BERLIN, Germany — In the stuffy world of German politics, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is a streak of dynamism.
The 38-year-old, rock ‘n’ roll-loving aristocrat, who wears glasses and slicked-back hair befitting a Wall Street trader, defied his own conservative party this week to push through Germany’s most dramatic defense reform in decades: ending conscription and starting to reshape the Bundeswehr as a professional, flexible, sleek military force.
But such a bold step from a young modernizer is, European defense analysts say, a rare bright spot at a gloomy time for the continent’s armed forces.
Germany is planning deep defense cuts over the next three years, as are Britain, France and Italy. Now these European heavyweights, who are the biggest contributors after the United States to the Afghanistan mission, are wondering how they can maintain strong and capable military forces in the decades to come.
The question is a pressing one for the United States, as the outcome will determine what kind of ally Europe makes in the future.
“The Americans are going to be complaining about the lack of European support for a long time to come,” said Giles Merritt, director of the Brussels-based think tank Security & Defence Agenda. “The technological gap between the Europeans and Americans is widening all the time. The Americans are going to find us useful as fetchers and carriers.”
Even before the cuts, the money spent by the 27 European Union nations relative to the size of their forces illustrates how far they have fallen behind the U.S. The EU countries together spend $270 billion a year and have 1.8 million personnel. The U.S. spends more than twice as much — $660 billion — to maintain and equip a smaller force of 1.4 million personnel.
In recent months, Germany has announced it will slash 8 billion euros ($10.9 billion, or about 6 percent of its budget) from defense between 2011 and 2014. France will make savings of 3.5 billion euros in 2011 to 2013. Italy is planning to cut 10 percent over the next few years.
Most disconcertingly for the U.S., its staunch ally Britain will cut at least 10 percent, and as much as 20 percent, from its 37 billion pound ($58.5 billion) annual defense budget — a fact that is reportedly worrying U.S. officials from Defense Secretary Robert Gates on down.
European defense ministers met last week in the Belgian town of Ghent — incidentally the same town in which the U.S. and Britain signed a treaty ending the War of 1812 — to discuss how they might get more bang for their shrinking euros by cooperating more closely.
The hope among observers is that defense ministers can use the budget cuts as an opportunity to overhaul their forces — as zu Guttenberg is doing with conscription — particularly by collaborating more closely with one another to end current waste and duplication.
Merritt, who attended the Ghent meeting, said the prospects in the short term don’t look too promising.
While France and Britain have recently talked about sharing fuel tanker jets, bigger collaborations, such as a European army or more closely shared procurement, are still a long way off, having fallen afoul of domestic politics. The right wing of the British Conservative Party, for instance, wants Her Majesty’s forces to remain entirely Her Majesty’s. The largest recent shared procurement, the A400M airlifter, has been a disaster, with every country wanting something different from the plane, leading to unseemly squabbles.
“If anything is going to happen it will be slow and pragmatic,” said Sophie-Charlotte Brune, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “You won’t see a big, euphoric integration. You’re talking after all about the last bastion of sovereignty.”
But with the exception of Guttenberg’s scrapping of conscription and his drive to create a more modern military, there is scant sign that Europe’s budget-driven cuts are paying much heed to long-term strategic considerations.
Defense budgets still cover territorial defense systems that date from the Cold War, for example, rather than investing in the technology and skills needed for expeditionary warfare.
“It’s pretty clear that we still spend far too much money on Cold War platforms … too many tanks, too many ships, and not really enough communications and surveillance,” said Nick Witney, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “All … strategic analysis has been very thinly addressed. [The cuts] are driven by austerity and the need to restore the fiscal wreckage after the past couple of years.”
For all that, the analysts who spoke to GlobalPost were broadly optimistic that, notwithstanding the current panic over budget deficits, Europe would gradually start working together more effectively. Bleak though his short-term view is, Merritt said he was confident that, with the right reforms, European forces should in the long run become more coordinated and better equipped for 21st-century deployments such as counterinsurgency, peacekeeping and crisis-response.
“We’re a major power if we get our act together,” he said.
The question for now, then, is how strong is the political impulse to make all of that happen any time soon? That is what has been worrying the U.S., as Gates made clear in February in a blunt speech to NATO officials when he said that two decades of peace and prosperity had made Europe complacent.
“The demilitarization of Europe, where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it, has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st,” Gates said.
Two decades since the end of the Cold War, Europeans feel safe on their own soil. And after nearly a decade in Afghanistan, they are suspicious of overseas interventions. There are plenty of domestic issues the average European sees as more pressing than military spending.
“There is a growing question about what European militaries are for, so they are right in the cross hairs for the budget cuts,” Witney said. “If we don’t want to be shoved to the margins of the world by confident, emerging powers … we have to start behaving a bit less like the EU acting like a big NGO and a bit more like a power. A worthwhile military that can put itself about a bit ought to be part of that.”
Nobody suggests that Europe is ready to let the transatlantic alliance slip away. But several analysts stressed that after Afghanistan, it may choose its conflicts more carefully.
“France and Germany … don't see the primacy of the military option,” said Alastair Cameron, head of the European security program at the RUSI think tank. "There is an appetite not to lose that transatlantic alliance, but it depends on ... having a better showcase for their military cooperation than Afghanistan.”