minister admitted the prime cause was budget cuts - and with hard choices looming, "NATO and EU missions are Poland's priority". This was bad news for UN officials, always short on high-quality forces and concerned that the financial crisis will drive other governments to follow the Polish lead.
Most European analysts (with some Nordic exceptions) would respond to those concerns with a mix of sympathy and condescension. NATO is short on forces. The EU needs to build up its military identity. The UN just has to look elsewhere for soldiers - bad luck!
But there are signs that Europe's military reach is contracting as the global downturn bites - with implications reaching far beyond the UN. In January, France declared that it was reducing its forces in Africa and the Mediterranean. British politicians look forward to the departure of the last of their combat units from Iraq with barely disguised relief.
Paris and London have increased their commitments in Afghanistan in the past year. But the European contribution there will be overshadowed by up to 30,000 new US troops promised by President Barack Obama. Outside the Balkans, there may soon no longer be any significant theatre where European ground forces are the primary source of stability.
There are still a few exceptions left. In spite of Poland's withdrawal, the most obvious case remains Lebanon. Roughly two-thirds of the 12,000-odd troops guarding the border with Israel are from EU member states. But even before the financial crisis, it seemed unlikely that the European contingent would remain at such high levels indefinitely.
An emerging world order?
Non-European contributors stand ready to plug the gap. In 2006, Spain was one of the first countries to deploy peacekeepers after Israel's war with Hezbollah - it still has 1,136 there, according to the UN. Yet Indonesia now has marginally more troops in Lebanon.
While France and Italy still provide the backbone of the force, most other EU states are represented by fewer than 300 personnel each. India, China, South Korea, Turkey and Ghana all have more sizeable presences.
In military matters, size is less important than quality, of course. But it is worth thinking through what these numbers tell us about the future.
The non-European troops in Lebanon are not a rag-tag collection of low-grade militaries, the stereotype Western analysts usually apply to UN forces. They represent a cross-section of emerging major powers (China and India) and potentially significant middle powers (Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey). The Chinese and Indian armies may not meet NATO standards yet, but they are modernising themselves and are increasingly capable. These are evolving militaries poised to expand - just as European countries are going into retreat.
This challenges deep-seated European assumptions about the maintenance of international order.
Since the calamities of the Balkan wars, the average European planner has assumed that there are two worlds of military operations: NATO and EU missions on the one hand, with every hi-tech gadget one might desire, and under-resourced UN forces on the other. This is, in the phrase of the British UN expert Michael Pugh, "peacekeeping apartheid".
But this division of labour no longer works. European forces are unable to keep up with US technology yet lack the growing sense of purpose of the emerging powers.
After the prolonged political pain of Afghanistan, NATO is unlikely to sign up for new long-range operations any time soon (as India and China note from their ring-side seats). The EU's refusal to intervene in the Democratic Republic of Congo during last year's crisis suggests that it is having second thoughts about even limited power projection.
The UN had a far, far worse year in the Congo, failing to stop a huge humanitarian disaster - French and UK diplomats have launched a process in the Security Council to address the peacekeepers' failings. They have no shortage of problems to tackle.
But as they sit down to talk these through with their Chinese and Indian counterparts, they should look to the long term. In one or two decades, these emerging powers will be essential to keeping order worldwide. It is far from certain that Europe will be.
The great challenge is not to fix the UN's military structures, but to decide if the EU and NATO have a strategically significant future worth investing in. If not, beat the retreat.
Richard Gowan is an associate director at the NYU Center on International Cooperation, and UN Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.