European Power: For a Multipolar World

Pascal Boniface, Director, IRIS (Paris)


After World War II, the European countries, brought together by destruction and economic devastation, had the common goal of rebuilding their societies and economic capacities as soon as possible. Defence was not their topmost priority, but the Soviet threat led to another common perception-the need to defend their territories. This article examines the European reconstruction and how the Soviet threat provided a strong incentive for European unity. Since they lacked the capability to protect themselves, the European countries looked to the US to provide protection under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Today, Europe is at the cross-roads. It will no longer accept a minor status within NATO. The US has to understand that solidarity does not mean hegemony, and depending on the attitude of the new American President and his Administration, NATO will be either strengthened or weakened.

European reconstruction is certainly a most remarkable example of political will. Countries and people who had persistently been at war with each other, who twice plunged the earth into World Wars during the first half of the 20th century, successfully established economic groups, which have evolved into a dynamic political union. The fact that people who considered themselves to be hereditary foes, have been able to launch such a process is proof that history is not predetermined and politics remains the key factor in it.

We need to remember that this process began with an ambitious goal and pragmatic steps towards it. The goal was the avoidance of a war among the European countries. The two World Wars were, in fact, European civil wars. European societies could not have survived a third one, and the Soviet threat was a strong incentive to unite the Western European countries.

The first step towards European reconstruction was the creation of the Communauté Européenne du charbon et de l'acier (European Community for Coal and Steel). Monnet and Schuman wanted a concrete realisation by creating de facto solidarity and eliminating the hostility between France and Germany. The plan was that putting coal and steel production under a common authority would "make war between France and Germany not only unthinkable but also impossible." This goal has been successfully fulfilled beyond the initial hopes.

Immediately following World War II, the European countries had few options. Brought together in destruction and economic devastation, winners and losers shared the same preoccupation: to rebuild their economic capacities as soon as possible. Defence was not the first priority. Nonetheless, the Soviet threat led them to another common perception: the necessity to defend their territories and their values. The gap between the threat and their scarce resources led the European countries to ask for protection from the only country which could give it, the United States, which had come out of the war stronger than before. President Truman understood that, even if he wanted it, isolationism was no longer a possibility: Pearl Harbour had shown that this concept was an illusion.

Before breaking the isolationism and taking the lead of the free world, the Americans had already set a precondition. Europe must be organised into a defence zone. Not willing to be involved in European quarrels, the US asked the Europeans to take the first step. The Atlantic Alliance was created only after the Europeans had signed the Bruxelles Treaty (1948), a defence pact, which later became the Western European Union (WEU).

We cannot refer to this period as one of common European security meaning a common definition by the European countries of their security. On the contrary, the European countries, depending on which side of the Iron Curtain they were situated, had varying perceptions. In the West European perception, their security was threatened from inside by the USSR and protected from outside by the USA. Lacking the capacity to protect themselves, the European countries handed over this task to Washington.

This situation suited everybody. It was in the American interest to avoid the domination of Eurasia by a single country (whatever its ideology. Had Russia been a non-Communist country, the goal would have been the same).

For Germany, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) provided protection against the Soviet Union and enabled its reintegration into the Western family. It also provided self-defence. The Germans had finally realised that their thirst for power had led them into a catastrophic situation. NATO was an insurance against themselves, and prevented renationalisation of their defence. For the Italians, NATO provided an opportunity to do something about the defence issue after the mess of World War II.

For Portugal, it was a unique opportunity to get integrated into the Western community, which would have been politically impossible. For the British, who had lost an empire, NATO gave a role and was a fantastic multiplier of power: they found in NATO a way to keep their great power status, due to their influence on the United States. In the British view, NATO was the muscles whose brain was in London.

For countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, etc., NATO provided protection not only from the Soviet Union but also from the ambitions of France and the UK, not to speak of a would-be German renewal. Small countries have always preferred protection from far rather than from their immediate neighbours.

In the Sixties, the economic landscape had been altered. The European countries were no longer devastated. On the contrary, and with the help of the Marshall Plan, they had recovered fully and were able to compete, sometimes at the expense of US manufacturers. Meanwhile, this had little consequeces on NATO's burden sharing. The US was still the main contributor-its average share of Gross National Product (GNP) dedicated to defence being twice as much as that of the Europeans.

Since the Sixties, France has tried to challenge the US domination. De Gaulle had a vision of European autonomy, but his pro-European stance was perceived as premature and not well adapted to the situation. Other European countries, first and foremost Germany, did not share his vision of a fading Soviet threat, and considered American protection to be an absolute necessity. The modest French nuclear capacities could not serve as a substitute for the American umbrella. They also suspected that De Gaulle's criticism of US hegemony had the ulterior motive of wanting to replace it by French domination.

However, if dependence on a protector was a necessity, the European countries preferred a superpower to a medium one. When De Gaulle spoke of European autonomy, the Europeans translated it as French imperialism. This was a concept they did not buy.

Mitterrand followed the same path. France showed that NATO was not the only game in town, and that inside the Western bloc, US views could be challenged. France was too weak to offer a substitute for US protection, but was strong enough to show that alternatives were possible. It sent a strong signal: the relationship between the USA and the European countries characterised by domination was no longer acceptable and could become counter-productive.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most people thought that NATO would not survive: could an alliance survive without the threat it had been created for? The European countries responded with "Yes", both those inside and outside NATO, with Russia the sole exception. For NATO members, it comprises the main factor of stability in a continent in which uncertainty has replaced the Soviet threat. It is the sole and unique forum providing strategic concert between the Western democracies. Non-members of NATO vied to become members, with NATO still being the bedrock of European security.

Is it, therefore, worthwhile to think about a new organisation? Do we need to change this situation? Would it be productive to create something new even though NATO has fulfilled all the security requirements? In other words, would the European countries have created the euro if they could have the dollar as their currency?

By trying to create a European pillar outside NATO, we would be risking its dismantling, and the decoupling of European and North American security. This would also create the risks of unsuccessfully duplicating scarce resources.

Transatlantic misunderstandings are as old as NATO. Basically they could be summed up thus: the Americans ask for burden sharing without any regard for power sharing and the Europeans call for more responsibilities, remaining reluctant to spend more money on defence.

There has been more progress on the building of European defence during the past two years than during the last 50 years. This has been done despite the fact that most of the experts and think-tanks had depicted such progress as impossible and, for some of them, as unwelcome. Since the late Forties, there have been many declarations and projects, but these have proved to be declamatory or non-realistic. From the failure of the ECD to the transformation of the WEU as a passive organisation; from the failure of the Gaullist attempt to reform NATO in 1959, to the emasculation of the Franco-German Treaty in 1963; from the burden sharing debate to the French departure in 1966; from the hope of overcoming the bloc to bloc division by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) to the continuation of its low profile role even after the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact; from the Berlin crises to the euromissile battle-many hopes have been dashed.

In the beginning of the Nineties, in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, Yugoslavia erupted into war. The European Common Security and Foreign Policy (CSFP) had just been implemented. Jacques Poos, then the acting president of the European Council, declared, "The time for Europe has come". It is, however, an understatement to say that the European performance in the Bosnian war had been poor. European defence, common security, and foreign policy seemed distant goals.

How is the situation any different now? There are several arguments explaining this.

The first one is that it is a matter of time. Time is logically needed to achieve results. The CSFP is not something that can be achieved in a moment, like the flicking on of a switch to get electricity. The CFSP was only a project when Yugoslavia erupted into war and a project needs time to be implemented.

After the launch of the euro, defence became the last big task for the Europeans. It was highly illogical to be powerful in the economic, technological, commercial, cultural, and monetary fields while maintaining a second rate status in the strategic field. Historically, this is an unsustainable trend.

At the same time, three major European powers changed their attitude. Fifty years after the creation of the federal republic, ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and some months after the coming to power of a new generation of leaders, who had not known World War II, Germany has changed dramatically. The German leaders are no longer afraid of being assertive about their national interests. Germany now wants a role commensurate with its status as a large and important European country. It would have been inconsistent to claim a permanent seat in the Security Council without being able to participate in peace-keeping or peace-enforcement operations. It seems ironical that a Red-Green coalition whose leader came to politics on pacifist grounds, was so eager to participate in the Kosovo War. But it was, in fact, deeply logical. If you want to promote some values, you need to be able to use force, if necessary.

The British, for their part, have understood that defence is one of the few important European subjects in which they can play a leading role. Their position has changed according to their interests, and since Britain is not a member of the European zone, and reluctant to get involved in fiscal or social issues, defence is a good choice-in fact, the best one-to be a part of the European reconstruction NATO is no longer the sole multiplier of power for Great Britain. Europe is now perceived as a second one. The British government has understood that European progress being unavoidable, the choice for it is either to try to have a leading role or be left out of the reckoning.

The attitude of France has also changed. A more pragmatic generation of leaders has come to power. NATO-France relations are no longer seen through ideological glasses. The failure of NATO's attempt at reintegration in 1995 clarified the situation. The French government understands that a powerful Europe cannot be summed up as an enlarged France with a weak Germany, and Great Britain kept outside the gate. The rediscovery of German national interest is acceptable as long as it reinforces Europe. The implication of the UK leads to the same conclusion: being less arrogant, France is in a better position to push through its project because it is no longer perceived as a French national project in European clothes.

The French-UK Saint-Malo Summit in December 1998 was the first important step of the new European project. A joint declaration between two major European states, with traditionally opposite visions, had important political effects. Reasserting the role of the European Union in the international field, the necessity to make progress toward European defence, to have autonomous capacity and credible military forces, to be able to use adapted military capacities inside and outside NATO, was a surprising result. It has shown a new trust between Paris and London. France ceased to see the UK only as an American Trojan horse inside Europe, and the UK realised that the ultimate goal of French diplomacy is not to expel the US, its troops and influence from Europe.

Immediately, however, a question arises. Is this joint declaration not purely symbolic? Are Paris and London again playing the same game, claiming to be advancing the relationship while actually remaining immobile?

Does it make sense to speak of increasing autonomous European capacity, while Milosevic is continuing his ethnic cleansing policy in Kosovo after Bosnia? To avoid a clash between words and reality, Paris and London have tried to put an end to the conflict. The Rambouillet Summit was a Dayton-like European effort to bring peace to Kosovo. Immediately following Saint-Malo and with the continuing battles and slaughter in Kosovo, it would have been impossible for London and Paris to stay uninvolved unless they wanted to lose all credibility. Once everybody had been brought to Rambouillet, they faced a new challenge. Having threatened Milosevic with military retaliation if he continuously refused an agreement, the credibility of both Britain and France would have been damaged if they had remained inactive.

The Kosovo War, therefore, was fought for credibility. The moral argument had been pushed through. The Americans too wanted to go to war to show that NATO was, and would always be, the cornerstone of European security. NATO's credibility was at stake on its 50th birthday. And, for their part, the Europeans wanted to show, that for once, they were serious about defence.

Some opponents of the war in Europe have criticised it as an "American War". This is a total mistake. Of course, the military capacities used in the war were mainly American, but the military predominance had little impact on the political direction of the war. The decision to launch the war was largely a joint one, taken by the Europeans and Americans together. Lack of unanimity in NATO on this subject would be unthinkable. And in accordance with that, the day to day directions were given by the agreement of the five major powers, with a daily telephone conference between the foreign ministers of the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and France.

But if the Europeans shared the lead during the war, they also realised how much they are dependent on the Americans for military capacities. It was, in fact, fortunate that Washington had accepted-even under strict preconditions-to be involved in this war, as the Europeans could not have acted alone. That is why the Europeans have decided to acquire some capacities for themselves.

At the Cologne Summit (June 1999) in the immediate aftermath of Kosovo, a goal had been set in order to be able to fulfill the so-called "Petersburg missions" (humanitarian, rescue, peace-keeping and peace-enforcement). It had been decided that Europe urgently needed military capacity for crisis management. United Europe (UE) should be able to act, depending on the situation, within NATO or without NATO's capabilities.

At the Helsinki Summit, another decision was taken. In order to make European ambitions a reality, it was decided that the European Union (EU) should be able to deploy between 50,000-60,000 soldiers abroad by 2003. These forces should be self-sufficient and endowed with necessary capacities of command, control and intelligence. EU members should be able to deploy such capacities on short alert (60 days) and to have in this framework a leaner, rapid reaction force. The force must be strong enough to sustain deployment for a year, meaning a 200,000-strong global force to allow a permanent 60,000 goal.

The Europeans and Americans must now reshape a new partnership. This is not an easy task because neither of these two protagonists is used to balanced relationships. The Europeans used to be dependent on America-in a permanent position between provocation and submission. The Americans are not used to having egalitarian strategic relations with the outside world. Their history comprises relations with the Red Indians, the Mexicans, a declining Spanish empire, and isolationism. The only period of balance of forces was with the Soviet Union from the end of the Sixties to the beginning of the Eighties.

Franco-German relations have become a model for reconciliation, which is needed for a new balance of forces between two partners. The United States should accept a new balance of forces with the Europeans just as France has accepted a new relationship with Germany.

During the Cold War, the French-German relationship was one of imbalanced balance. Basically, the French had the bomb and the Germans had the mark. In more sophisticated terms, France had a strategic advantage over Germany (a permanent seat in the Security Council, strategic autonomy with the US and USSR, nuclear capacity, worldwide interests) while Germany had economic supremacy (a strong currency, commercial surplus and performing industry).

It has been barely noticed how easily France has accepted the new balance of force with Germany. Except for a few nostalgic old guard, everybody in France has accepted the "Berlin Republic"-a more powerful Germany, more assertive and more self-confident. The reason for this is crystal clear. This new, stronger Germany would help Europe to become stronger. And a stronger Europe is in France's best interest. As a result, France needs and welcomes the new Germany. The United States must follow this example and welcome a new Europe. A stronger Europe should, from time to time, be a less convenient, more demanding partner for the US. It will strengthen NATO in a broader perspective. In an uncertain, unstable world, two democratic, and strong pillars of power must be welcome. NATO and European defence identity are not a zero sum game. The Americans would be wrong to think that the European reinforcement would be a break in transatlantic solidarity. Solidarity does not mean hegemony, and the United States should accept that it will be counter-balanced within NATO.

Today, we are at a cross-roads. Depending on the new American President's attitude and Congress, NATO will be strengthened or weakened. The global strength of Western democracies needs to be improved. If Americans refuse a new definition of power between the US and Europe, if they think that a stronger Europe would mean a weaker alliance, we will be in trouble because Europe will no longer accept a minor status within NATO, and logically will want to be able to act alone-if necessary-on strategic matters. If the US is wise enough to realise that a more autonomous Europe will mean a more helpful one, to stabilise the world, democratic values will be better helped and promoted.


Europe possesses every facet of power: economic, technological, cultural, etc. The only one which is missing is strategic autonomy, which may be achieved in a few years.

L'Europe puissance, an old French project, which was negatively perceived by its European partners, is now accepted by the majority and could become a reality.

This "Europe puissance" is more the affirmation of independence than a project for hegemony. Europe, built on consensus, compromise and concessions, is no longer eager to impose its opinions on other countries. Should Europe become a great power, it would not be a threat to others.

The European Union's political culture is now based on respect for international law, negotiated solutions, rejection of unilateralism, and support for international institutions and multilateral bodies. Europe is naturally dedicated to the multilateral approach because it is itself the product of multilateralism.

The emergence of Europe as a strategic power will only help in the creation of a multipolar world which is in the interest of all the people in the world.