Gergely Varga is visiting fellow at SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins university. He is also member of the Atlantic council’s young Atlanticist working group. The following commentary was first published on BlogActiv.
"For the first time in centuries, Asia’s military spending will surpass that of Europe in 2012 according to London based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which is preparing to launch its annual Military Balance publication. With Asia’s continuing robust economic growth together with strategic incentives for defence modernisation on the one hand, and Europe’s economic crisis, drastic defence budget cuts and no major imminent security threat on the other this isn’t such a surprising development. The news just clearly represent a milestone of a historical trend, the geopolitical shift of power from the Euro-Atlantic area towards Asia.
So what does this mean for Europe’s strategic position, how worried should Europe be?
First of all, one reason European nations can let their defence budgets continue to shrink is positive – much of Europe remains to be the most stable and peaceful continent, and there are no imminent security threats within or from outside of Europe. Much of Europe is an ally of the United States, the world’s premier and only true global military power, which will likely remain in this position for decades to come.
Furthermore, Asia’s new military powers are arming themselves primarily to maintain balance of power within themselves, not vis a vis the West. China might be the obvious exception, which might have the potential in a decade or so to be a competitor of the United States economically, and even militarily in China’s neighbourhood to some extent, but still not globally.
Asia’s other major developed powers, Japan, South Korea, Australia or emerging ones as India, Indonesia and other South – East Asian nations are either US allies or tend lean towards the US more than China on security matters. So these are basically the reassuring news for Europe. That is, it is highly unlikely European nations would be involved in direct, full scale military confrontation with these emerging Asian nations in the foreseeable future.
Even in the case of Russia, the overall picture is reassuring for Europeans, in 2011 European NATO countries spent about 275 billion dollars on defence, about five time as much as Russia did. Of course the devil lies in the details, Europe is not a nation state with a unified political and military leadership, and Central and Eastern Europeans sometimes have doubts of their Western allies’ commitments to their security.
However, as it has been in the last two decades, the potential for unrest, political turmoil and military conflict in Europe’s neighbourhood from North Africa through the Middle East to the Caucasus cannot be ruled out for the foreseeable future. Not to mention that the Persian Gulf is also experiencing a regional arms race, but looking at the unexpected trajectory of the Arab revolts, no one could know for sure how stable or friendly would the regions actors be to the West in a couple of years’ time.
Accepting the current trends of ever decreasing European defence capabilities does pose risks and will have costs at some point, one just has to think on the political instability around the Persian Gulf and North Africa or piracy around Somalia. The world especially in that region is far away from the utopian “democratic peace”, one has to have credibility to be taken seriously.
Military power is of course by itself not a solution for the challenges of the region, but without it, the chance for Europe to influence the developments will shrink accordingly. Debates on intervention like the one on Libya or on Syria could remain totally hypothetical and irrelevant in the future, even if a crisis of a much larger scale would erupt in this neighbourhood and pose direct security threats for Europe, if European nations would not have military means to act. The United States, as it has shown in Libya, will be much more reluctant to intervene in places where vital US strategic interests are not at stake.
Furthermore, in the coming decades, China and likely even India will be able to increase its military footprint in the Western part of the Indian – ocean. These new powers will want to increase their military presence in vital naval routes, as they will rely more on imports of natural resources from the Persian Gulf and Africa. And as their policies concerning the Arab revolts have shown, their interests and actions often do not always correspond with that of West.
European nations will have to figure out ways no to let their defence capabilities further erode. Through NATO and CSDP European nations have to maintain and strengthen the right military capabilities, while remaining to take the lead in multilateral arms control and nuclear non-proliferation initiatives. And if it wants to do that with credibility, it has to be open in meeting its obligations, such as on the issue of NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons.
Less like in the previous decades, where global fight against WMD largely meant the West pressuring much less weaker nations to abandon their WMD weapons and programmes, Europe as part of the West will be forced to negotiate with increasingly powerful nations, where results will be achieved through hard compromise. The sooner Europe prepares itself for this new world, the less unpleasant surprises will it have to encounter."