How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Three months since U.S. bombs first struck Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in Iraq, the Obama administration has touted its 62-country coalition as a crowning achievement. Although this number might seem impressive, however, it is misleading. Of the 62 nominal allies for Operation Inherent Resolve (as the campaign is now called), only 16 have actually committed military forces, and only 11 have conducted offensive operations to date. Many appear willing to pay lip service to U.S. President Barack Obama’s condemnation of ISIS, only to ignore his subsequent call to arms.
Most disconcerting is the meekness of Washington’s supposedly stalwart European allies. The European countries that have deployed forces to fight ISIS are contributing less today than they did three years ago in Operation Unified Protector in Libya—and even in that conflict, the United States was indispensable to the mission. France is a case in point. It fired the opening shot in the Libyan campaign and sent to the front 29 planes and six warships, including an aircraft carrier. Today, however, it has devoted only 11 planes and one warship to fighting ISIS. Similarly, the United Kingdom sent 28 planes to Libya in 2011 but only eight to Iraq this year. And whereas a total of 13 European countries had contributed either ships or planes to the struggle against the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime, only five have done the same in the war on ISIS.
Nowhere is European reticence more apparent than in the share of airstrikes. In Libya, 90 percent of the air raids were carried out by Washington’s coalition partners, destroying more than 6,000 targets. This percentage puts the U.S. allies’ current share—approximately 10 percent of over 800 strikes conducted so far in Iraq and Syria—to shame. The share of the EU is even smaller, since some strikes were conducted by other coalition partners: Australia, Canada, and five Arab states. And this time around, the European countries are openly admitting that their contribution would be mere window-dressing. As British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond acknowledged in a particularly candid testimony in early September, the British contribution aimed primarily at bolstering “a political coalition of nations” rather than changing the military tide. Seventy years after British and American soldiers landed in nearly equal numbers on the beaches of Normandy, even the United Kingdom, which has Europe’s most powerful military, recognizes that it can no longer be decisive on the battlefield.
SLIMMING THE RANKS
Such an underwhelming European response is puzzling. After all, European security interests should dictate an even more robust effort against ISIS than against the Qaddafi regime. For one, ISIS represents a much more immediate security threat. An estimated 3,000 European jihadists have joined ISIS’ ranks, and many of them have returned home bent on further violence, including one that killed four people in an attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels this past May. Second, ISIS militants, unlike Qaddafi, have explicitly threatened to attack European countries and have killed European citizens. The Qaddafi regime, on the other hand, had signed a number of lucrative oil deals with European companies before it fell; it also largely abandoned its unconventional weapons program and ended its sponsorship of terrorism in Europe. And third, unlike the United States, Europe was mostly spared the Iraq war’s direct toll (accounting for just 282 of the 4,804 coalition casualties, most borne by the United Kingdom) and therefore does not suffer from battle fatigue.
The reason for the European countries’ lackluster effort lies not in their war weariness or a miscalculation of their interests but in their vastly diminished military capacity—the result of deep cuts to their defense budgets. Put simply, Washington’s European allies no longer have the strength to conduct and sustain even medium-sized military operations.
Europe’s military spending plummeted after the Cold War, and the recent recession has prompted five consecutive years of further cuts in absolute terms. The defense budgets of most NATO nations now stand at their lowest point since 2001, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Currently, only Estonia, Greece, and the United Kingdom meet NATO’s mutually agreed-upon target for defense spending—defined as two percent of GDP—even though member states reaffirmed their commitment to that target at a NATO summit in September. In 2013, European NATO members (a group that includes Turkey) spent a combined $270 billion on defense, which is less than half of the annual U.S. defense budget. As a result, the United States will likely dedicate more money to Operation Inherent Resolve than the majority of European NATO states will allocate to security and defense in the whole year.
NOT ON TARGET
The Libyan campaign, which some observers have praised as an example of European military effectiveness and used to urge more European involvement in Syria, represents just the opposite. In fact, it underscores Europe’s declining military clout by demonstrating that EU countries can mount a successful military operation only under a best-case scenario. Cases that, like Iraq and Syria today, present greater strategic and logistic challenges quickly bring Europe’s vulnerabilities to the fore.
Several factors combined to make Libya the perfect staging ground for a European military intervention. First, the operation took place just off the European coast, well within the range of European air bases. By contrast, to strike ISIS targets, European planes must fly out of Cyprus, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf countries—a far more difficult task from the logistical and diplomatic standpoints. Second, Libya’s vast stretches of open desert between population centers made for an easier operating environment. Although western Iraq is likewise sparsely populated, ISIS strongholds such as the cities of Mosul (in northern Iraq) and Raqqa (in Syria) are not. Finally, unlike Qaddafi’s army, which had lost its edge long before the West intervened, ISIS fighters are well funded, well armed, and able to score impressive victories.
Yet even in that favorable situation, European countries found their logistic and intelligence capabilities stretched to the limit, forcing them to rely on U.S. forces. Noting these shortfalls, the 2013 edition of The Military Balance, an annual assessment of global defense capabilities published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, concluded that the Libyan operation highlighted Europe’s military decline rather than heralding Europe’s emergence as a capable security actor.
Furthermore, after the initial victory in Libya, it quickly became clear that the Western operation there was not a success. Libya is in a state of anarchy. Its capital has fallen to Islamist militant factions, its parliament has fled, and its oil production hovers far below prewar levels. Meanwhile, nearby European countries are struggling to stem the tide of refugees streaming across Libyan borders. As just one example, Italy plans to discontinue its yearlong search-and-rescue operation in the central Mediterranean, which has saved the lives of more than 150,000 migrants. Its place will be taken by the new Operation Triton, funded by eight member states and intended to “ensure effective border control.” In other words, only three years after they intervened to save Libyans from oppression, the European nations find themselves focused on keeping those same individuals out.
A whole array of other factors strengthens Europe’s reluctance to enter such conflicts in the future. The EU is saddled by debt (with an average debt-to-GDP ratio of 88 percent) and faces declining birth rates and graying populations, forcing governments to devote funds to caring for their retirees rather than modernizing armies. Further, growing political discord at home—including a rise of far-right eurosceptic political parties—makes European leaders even more reluctant to join costly international military endeavors. Even new threats, such as ISIS or an armed separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, are likely to pale in comparison with Europe’s other problems.
A SPENT FORCE
The disappointing European contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve offers several lessons. The tepid response highlights just how far European military capabilities have deteriorated. Even though some states have made modest increases to their defense budgets in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, these changes fall far short of reversing Europe’s military decline. The continued stagnation of European economies, dismal demographic trends, and lack of political will make the resurrection of Europe as a military power nearly impossible for the foreseeable future.
For that reason, the United States ought to reevaluate its future expectations of European military contributions, especially to out-of-area missions, and begin planning accordingly. With time, European states will become even less forthcoming with their military support. Washington’s European allies simply lack the capability to contribute in a meaningful way, even in response to worthy military missions or security challenges on their doorstep. Washington should thus focus on enlisting allies that are not only willing to join a coalition but capable of contributing resources and personnel to it.
Finally, the war on ISIS underscores Washington’s unique global position of leadership when it comes to defending the West. Its allies count on it to project power globally and even to come to their aid when they cannot defend themselves. For all its budget woes, political gridlock, and desire to pivot away from the world’s problems, the United States will continue to find itself doing the heavy lifting—whether combating ISIS or deterring a recidivist Russia—for the foreseeable future. Simply put, there is no one else.