Europe has long been grappling with its “strategic autonomy.” It has been a problem at least since the Cold War era. But even after, the deepening of European integration, the situation has not changed. In 1991, prominent Belgian politician Mark Eyskens regretted the role of Europe in the Gulf War, stating that Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. The statement was meant as an exaggeration, but it fairly accurately describes the long-standing state of the European defense.
Similarly, American historian and renowned expert on international relations, Robert Kagan, expressed this difference at the beginning of this century in his book “Americans Are from Mars, Europeans Are from Venus.” Unlike the United States, Europe embarked on a path of massive disarmament and reduction of defense spending after 1989.
It had a long-standing tendency to choose a more cautious or even unwilling approach to military solutions, believing that diplomacy or international law are more suitable for asserting influence. This European approach can be partly understood from the experiences of the war horrors that the continent endured during the 20th century in both World Wars. It can also be seen as a way of setting oneself apart from the other side of the Atlantic.
Naive dove-like policy
The aforementioned author spoke in his book about the naivety many Europeans assumed by believing they lived in a paradise where international law prevails and all that is needed is a small army and a modest defense budget. Caution towards armed solutions may seem nice at first glance.
However, when it really came down to action, there have been numerous problems because European states were unable to demonstrate independence, even in resolving conflicts taking place on their own continent! The saddest example is undoubtedly the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s. It was during this conflict that Europe, unfortunately, showed that it still had to rely on the USA to pull it out of trouble, just as it did during the Cold War and both world wars.
Due to the failure to intervene on time, the conflict in the Balkans became the bloodiest in Europe since the end of World War II, claiming over one hundred thousand lives. Its most tragic parts, namely the war in Bosnia and, several years later, in Kosovo, were only ended through the intervention of the United States.
In this context, it is worth mentioning an interesting fact. Politico’s recently highlighted in an article entitled “America’s European burden: How the Continent still leans on the US for security,” that the capital of Kosovo does not have a statue of French President Jacques Chirac, nor are there any squares named after the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder or any boulevards named after then-NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana.
On the other hand, in Pristina, one can find places named after Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and other American officials who were instrumental in the intervention in 1999 to prevent Serbian forces from massacring Kosovar Albanians. It is no wonder that the United States was actively involved, while European leaders stood by and played a secondary role.
The situation has unfortunately not changed a lot.
According to the cited article, little has changed in the 25 years since the NATO action, and if anything has changed, it is that Europe is more dependent on American security than before. The example of the Ukrainian conflict is particularly illustrative. While Germany was concerned last year about angering Russia by selling outdated infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine, the United States had no problem providing heavy weapons to Ukraine.
According to the German Institute for World Economics in Kiel, whose data covers the period from January 24, 2022, to February 24, 2023, the United States has allocated military aid totaling over 43 billion euros since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. This amount is significantly higher than the combined military aid provided by all European countries.
The United Kingdom ranks second with 6.497 billion euros, although it is now outside the EU. Among EU countries, Germany, which hesitated for a long time, ranks third with 4.242 billion euros of military aid. Poland occupies the fourth place with 2.423 billion euros of military aid.
By the way, France, a country that currently aspires to be a European leader, provided military aid worth only 447 million euros during the same period. It lagged behind many smaller countries and ranked 13th in the volume of military aid. For comparison, even the Czech Republic provided military aid worth 566 billion euros and ranked higher than France in the aid ranking.
Thus, the United States is the most engaged in providing assistance even during this war in Europe. On the other hand, the two most significant EU countries, France and Germany, lag behind. The reputation is partially saved in continental Europe by some post-communist countries, specifically Poland, the Czech Republic, and all three Baltic countries. In addition, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are among the “most willing” suppliers of military aid.
Macron’s unfortunate statement
Lastly, I would like to address the issue of strategic autonomy. The French head of state recently commented on this topic, albeit in an unfortunate way. It happened during an official visit to the People’s Republic of China. President Emmanuel Macron stated, among other things, that “the great risk” Europe faces is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.”
He made this remark in reference to the United States and Taiwan. However, in practice, it would mean that Europe would be passive and completely indifferent to events in other parts of the world. It is unnecessary to explain that such an approach would play directly into the hands of Beijing, which desires a weakened and divided West.
The current approach of Europe is utterly disgraceful. Europe has the reputation of a global player, but it is unable to act independently and constantly relies on America to deal with its problems. If Europe wants to be taken seriously in the world, it is time to rid itself of this unfavorable label. European countries, and Europe as a whole, must cease being the “political dwarf and military worm.” The sooner this happens, the better.