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Within the EU, a new consensus on common defence and security is emerging. This is good news because the world today needs vigorous European leadership backed by hard power. But the move also presents risks.
These include a rising military-industrial complex, securitisation of external action policies, and the militarisation of society. In order for benefits to outweigh the risks, military expenditures and operations must be subjected to effective governance and subservient to the common good. In short, defence cooperation must be about public security, not private profits!
The Good: Cooperation and Integration
Despite its many downsides, Brexit has lifted a significant roadblock on the path to an effective EU Common Defence and Security Policy. Unshackled from a British policy of persistent hesitation, the new Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) unit and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) are rapidly becoming, beside the longstanding EU Military Staff, cornerstones of enhanced coordination and cooperation between Member States’ militaries in operational arenas.
Moreover, in the wake of Donald Trump’s testing NATO summit appearances, EU leaders have called for greater self-reliance. Though the proposed 13 billion Euro European defence fund remains rather modest in comparison to US defence spending, these new EU commitments may help save the transatlantic alliance and alter the balance of power within it.
While the prospect for EU defence integration forced Federica Mogherini to offer reassurances that the EU is not drifting towards an alternative military alliance, this perception may actually strengthen the EU’s position. Indeed, in order to truly become an equal partner in global security, Europe must operate from a position of greater autonomy and self-reliance.
The Bad: Threats and Challenges
This recent assertiveness in an area where the EU long deferred to US leadership – and interests – is a welcome development in a context of transnational threats and global security challenges.
Across so-called ‘developing countries’, situations of fragility are proliferating, resulting in increased violence and low-intensity conflict, forced migration and human trafficking, as well as terrorist activities and organised crime. Fragility, moreover, is often exacerbated by economic inequality and climate change. In absence of effective state-led governance, including effective military and security structures, transnational threats emanating from these areas cannot be adequately mitigated.
Moreover, the shift towards a multi-polar international system is becoming further accentuated within an increasingly destabilised global political arena. In this context, resurgent European neighbours, such as a subversive Russia and a Turkish state pursuing a ‘neo-Ottoman’ revival, present the greatest diplomatic challenges for Europe since the end of the Cold-War.
In this context, the EU needs to emerge as a global actor via a Common Foreign and Defence Policy (CFDP) capable of addressing these challenges if it wants to stand up for its values and protect the norms and rules-based order it helped create. This requires strong backing by an effective, assertive, and integrated Common Defence and Security Policy (CDSP).
The Ugly: Profiteering and Militarisation
Though a positive development, in absence of holistic thinking and effective governance, misplaced defence spending could endanger our own European values and principles from within.
On the ground, the EU’s ‘comprehensive approach’ – integrating humanitarian, development, and security aspects in its external action policy – should not lose out to a monofocal security lens. It is clear that peace and security are preconditions for socioceconomic development; however, in absence of effective development, peace and security are also unsustainable. Indeed, many security threats arise from poverty, lack of education, weak institutions, and meagre economic opportunities in the first place. Climate change will only further accentuate developmental and, therefore also, security challenges.
A further risk lies in potential profiteering, especially due to the inevitable growth of the military-industrial complex. In the 1950s, when the United States experienced its first major surge in defence spending due to its newfound international leadership role, the war hero-turned-president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist." This proclamation remains as pertinent as ever and EU defence policy must remain a matter of public, rather than private, interests!
Europe must also avoid the militarisation of its society, particularly with regard to police forces. The end of conflict does not always mean a reduction in production capacities of military equipment. Rather than reducing production and supply, the arms industry often looks for alternative outlets and markets in an effort to satisfy their shareholders. In the United States, we have seen how excess supplies destined for Iraq and Afghanistan have been diverted to police departments at local and state levels. Even when conflicts cease, profit motives do not.
To guard against these potential negative side-effects, arms races and sudden increases in production capacities should be avoided through long-term planning, effective management, and rigorous control over public tendering and contracting procedures. Civilian institutional safeguards that protect against an outsize influence of the military-industrial lobby are quintessential.
Moreover, a holistic approach to societal challenges must be maintained. In a world of finite resources, the importance of balanced spending allocations cannot be underestimated in order to build the peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable future that we envision. Education, social coherence and integration, investment in public infrastructure, development cooperation, and combating climate change are equally essential tools for constructing the world we strive for.
While defence spending is necessary to protect citizens and their values in a world abound with threats and challenges, in terms of defence and security, our leaders must guard against the temptation of doing more than what is sufficient to safeguard our most vital interests.
Dr. Christopher Marc Lilyblad is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre.