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Europe’s ‘Comprehensive Approach’ – Ability or Rhetoric?

Mali’s Crisis Leaves Europe Paralyzed

In the realm of the Obama Administration’s “Asia Pivot” , one might think that European policy makers must had prepared for what United States’ new strategic corner in Asia will mean for the future of European defense. In the light of the removal of 11,000 American troops from Europe, including two infantry combat brigades from Germany, one might think that European policy makers had replaced those troops with flexible rapid response teams with increased defense capabilities. And in the purview of the intervention in Libya in 2011, which highlighted the limits of Europe’s defense and crisis management capabilities, one might think that European policy makers must have had a series of crisis meetings that would have identified solutions to those limits.

So, with the security of Europe at stake, has Brussels managed to get its house in order?

As Mali, a textbook case of a crisis, came knocking on Brussels’ doorstep in March of last year, one might have thought that this must have been the perfect opportunity to prove that Europe can manage a crisis in its backyard, without the help of United States.

But no.

What the crisis in Mali really proved is Europe’s continued reluctance to develop a substantial military force that can help prevent these types of crises’ (which European leaders publicly preaches about to prevent.) It proves that Europe and NATO’s “comprehensive approach” is simply based on political rhetoric’s without any teeth. Finally, it proves, once again, that the European Union rather focuses on carefully supporting a “training mission” for the Malian forces, in order to avoid the critical question of defining the circumstances in which Europe will legally be able to use force. Even with United Nations backing and Resolution 2085, Europe still seems to be reluctant to mobilize the full array of foreign policy instruments at its disposal, including the deployment of battle groups.

So far, France has only received logistical support from some of its European allies, such as the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. The most notable support has been delivered by the United States with regards to the critical task of airlift support and aerial refueling, capabilities which Europe currently lacks.

Surely, Europe’s decision to only support the training missions is rooted in the Unions economic constraints. But it is also rooted in the competing political objectives of how the Union should respond to a crisis outside of its borders. Whether it is Europe’s policymakers’ lack of interest to intervene in Mali or simply the threat of loosing a corner office in a European capital by doing so, may have tremendous consequences, particularly as security experts have argued for years that Mali could become a new hub for terrorism.

While NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen argued that the French unilateral action in Mali directly points to the holes in European defense capabilities, it also points to the holes in the Unions political will of even wanting to become a strategically relevant actor in world affairs. But as the United States is shifting its priorities towards the Pacific, it has now become crucial for Europe to improve the continent’s defense capabilities. It is time for Europe to agree upon political objectives and realize that it cannot face a choice between soft or hard power. It must be able to combine both if it wants to achieve its political goals.


All Grown Up

[With his comforting smile, Obama sat down next to his gray-haired and grumpy friend, whom had just received the news.]

“Does this mean you will not take care of me anymore?” cried Europe.

“Look. You are all grown up and it is time for you to take care of yourself. I can’t continue to support you.”

“Is this because of all those mean things I said about you? You know, I don’t really think you are a hypocrite. I actually like you. I even like those missile toys you gave me.”

“We all say and do things we don’t mean. Keep the toys. It will keep the bears away.”

“But where will you go Obama?“

“There is a whole world out there! Remember what I told you about the Pacific?”

[Europe frowns and sighs loudly in dismay.]

“You know, Europe, you could make an effort to help me out with those Chinese making trouble the South China Sea. You could even show off some of those skills I’ve trained you with in our trip to Libya!”

“Nah, I don’t want to get the Chinese angry. Why do you insist on showing off your muscles? It will only make the Chinese jealous and irritated. I like buying cheap stuff from them. Look I got these for half the price!”

[Europe points happily at the tailored skinny jeans.]

“Plus, these days I am really strapped with cash. I have serious problems with my Greek wife. She lied about her 401k and spent all my savings. Thinking about a divorcing her. ”

“Well, you’re on your own Europe. I got 99 problems but a monetary union ain’t one.”


In the spirit of Kissinger’s now famous quote, “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe”, this is how Obama must have broken the news about his planned “Asia Pivot” at the NATO summit at Camp David earlier this year.

Well, almost.

Despite Europe’s concern about Obama’s provocative Asia move, the pivot is likely to last considering the ongoing and planned regional investments in defense.

Nevertheless, Europe’s worries over United States’ Asia pivot is substantive and well founded. The economic stagnation, uncertainty over the future of the euro, and the huge debt remain critical. Virtually all European members and partners of NATO have been cutting back on defense spending. While European forces were built for conflicts closer to home, the simple Libya mission proved that the U.S. is still vital to Europe’s ambitious humanitarian missions, national security and Brussels leather wallet.

Perhaps Europe would tag along with the U.S. on this Asian excursion if the perceived pivot shifted away from a military competition to economic, diplomatic and political cooperation. Established international organizations exist in the region that can facilitate Obama’s ambitious project. A different focus might bring Europe on board U.S.’s sailing ships. Europe favors the newly formed Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, which includes not only China but also Russia. For Europe, this makes great diplomatic and economic sense.

If the White House wants support from a cash-struck Europe outside of Afghanistan, there must be a clear overarching strategy to provide the context for this offensive military expansion. The pivot has been perceived as militarizing the geo-economic region in Asia and it has offended China. This worries European diplomats. No one wants to see those “made in China” skinny jeans and other essential hi-tech Apple products increase in price in times of austerity.

The ‘Necessity’ of Pentagon’s Asia Pivot?

The 12-page pamphlet, ‘Sustaining US Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense’, signed by the Pentagon and President Obama in January of 2012, states that the United States’ “…will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region,” Among scholars, pundits, and bloggers, the ‘rebalancing’ has now become known as the “Asia Pivot”.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s trip to Asia this week have been characterized by remarks that the Asia pivot is a refocus of United States global and strategic military priorities, where “U.S. relationships with Asian allies are critical to the future stability and growth of the region.” Those who defend astronomical sums of defense spending, such as Robert Kagan, also echoed the necessity of this Asia Pivot and warned in the Washington Post that if this sequestration-fiscal-cliff-business-thing affects the defense department, the “preservation of the world order” will be in doubt.

Although Kagan and other defense-spending proponents are effective at inciting anxieties of what the “catastrophic consequences” of sinking defense budgets will be, the rest of us should remain calm and not join the frenzied in their life rafts. A military expansion to Asia must be placed in three realistic threat- and cost benefit -perspective. If not, Pentagon’s shift is likely to turn from premature to amateur.

First, while the Asia pivot has been explained as an extension of a century and a half of United States’ foreign policy, the proposed plan is more than just a continuation of history. At the core, this is a large-scale military shift with extension of six aircraft carriers with Air-Sea Battle capabilities, littoral combat ships, deployment of 2500 rotating marines in Australia and a shift of 60% of the U.S. Navy to the region. This is expensive. Really expensive.  Under sequestration, the defense budget will be mandated to cut $492 billion. Sure, axing off roughly $55 billion per year will not be painless, but this is the reality. And just like every department must cut its budget, including education, research and social security, Department of Defense should not be allowed to protect its budget by presenting hollow threats.

Second, while the Asia pivot has been explained as an extension of a century and a half of United States’ foreign policy, the proposed plan is more than just a continuation of history. At the core, this is a large-scale military shift with extension of six aircraft carriers with Air-Sea Battle capabilities, littoral combat ships, deployment of 2500 rotating marines in Australia and a shift of 60% of the U.S. Navy to the region. This is expensive. Really expensive.  Under sequestration, the defense budget will be mandated to cut $492 billion. Sure, axing off roughly $55 billion per year will not be painless, but this is the reality. And just like every department must cut its budget, including education, research and social security, Pentagon should not be allowed to protect its budget by presenting iffy threats, such as Secretary of State Clinton did in her Foreign Policy essay. The hyped threats of China’s naval ascent (it is nowhere close to U.S. capabilities), cyber attacks and the issue of freedom of navigation can be solved with other means than military steel. Before aiming for full-spectrum military dominance in the Asia Pacific, how about exhausting public diplomacy and development work together with local NGOs, or settling disputes through international organizations such as the WTO? Applying military capabilities on non-military issues is not economically prudent.

Third, the consequences of this excessively hyped of Asia pivot is that it leads to U.S. policymakers focusing resources and attention on the wrong things. Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen have argued that Pentagon should instead concentrate its attention on threats that undermine the U.S. economy, such as refugee flows, climate change, pandemics and cyber espionage. But since these threats do not lurk directly around the corner and only affect the U.S. in slow-nagging ways (and perhaps because they lack a trendy anointed buzzword), we will not likely see an interest in any of these issues.

Thomas Friedman’s now famous analogy on the U.S. and China as “Siamese twins” is probably a consensual conclusion both in Washington and Beijing. The U.S. is addicted to cheap Chinese goods. Clearly, the Obama administration is not going to push China’s buttons by overstepping China’s maritime boundaries. And China’s export-driven economic strategy, along with its large reserves of U.S. treasury bonds, suggests that Beijing will continue to prefer a peaceful relationship with the U.S. Thus, with or without expensive several $700 million dollar U.S. littoral combat ships cruising in the region, diplomacy will be the continued tool by both Washington and Beijing.

Pentagon’s military shift has also left hawks in Beijing wary of Washington’s intentions. U.S. taxpayers and hard-line Beijing officials are reconciling with the same question: what is the point of the U.S. military pivot ? Clearly, the Obama administration is not going infuse a crisis with China, even though China have attempted to take over territory controlled by other nations. Diplomacy will be continued as the preferred tool. Also, China’s export-driven economic strategy, along with its large reserves of U.S. treasury bonds, suggests that Beijing will continue to prefer a peaceful relationship with the U.S. Thus, shifting U.S. forces to Asia, will not change the political calculation in Washington nor in Beijing.

Nevertheless, Pentagon’s military shift has left hawks in Beijing wary of Washington’s intentions. Reconciling with the same question, U.S. taxpayers and hard-line Beijing officials wonders what the point of the U.S. military pivot really is? A defense department that continues to suck up 19% of the U.S. budget (which is larger than those of the next 14 countries combined) without presenting a specific threat assessment with a cost-benefit analysis is nonsensical. Different types of threats require different types of responses. In times of austerity, the necessity of an expensive military expansion should not be the priority.  As both parts of the Siamese twin occasionally spit, frown and insult one another, both know very well what the stakes are. Any (military) surgical removal of the other half might end up in one dead body instead of two living and thriving minds.

Leading in Austere Times?

Returning from a three-day international security conference at West Point Military Academy on The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy in an Age of Austerity, I bumped in to a few “defenders of defense”.

These “defenders of defense” (ranging from cadets, to Generals, to research fellows at the Heritage Foundation) argues that because of Obama’s re-election and his inability to stop the cavernous budget cuts on defense spending, the U.S. will become unable to tackle all of the national security threats the Pentagon faces. When asking these “defense-defenders” how Obama exactly should fix the national budget then, the reflexive response becomes, “not by taking it from defense” or, “the threat landscape is actually worse today than it was on September 11th,” or that, “cutting defense won’t fix the budget.”

These types of arguments are flawed, pointless and borderline paranoid to make. While military officers are not known for taking the easy road (as the disciplined cadets at West Point proved), the simple argument of “defending the defense for the sake of national security” is an exaggerated claim and the simple way out of the difficult budget debates. Obama’s inevitable belt-tightening actually provides a good dose of defense-discipline and will lead to more security in the long term. The defense department, whom have become accustomed to unrivaled budget growth, needs to put Obama’s re-election and uncomfortable defense cuts in perspective.

First, the U.S. military edge lies in conducting asymmetrical warfare, with cost effective technological capabilities and counterterrorist operations, not the quantity of its manpower. Obama’s trimming of the U.S.’s Armed Forces will still leave the U.S. much larger than before September 11th. Sure, shaving off $50 billion from Pentagons’ budget will pose some management challenges. However, contrary to what most defense analysts argue, these budget cuts will not diminish U.S.’s military power nor leave a vacuum of insecurity when it comes to national security. It is time for Pentagon (and Congress) to start thinking about using existing resources in order to achieve realistic objectives.

Second, with a limited defense budget, competing security objectives will have to become more precisely prioritized. The U.S.’s current threat landscape painted by Pentagon officials (particularly the recent buzz of “pivoting towards Asia”) seems to have become a PR campaign for maintaining the defense budget. Applying military solutions to non-military problems is not helpful. China for example, is not emphasizing a modern Soviet tank army on steroids. The threat of loosing the U.S.’s sphere of influence in that region will be maintained with economic and diplomatic ties. Not with more military personnel stationed in the region.

Third, over the last two years, Obama has been the loudest cheerleader for NATO’s “smart defense” strategy (another buzzword for Europe’s “pooling and sharing” of resources and capabilities). What’s “smart” about this cooperation is that it aims to minimize costs for all NATO members, including the United States. With Obama’s ability to politically push European policy makers for closer cooperation, NATO may actually have a chance to become leaner, meaner and smarter over the next four years.

Lastly, the excess spending on defense is not because of a precise and a calibrated U.S. grand strategy, but rather because the Defense Department is terrible at predicting where the next war will be. Just as the Defense Department has grown accustomed to steady budget growth since the Cold War, the U.S. public has become accustomed to sloppy military planning. These pessimistic defense-defenders must realize the dangers of spending too much time at the “all-you-can-eat-buffet”. Pentagon’s smorgasbord of emerging threats must be trimmed to just a few items on the menu. The belt is becoming tighter and it is time to suck in that excess weight. With limited resources, objectives must be limited too.

U.S. Increases the Heat in the Finnish Political Sauna

From October 11th, 2012

Among all the rituals surrounding Finnish sauna-bathing, it is considered commonsense to be polite and not throw water onto the heated stones before asking fellow bathers. Attitudes and relations might be strained, if not become downright hostile, to such a self-centered move.

Metaphorically, this recently occurred when the U.S. Congress raised no objections to the sale of 70 Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off missiles (JASSM) to Finland last month. The heat is now up and the relationship between the small state of Finland and its great neighbor Russia is increasingly anything but polite.

Congress justified the deal with typical vague phrases such as “…the missile sale will contribute to the U.S national security policy…” and that,  “It will help the security of a friendly country…” as “Finland continues to be an important force for political stability…”

Beyond diplomatic textbook-like statements lies real political and security implications worth dissecting.  The JASSM acquisition is a game-changing defensive and offensive capability aimed clearly at Russia. This is an ultra-modern air-to-surface missile weapon, which the U.S. has not sold to any other non-NATO member in Europe.

So why does the U.S. want Finland to have these missiles? Why did Finland find it necessary to bulk up on an already impressive (by European measures) defense system? The arms treaty has three significant political implications and possible unintended consequences Finnish and U.S. policy makers must consider:

First, the signal this arms treaty sends to Russia: Back off.

Finland and Russia have had several military conflicts during the last two hundred years, the last was the Continuation War which ended in September of 1944, the second of two wars that occurred during the World War II period.

So, some 66 years later Finnish policy makers have argued that they are just “keeping up with modern technology.” It will be hard to convince the Russians that their neighbor, once a member of the Russian Empire for 108 years until World War I and enemy in World War II has acquired these strategic deterrence missiles merely as an exercise in regular hardware maintenance. The acquisition is not just a regular upgrade from the meat-and-potatoes system with Cold War era tanks artillery. The JASSM is a cruise missile designed to be fired from jet fighter aircraft deep into enemy territory to eliminate enemy air defense systems, or targets deep in heavily defended (against an air attack) enemy territory. It is a threshold-raising deterrent weapon.

In the unlikely scenario that Russia would attack Finland, the U.S. has made sure that such an attack will be unprofitable. Through this arms treaty, the U.S. is also sending an indirect message to Russia: In the event of a crisis, such as the one in Georgia in 2008, which escalated to the use of extensive Russian military force, the Finnish border has been buffered with U.S. steel.

Second, the signal the U.S. sends to NATO: You are not our only priority.

Why does the U.S. look to strengthen a non-NATO member in Europe? The U.S. deal with Finland is part of a new pattern in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S.’s prefers the tailored collaboration between smaller constellations of Western states on specific areas of defense cooperation. While this might benefit U.S. national security strategies in the short term, the unintended consequence of these types of custom-made deterrence deals, runs the risk of undermining NATO’s credibility as the primary defense component in Europe.

Third, the signal Finland sends through this arms treaty: We are not really neutral.

The Finnish Air Force has become increasingly reliant on the benevolence of the U.S. However neutral the Finns might want to declare themselves to be, there is nothing that spells neutrality with this type of made-in-America-equipment. For Finnish policy makers, this missile deal means effectively committing to America’s power politics. Thus, the potential for Finland to feel pressure to politically support other U.S. actions is likely to grow.

Time to cool it down?

Clearly, the past three years of discussing this arms treaty has triggered unnecessary tensions with Moscow. The big question now follows: how will Finland respond to the threatening rhetoric of its great neighbor? Earlier this summer, when the missile deal was still pending, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that, “if the deployment of attack missiles is approved, Russia will take retaliatory measures.” Putting it lightly, the deal has irritated Moscow. Putin has stomped his feet, threatening to spark another arms race between the two former Cold War rivals.

Perhaps its time to open a window and let some fresh, cool Scandinavian air into the overheated sauna? Or should the Finns wait for the air to cool down by itself? For now, Finnish policy must at least stop the offensive water tossing on to the heated stones. Otherwise, the sweaty and red-faced Russian will continue to grunt hostilely inside the Finnish sauna.

European Hipsters on Mitt Romney

In 2008, President Obama was the rock star candidate which Europe’s hipsters to Brussels’ suited ministers where all cheering for. Europe welcomed the end of Bush’s ideological clash with the world. Light emerged in the tunnel for a new U.S.-Europe cooperative era. While the capitals of Europe have not been fully satisfied with some of Obama’s foreign policy decisions (such as the not-so-precise drone strikes killing civilians) Europe still prefers Obama over the Republican candidate in the 2012 election. Obama is the clear choice, not just because we, just like the think Republicans, label him as a European socialist. It is arguably because a U.S. presidency with Republican Mitt Romney on the thrown is simply too hard to get for most Europeans.

1. Romney’s view on the role of the state

Romney has harshly criticized Europe’s role of the state. While the bureaucratic machine of Brussels is not famous for reaching consensual decisions at the speed of Usain Bolt, Europe shares the same beliefs on the basic role of the state as Obama. The unifying European belief is that governments should provide health care, a fair tax structure and a social welfare system that protects the disadvantaged. Romney’s belief that there is an irreconcilable conflict between government sponsored healthcare and the freedom to pursue dreams bewilders Europeans. Perhaps Romney’s personal history of never having to worry about the reality of equality of opportunity makes it difficult for Europeans to understand Romney’s blunt dismissal of 47% of U.S. citizens. In Europe, healthcare is not seen as an entitlement, as Romney have argued, it is a right.

2. Romney’s religious beliefs on abortion

Europeans find it difficult to relate to the role religion plays among American conservatives. Making a political argument, based of religious grounds, sends chills down the rational, atheist spine of Europe. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan’s position on abortion, based on religious views, seems extreme to many Europeans. Opposing abortion, even in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life seems so 18th century. The Republican bill earlier this year requiring women seeking abortions to be given mandatory ultrasound (although the legislation kindly allows them to avert their eyes during the procedure) seems unreal in the eyes of many European women.

3. Romney’s inability to play the Swiss-card in the Israel-Palestine Conflict

In the fundraising campaign video procured by Mother Jones’ David Corn, Romney said that he thought that, “Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish” and he called into question the viability of a two-state solution. European, Swiss-minded diplomats, whom argue for splitting the humanitarian aid evenly between Palestine and Israel and encourage a two-state solution, see Mr. Romney’s overtly pro-Israel stance as a hinder to the peace process.

It surely comes as no surprise that Europeans support the Democrats for historical and cultural reasons. While Europe does not have much to say on the U.S. election, Europe does not want future trans-Atlantic relations to be based on a relationship with a U.S. president whom they simply do not get on basic fundamental issues.

How Tough Should the U.S. Get on China?

U.S. presidential campaigns rarely raise foreign policy issues on a substantive level. When it comes to China, however, the candidates have elevated the issue from using China as a means of political insult to a noteworthy policy proposal, summarized as: time-to-get-tough-on-China.

This “time-to-get-tough” policy is noteworthy in the campaign line for three reasons.

First, past U.S. presidential campaigns have treated China as a less attractive piece worth dangling in front of the media and U.S. voters. This election, however, China-bashing has become an increasingly juicy piece for the candidates to dig in to, showing off how they will not let China have the larger bite of the world economy.

Second, the amount of ”toughness” differs between the paranoid Republican and the insecure Democratic camp. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center on September 18th, shows that about two-thirds of Republicans say it is time to get ”tougher” with China, compared with 53% of Democrats. Republicans are also twice as likely as Democrats to say that President Obama should be tougher on Beijing. In line with these non-surprising statistics, Governor Romney bashed Obama for not being tough enough, saying that “President Obama promised to take China ‘to the mat’ but instead he has allowed China to treat the United States like a doormat.”

Third, according to the same Pew survey, Americans feel more threatened by China compared to any other country. Thus, as voters may seek a presidential candidate whom can settle their fears and reassure the toughness of the U.S., Mitt Romney have come to Americas rescue, rolled up his sleeves and assured Americans that he will fire up the pressure on Beijing. Specifically, Romney have promised that in his first day in office, he will issue an executive order branding China a currency manipulator. While hawkish Americans may feel a sense of security by Romney’s Rambo rhetoric’s, the discussion of triggering a trade war or mutual political mistrust with such an executive order is something the GOP candidate is not tough enough to discuss.

Surely, the November 6th election will not be determined by the candidates’ detailed policy stance on China on the global economy, on handling the cyber attacks from China, on China’s growing military power, or on the tensions between China and Taiwan. Instead, it will be determined by the candidate who can successfully bash China for the high unemployment rate and show how they will toughen up against such an employment-thief.

Many Americans may feel a sense of security and patriotism by the candidates pledge to ratch up the pressure on Beijing. Nevertheless, from a foreigner’s perspective, there are more dangers in the candidates misleading time-to-get-tough rhetoric’s. A better alternative is that the candidates roll down their arm sleeves and treat China in the U.S. presidential race with respect and thoughtful policy discourse. Cultivating an anti-China ideology is making the U.S. largest trading partner into a mistrusting friend, which the U.S. neither need nor want in an era of globalization.