It turns out that at some point even those most reluctant to consider the use of force – or to pay for the means to defend themselves – have to decide whether it is better to fight on one’s feet or die on one’s knees.
European self defense, once considered by many a lost cause, appears to be making a comeback. The murder of innocents over the Sinai last month and in Paris nine days ago has served to focus the minds of Western politicians on the reality that some threats cannot be avoided, bought off or bribed. Nor, it is now apparent, can they be contained. They must be defeated.
Other factors have also influenced Europe’s decision to seek peace by preparing for war. Clearly, Russian aggression against Ukraine and Moscow’s increasingly bellicose military posturing created fertile ground for the muscular response by European nations to the threat from ISIS. But so too has been U.S. disengagement from Europe and the apparent inability to lead, follow or get out of the way when it came to the collapse of stability in the Middle East.
There may be a no more reluctant 21st century warrior than French President Francois Hollande, who came to power on a platform of fighting the rich, not Islamic terrorism, and increasing spending on social programs. But as he declared in his first speech to the French people after the Paris attacks, “France is at war.” Thus is the mind concentrated.
Fortunately, France is one of the few nations of Europe that retained the essential means to go to war. Moreover, the Hollande government saw the need to bolster national defense even before recent events. It had once planned to cut defense spending by some 7 percent between 2014 and 2019; this year it proposed increasing the defense budget by 4 percent in real terms over the same period and protecting the 2015 budget against austerity cuts. Although defense spending as a share of GDP is currently well below the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP, planned increases will push that figure to 1.8 percent by the end of the decade. The massacre in Paris could well propel that figure even higher.
France is not alone in seeing the need to up its game when it comes to defense spending and military capabilities. British Prime Minister David Cameron just announced an $18 billion increase in his country’s defense spending over the coming decade. Some of the increase will go to create two new rapidly deployable, 5,000-strong “strike brigades,” precisely the kind of units that will be needed in the global war on violent Islamists. But a substantial amount will support the procurement of capabilities such as nine P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. These are more clearly intended to deter potentially hostile states. The proposed spending increase will not entirely undo the damage caused by excessively deep defense cuts over the past five years but it is a start.
Germany too plans to increase defense spending, seeking to reach the 2 percent target by 2017. You can easily tell what threat most worries the German government by looking at what it intends to buy. On Berlin’s new shopping list is 100 additional Leopard 2 main battle tanks. This is not a lot when one considers that at the end of the Cold War, the German Army deployed some 3,000 tanks. But it is a start. So too is the procurement of the advanced and mobile Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS). Poor management had caused problems with a number of programs that are now being sorted out by the new defense minister.
Even some of the smaller members of the European community are investing in enhanced capabilities. Lithuania this month made a request to Washington for some 80 Stryker infantry fighting vehicles with the new 30mm cannon. Greece, one of only two NATO countries to consistently maintain defense spending at 2 percent of GDP, is looking to replace its aging fighter fleet. The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway are members of the F-35 international consortium.
It is too soon to declare Europe out of the woods when it comes to the defense of the continent. But the relatively swift change not just in attitude but behavior, specifically the willingness to spend more on defense, is encouraging.
Given the nature of the threats facing the civilized world, it is time that Europe girded for war.