The Problem of Europe’s Hard Power Deficit

By Andrew Noakes

As European warplanes took to the skies of Libya in March and French commandos swept confidently through the streets of Abidjan in April, one could easily have been forgiven for imagining that Europe may be starting to adopt a more assertive global military role. However, the former UK Defence Secretary’s recent admission that NATO operations in Libya would have been “impossible” without the assistance of the US tells the real story of Europe’s ongoing hard power deficit. 

It should not be a surprising admission. European militaries lack much of the sophisticated hardware that the US used to devastating effect in Libya – the B-2 bombers, the AC-130 gunships, the A-10 tank-busters. Other assets that Europe does share with the US, like cruise missiles and aerial drones, are in comparatively short supply. According to the former Defence Secretary of the UK, , Europe is so woefully underequipped that it is a “necessity” to keep the US “in Europe” as a military power for the purpose of maintaining the continent’s security.

The problem is that hard power matters. EU Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, has already declared that the EU is a global empire, but it is not possible, as he appears to think it is, to take a soft power route to super-power status. This is not to say that development aid and other soft power tools are unimportant; in fact, they should be at the forefront of European foreign policy. But they are, by themselves, insufficient to provide Europe with the sort of power that it needs in order to thrive as an independent actor on the international stage. To do so, Europe must be able to influence the international security agenda, and it cannot do so from a position of military weakness and dependence.

The events surrounding the NATO intervention in Libya prove this particular point. For all their audacity and intensity, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron’s much-hailed diplomatic manoeuvrings in the leadup to the UN authorisation of military action lacked a certain amount of credibility until the US got onboard. This was for two reasons: firstly, America, unlike Europe, had the military assets required for a comprehensive intervention, and thus the idea of such an operation was only credible if it was American-led; secondly, America’s possession of these assets gave it the diplomatic authority that was needed to successfully persuade members of the UN Security Council to support and allow the intervention.

As this example shows, Europe’s hard power deficit renders it incapable of conducting major military operations independently, but it also undermines Europe’s effectiveness in the diplomatic arena. Diplomatic power is, of course, contingent on other types of power, particularly of the military and economic varieties. While Europe has plenty of the latter, being collectively the largest economy in the world, it does not possess nearly enough of the former. The consequence is clear and damaging: Europe is not taken seriously on the international stage. That is why Cameron and Sarkozy would never have been able to secure the passage of the UN resolution on Libya by themselves; and that is why, in the security sphere, Europe is perpetually unable to direct international action or shape the agenda on issues ranging from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the  war in Afghanistan.

It is no longer good enough for Europe to take a backseat on the international stage. With the imminent emergence of a multipolar world order, in which international affairs look set to be dominated by the US, China, Russia, India, and Brazil, Europe cannot afford to be left out in the cold. It must have the ability to take the lead on issues that affect both European security and international security in general.

At a time of economic austerity, it may seem unrealistic to demand increases in European defence spending to tackle the problem. But this demand need not be made. The solution to Europe’s hard power deficit is more integration, not more spending. The Anglo-French Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty agreed in 2010 is an important step in the right direction. The Treaty, which applies only to the French and British militaries, allows for the pooling of military materials and resources, the creation of a joint expeditionary force, and, eventually, naval carrier inter-operability. The advantages of this arrangement are obvious – military strength and operational capacities are increased, while costs are kept low.

For the same reason that European nations have pooled their resources to fund expensive scientific projects like the Large Hadron Collider or organisations like the European Space Agency, it makes sense for Europe to pool its military resources in order to maximise  its power. By  building on the Anglo-French example, it is time to extend and deepen European military integration. Although it would currently be impossible for individual European countries to develop or acquire the range of sophisticated military hardware that the US possesses, the potential for resource sharing and joint procurement brought by deeper integration would make this a more achievable European goal in the future.

Europe is at a crossroads. As the sun sets on guaranteed Western global preponderance, European military power is currently insufficient to secure a place for Europe in the emerging super-power club. But Europeans should be ambitious about their continent’s future. If they are willing to invest in hard power, and to cooperate and integrate in order to make that investment, then Europe could finally emerge from America’s shadow to become a leader rather than a follower on the international stage.


Andrew Noakes is a graduate of Cambridge University and a current postgraduate student at King’s College London, where he is pursuing an MA in International Relations. His main interests are European security, African politics, and conflict in Afghanistan and South Asia. 


24 October 2011