Posts tagged ‘NATO’

Libya highlights Europe’s defence weakness

The ability of we Europeans to provide for our own defence has been increasingly in doubt since the end of the cold war. I well remember George Robertson, when he was NATO Secretary General, contrasting the size of Europe’s military forces, running into millions, with the inability of European allies to provide just a few thousand troops for NATO operations.

The Libyan campaign has forced the issue into sharp focus. Last Friday’s speech by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Security and Defence Agenda meeting in Brussels spelled out the harsh realities of a changing world and warned Europe of the consequences of neglecting its military capabilities.

Gates describes the present situation as “unacceptable” and cites the fact that 11 weeks after the Libyan operation began – under NATO auspices – some European partners have run out of firepower and have had to ask the Americans for new bombs and rockets. According to him the Italian airbase for operations over Libya can only handle half the sorties for which it is equipped owing to lack of equipment.  It’s symptomatic of a wider failure.

Two major assumptions seem to lie behind Europe’s lack of defence capabilities: the first is the belief that the world has become more benign, and that in this kinder world we need no longer worry about our capacity for military action. The second is that if action is needed then we can always get the Americans to do the dirty work.

Each of the two assumptions is surely wrong. Of course we face different threats from those we faced in the cold war years, many of them unpredictable, but there are always dangers round the corner. For instance we tend to assume that the Arab spring is a surge towards democracy equivalent to Europe’s velvet revolutions. That is indeed an outcome devoutly to be wished, but it is by no means guaranteed. Every Arab country has its own version of the revolution. Just look at the mayhem in Syria, which could have major repercussions across the region.

The US Secretary of State touched on the changing politics which undermine the second assumption. The generation of US politicians whose experience was forged during the cold war has now moved on, to be replaced by political leaders with quite different priorities, impatient of European demands for American involvement and wholly preoccupied by a ballooning budget deficit.  It was striking how indignant some EU leaders were that President Obama refused to take the lead role in Libya. But as Obama has reasonably said, Libya is Europe’s problem.

It is the very unpredictability of international events which make it so difficult for governments to plan defence spending – and to justify it to voters, but as Robert Gates says, it is barmy to spend money on sophisticated fighter aircraft and not provide the armaments they need for active combat, or the electronic capabilities and intelligence resources to direct their operations.

A collapse of trust between allies could even threaten the demise of NATO. As the American global commitment diminishes so Europe has got to do more in both diplomatic and practical ways. The common European Security and Defence Policy should provide the framework and the common will to improve capabilities, but there’s little sign of it doing so. It should also be working much more closely with NATO. But who will provide the political leadership? Regrettably there is not much sign that either Cathy Ashton or national leaders are capable of that.


June 13, 2011 at 11:50 am Leave a comment

Post your blog at 0900 hours, General.

Picture an enthusiastic proponent of social media in your head. Who comes to mind?

I’ll tell you who I am thinking about – Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe in charge of NATO military operations and planning and the highest-ranked US military official based outside of the US.

Surprised? I was too.

Admiral Stavridis was one of 3,800 people working in transatlantic security who participated in a 5-day online brainstorming exercise on topics ranging from peacekeeping and human rights, to China and climate change. I was lucky enough to work on the 2010 Security Jam which took place in February.

In practice, Jam Sessions look like a series of mini-blogs, where people can post short comments and comment on other’s ideas. Text-mining technology and expert moderators are used to keep track of who is talking about a given subject, what they are saying and give the unique opportunity to ask top officials why things are the way they are. All the information collected during the debate is then funneled into electronic reports organized by theme, affiliation, age and a range of other custom-selected criteria. The Security Jam organizers have used the tool to produce ten recommendations for the EU and NATO, who were strategic partners in the event.

The fact that the transatlantic defence and security communities committed to such a project should not be underestimated. Despite the fact that these crowds are typically hard sells when it comes to new forms of communication (think top secret clearance and national sovereignty), the military were some of the first participants to sign up. 192 military officials participated in the Jam, including 6 Generals and 5 Admirals.

NATO has already made some major efforts to boost the way it communicates and is taking advantage of the best the internet has to offer to do so. You can watch the Secretary General’s video blog, learn more about NATO operations and strategy in the online NATO Review magazine (if you have never looked at it, you should, you will learn things), and you can even search through de-classified documents from the NATO post-War period in a fun, interactive website.

It will be interesting to see if the EU follows suit in a post-Lisbon era. 56% of Jam participants felt the EU is not a credible security actor and a recommendation stemming from the Jam has been for the EU to use new media to consult European experts and citizens on security threats and policies.

It is precisely because of the sensitive and strategic issues involved that such communications exercises are important. Public engagement – and, more importantly, a demonstration by institutions that they are listening to that public – is essential.


May 7, 2010 at 6:07 pm Leave a comment

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