The Case Against Collective Security in Europe

by Timothy Wessel

Last week Jordan Curwin wrote an article championing the need for Europe to take its defense policies into its own hands as U.S. engagement in the region wanes. Mr. Curwin argues the best way to address this is by strengthening collective security through both the EU—via the Common Security and Defense Policy—and NATO. While I agree that the United States should maintain less of a military presence in the region, I doubt the United States has the restraint to remain out of Europe. Should the United States permanently allocate resources elsewhere, I believe collective security within the European Union is the wrong way to go about crafting security policy for the region.

In 2012, the Obama administration called for a “pivot to Asia” as a part of the United States’ new grand strategy. Implementation of this policy is not unique in that it has seen its fair share of bumps in the road. Allies in the region have already claimed the pivot is “strong on rhetoric but lacking in substance.” This administration has shown us little in the way of decisive strategy before (translucent red lines on Syria and Obama’s opaque “don’t do stupid shit” foreign policy come to mind), proving to be much more reactionary than proactive. By the administration’s own admission the United States is already involved in every corner of the world. A quote from National Security Advisor Susan Rice is highlighted in a press release from the newest National Security Strategy published earlier this month—the second of such reports during Obama’s tenure:

Strong and sustained American leadership remains essential, as ever. Think for a minute where the world would be today without decisive U.S. leadership. Ebola would be spreading throughout West Africa and likely to far corners of the world. Instead, America galvanized the world to roll back this horrible disease. Without us, Russia would be suffering no cost for its actions in Ukraine. Instead, the ruble is in a free fall, and Russia is paying dearly for flaunting the rules. Without us, there would be no military campaign or sixty countries countering ISIL’s advance. There would be no prospect for a global deal on climate change; no pressure for Iran to be at the negotiating table; and, no potential for trade that meets a higher standard for our workers and businesses.

The Obama administration can’t resist getting involved. If America perceives its leadership is needed in Europe, you better believe it’s going to be there.

But let’s suspend disbelief and pretend the United States is committed to a long term European military rebalance (and that it does not already have NATO Article 5 obligations). Is collective security the right answer for Europe in an American military vacuum? I’d argue no. Obligating nation states to protect each other has a troubled past. While the twentieth century saw fewer continental wars in Europe, it also saw the two most destructive in history and the proliferation of technology that would undoubtedly make a third deadlier.

The main problem with collective security and binding alliances is the potential for rapid, substantial escalation of conflict. Provoking aggressors becomes a lot easier when they perceive many countries are against their cause. In the 21st century alone Russia has ignited conflict in Kosovo and Ukraine and there’s no doubt at least part of this is due to the consequences of NATO and EU expansion into Russia’s backyard. The conflict in Ukraine is ongoing and doesn’t have a clear end in sight. It has become a lot easier to start (or restart) conflicts than it is to end them.

Despite all of this, could collective security even work in Europe? Uniting diverse countries that speak different languages, with different cultures and histories, and autonomous foreign policy aims under a single defense command structure, seems far-fetched even before considering some precedents to judge its potential effectiveness—the first being the Eurozone.

The Euro attempts to unite diverse economies and (largely) unchecked fiscal policies into a single currency union. Countries in the union are supposed to keep government deficits below 3 percent of GDP and government debt below 60 percent of GDP. How have the finances of countries in the Union been holding up? Unsurprisingly, not well. Peripheral countries in the Euro have systemically let their financial situations deteriorate, bringing the whole currency union down, instead of only their state. Granted, this isn’t always their fault: countries have to deal with the economic cards they are dealt, but they are handicapped in their options because they have forfeited monetary autonomy to join the currency union.

There’s an even more relevant comparison still: NATO. Mr. Curwin himself admits European countries consistently fail to pull their own weight in military spending. Sure, one can chalk this up to using the United States as a crutch, but when considered concurrently with the Euro currency zone, little leads me to believe European countries are up to the task of maintaining an effective collective security arrangement themselves.

But that’s all right: as I posited above, the United States doesn’t currently have the appetite to leave its strongest trading partner to its own defense devices. If it did, letting European countries maintain a decentralized, autonomous military structure and address their own defense needs is the only way to prevent free riding on their stronger defense partners.

At best, creating a unified European defense force enables Europe’s leaders to outsource their national security to more willing partners, reducing the military effectiveness of the whole. At worst, its threatening posture provides the tinder needed to escalate regional conflict. This is not the best way to guarantee security of the continent; avoiding the unnecessary and ineffective bureaucracy associated with a collective security structure and forcing European nations to evaluate their own needs and to act independently, is.

Tim Wessel is an Economic Research Analyst who specializes in capital and labor markets.