Dr Sergio Miracola is a strategic analyst and China Associate Research Fellow at ISPI, Milan;
Dr Nicola Nasuti is a policy analyst and strategic planner in international security and military affairs.
Russia’s assertiveness has increased since the Georgian war in 2008. However, the Kremlin’s regional revanchism did little to alter the United States’ strategic calculation as evidenced by Washington’s decision to disband the Second Fleet in 2011, leaving only the Sixth Fleet in charge of the North Africa and the European scenarios. This drawback has stretched thin US military forces abroad.
The reestablishment of the Second Fleet in August 2018 comes at the right time, especially in an age of transformation. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the growing Chinese commitments in both the Arctic and North Africa, as well as the significant Zapad 2017 and Vostok 2018 Russian military exercises, there are clear signs of growing unpredictability in the current international security environment.
Part of the reason for this strategic and operational shift can be attributed to the new American strategic roadmaps: the National Security Strategy and the National Defence Strategy, issued in December 2017 and January 2018, respectively. These documents emphasise the US belief in the re-emergence of great power competition, identifying Russia and China as their major contenders within the transforming international system.
American allies, like Japan and South Korea, face the dilemma of entrapment or abandonment
The new international scenario and the redesign of the American Second Fleet put the European Union in a position that will force it to reposition its future political, strategic and military horizons. Brussels at present is stuck between integrating or substituting its force structures. In other words, while other American allies, like Japan and South Korea, face the dilemma of entrapment or abandonment – that is, being obliged to perform military actions against their national priorities or, even worse, being left alone in facing daunting threats – the European Union is struggling to find the right strategic recipe to cope with this unique politico-military alliance and the US.
Integration, being pursued at the strategic level by the EU and championed by French and Germans, aims to strengthen the existing alliance structure. The objective is to provide NATO with more funds and military capabilities needed to face crucial geopolitical challenges through fast and flexible responses. The strategic shift to the High North and the Arctic is demanding a more NATO-like operational, integrated and flexible posture, rather than single states’ intervening alone. To further this course of action, the German government has advanced its willingness to host a new NATO Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC) in Baden-Württemberg.
At the same time, the integration issue gains salience when considering the historical-cultural variables present in the 70-year-old partnership. The persistence of NATO, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, demonstrates how the EU and US still consider the Western alliance as a part of an undivided cultural framework that transcends the mere geopolitical interests pursued by each single nation.
However, the same cultural and strategic reasons are also pushing the EU to embrace the opposite issue – substitution. Strategically, Brussels knows that in a world heading towards a multipolar system, the EU as a single political entity – notwithstanding Brexit – could potentially become the fourth major military power in the same vein as the US, China and Russia. Moreover, having a European defence system could increase the awareness and response level against possible Russian military operations. Moreover, since the EU has been founded on political grounds, this alternative European military scenario could exploit the organisation’s political nature to gain a deeper strategic advantage. Its current political framework would allow for the execution of a holistic strategy composed of the simultaneous use of military and non-military means.
The establishment of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is a case in point, even if it lacks the necessary institutional leverage to develop military capabilities in the short term.
To transform its potential power into collective defence capabilities, the EU members need to deepen and enlarge existing arrangements for Europe’s defence cooperation.
So far, the EU has yet to create an army or develop its post-Brexit security policy. It has also failed to find the right balance between the proactive approach led by France and Germany, and those EU governments concerned about the rising tension with Russia that prefer to keep the edge under the NATO umbrella.
if substitution takes place, there would be a transition period that would put the EU at great risk
Decision-making has also been constrained due to disagreements over how to address concerns along the Alliance’s southern flank. The migrant crisis and the spread of terrorism, which are seen as short-medium term security priorities for countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece, have generated dissenting policy positions from other EU member states.
Nonetheless, if substitution takes place, there would be a transition period that would put the EU at great risk. Europe would be left vulnerable as the new institution would require some time to adjust, exposing the EU to future challenges from potential adversaries.
For these reasons, the former Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens described the EU in 1991 as "an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm". This assessment was corroborated by the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) prediction that "the EU will not be a major military power by 2025". The EU has five more years to prove or disprove these assertions.
The EU therefore has now reached a point at which it has to decide how it would like to play a major role in the 21st century. Both integration and substitution are on the table, even if integration seems to be the stronger of the two, due to the fact that NATO has so far exerted an important historical role that all the major European powers are not willing to undermine.
The famous three Ds (No Discrimination, No Decoupling, No Duplication) advanced by the American government back in the 1990s to dissuade European attempts to create an alternative military alliance continue to hold weight.
IMAGE CREDIT: 7th Army Training Command/Flickr