A Work in Progress: Demystifying the European Security and Defence Policy

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Since the December 1998 Saint-Malo summit between French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, we have been learning to live with a new acronym and a new reality: the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). This is not the same thing as the European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) of the mid-1990s, which was a technical, juridical, and short-term mechanism designed to facilitate the emergence from within NATO of a "separable but not separate" European military capacity, under the political direction of the Western European Union. ESDI's key feature was that it would use borrowed US assets to engage in crisis management missions in Europe's backyard--missions with which the United States did not wish to engage. By contrast, ESDP, as stated in the Saint-Malo Declaration, involves the European Union deciding on "the progressive framing of a common defence policy [for which] the Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so in order to react to international crises."

US citizens have had difficulty adjusting to this new reality for three main reasons. First, the European Union is not a nation-state and, according to all the rules of international relations since at least 1648, only states "do" security. Second, while the United States has been nagging the Europeans for 40 years to get their military act together, it requires some cognitive adjustment when the Europeans actually begin to do so--especially when the buzzword is autonomy. Third, generations of US theorists have been weaned on neo-realism and tend to see all power relations in terms of balancing, bandwagoning, and buckpassing. These may not be the most helpful concepts to capture what is actually going on.

The confused debate within the United States over what the ESDP actually is has produced four different schools of thought. The "yes, please" group embraces a variety of analysts who believe, for one reason or another, that ESDP will strengthen the transatlantic partnership. The "yes, but" camp includes official spokespersons from both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations who officially support the ESDP but only on certain conditions. The "oh yeah?" cohort features skeptics who refuse to believe that Europe is capable of emerging as a military actor. The "no way!" brigade sees the ESDP as a threat to US national interests. The proliferation of these different schools reflects several basic misunderstandings about the nature of the ESDP project.

What the ESDP is Not

Before outlining what the ESDP is, it is important to stress what the ESDP is not, because much of the US confusion proceeds from such misperceptions. First, the ESDP is neither a mistake nor an irrelevance, as hostile critics have suggested. It emerges from powerful forces arising from the end of the Cold War. In that sense, the ESDP was arguably inevitable. Second, it is not a "European army" in the sense that national assets would be detached from national command and permanently reassigned to a European command. There is no talk of joint European ownership of troops or weapons systems, nor (yet) any thought of developing a European defense budget. It is not designed for the territorial defense of the European space, which remains the task of NATO. Third, it is not comparable to the US armed forces and could in no way represent a challenge to US military preponderance. Fourth, it never has been intended, even by its strongest French advocates, to undermine or replace NATO. Since the early 1990s, France, which is heavily involved in alliance-coordinated peacekeeping activities, has been moving progressively back into NATO.

Fifth, and most important, the ESDP is not designed to "balance" US power in the structural realist sense, even if that term is stretched to include "soft balancing" as discussed in the Summer 2005 International Security. …