Britain has always been Europe's most militarily-capable power due to its
history of warfare, defence spending, but also proximity to the US. Like in
tennis so in military affairs, it pays off to play with a better partner and
Britain has learnt a lot from the US.
But something else seems to be happening. Countries once loyal to the build-up of European defense and their military relationships with Germany are turning towards Britain.
The Netherlands, for many years wedded to its military relationship with Germany - the two armies even share equipment storages - is turning towards London. Its Navy and Royal Marines have close links with their British counterparts, forged in part by fighting the Taliban.
In Denmark, the centre-right government has gradually detached the country from its traditional Nordic anchor and moved closer to London. "There is simply no scope for cooperation with Denmark," a Swedish MP recently complained. Danish soldiers, who in the 1990s deployed to the Balkans as part of a Nordic Battle Group, now operate under British command both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Europe's two most militarily-capable newcomers - Poland and Romania - are also privileging links with Britain. Romanian soldiers serve under British command, both on deployments and in key multinational exercises. Britain provides an adviser to the Polish government to give advice on defence planning, programming and budget management.
Britain's traditional military counterweight - France - has committed to re-joining NATO and is likely to obtain changes inside the alliance and hopes to get support for ESDP build-up.
But both these require Britain's support and French president Nicolas Sarkozy has made it clear he hopes to cement an Anglo-French axis to generate a new "critical mass" driving EU foreign and security policy when he makes a state visit to Britain next week.
Germany, meanwhile, is turning increasingly inwards. It remains unwilling to send the Bundeswher into combat in southern Afghanistan despite repeated US entreaties, and its defense budget has declined almost continuously since reunification; spending is only one percent of its GDP on defense, which puts it at the bottom end of any NATO ranking. The two US-German army corps, created in 1993, have been disbanded thus depriving the German army of the benefits of interaction with the US army.
The turn towards London has also seen a return of the "Iraq caucus" inside Europe - now more appropriately identified as the "RC South caucus" i.e. those countries deployed as part of NATO's Regional Command South, which encompasses the southernmost districts or provinces of Afghanistan. Led by Britain, this caucus is driving NATO's Afghan policy and will determine the Alliance's overarching Afghan plan, to be agreed at the Alliance's Bucharest Summit in April.
But it may only be a matter of time before its discussions turn from one theatre to joint exercises, cooperation on purchases and greater interoperability. This represents a threat to the viability of both NATO and ESDP on a number of levels.
- First, the concern used to be the gap between the US military and European armies. Today, the US has moved so far ahead in terms of capability and battle-field experience that European militaries cannot hope to catch up. The new danger is a clearer division inside Europe with the caucus on one side and the rest of Europe on the other.
- Second, as NATO's article V becomes increasingly meaningless - with so many allies refusing to come to others' aid in the fight again the Taliban - this caucus may develop a real, albeit unofficial, collective security guarantee.
These developments are not predetermined and if more countries move troops to southern Afghanistan, as many analysts predict will happen after the US presidential elections, the problem may go away.
Moreover, Britain had a similarly strong position in the early 1990s with all the Eastern European countries, as London sponsored their NATO entrance, and helped on defence reform. But the advantage was eroded because of British skepticism about ESDP.
For now, however, the pendulum has swung towards London and the reconfiguration of Europe's security landscape is a reality.
Daniel Korski is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. A former British official, he was a Senior Advisor in the US State Department, and then led the Basra Reconstruction Team.
This article was originally written for the European Council on Foreign Relations and published here under the title "London Calling: How Britain now runs European security."
Related material from the Atlantic Community:
- Michael John Williams: EU Battlegroups March Europe Toward Common Defense
- Wess Mitchell: NATO's Unhappy Warriors
- D. Korski & M. Williams: The End of NATO and the Threat of US Unilateralism