Europeans Are Unilateralists Too


May 17, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Wall Street Journal on May 17, 2002.

Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal, © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

When America's European allies complain about the putative "unilateralism" of the United States, it's hardly news. But rarely if ever does the United States return the complaint. It isn't entirely clear whether this asymmetry is because Americans are less aware of Europe's unilateralist proclivities or, while aware, simply pay little attention.

A case in point is the European Union's de facto unilateral abandonment of the European Security and Defense Policy and its designated instrument, the European rapid-reaction force. Has anyone else noticed? While ESDP and RRF remain labels that are thrown about in speeches here and there, the EU has evidently decided not to provide the considerable resources that would be necessary to turn the facade into a reality.

This action or, more accurately, decisive inaction, follows nearly a decade of fulsome rhetoric, innumerable conferences, white papers, communiques and negotiations intended to convert ESDP from a concept into a reality. The underlying concept was to provide a collective security capability for the EU that would put into effect the Union's emergent foreign and security policies.

Lukewarm Reaction

The initial U.S. reaction to ESDP was lukewarm, if not negative, because of the concern that an autonomous EU security establishment would weaken and perhaps sunder the NATO alliance. This concern was heightened by the fact that ESDP was being promoted at about the same time as an initiative was getting underway within NATO to upgrade and modernize the military capabilities of the alliance's European members. Hence, it was feared by some Americans that ESDP might distract attention and subtract resources from this Defense Capabilities Initiative within NATO.

But many within U.S. policy circles also took a favorable view of ESDP. While initially only a minority, supporters had become predominant by the time William Cohen ended his tenure as secretary of defense in 2001. The central premise of this view was that, in light of the European's sorry experience in the Balkans, European military capabilities and military technology were so badly lagging that perhaps ESDP could play a valuable role in upgrading them.

Moreover, as the ESDP discussions with the Americans as well as within the EU evolved, the capabilities envisaged for the rapid reaction force increasingly suggested that they could have a complementary rather than conflicting relationship to U.S. and NATO forces. Specifically, it was to be a 60,000-man force developed from existing European military units or by forming new ones. According to the "headline goals" of ESDP, the force would be "interoperable" with U.S. forces. It would also be rapidly deployable and equipped with advanced command-and-control and other high-tech military systems reflecting the so-called revolution in military affairs.

As a result, U.S. concerns about ESDP were replaced by the view that ESDP might be useful as a potential contributor to more equitable burden-sharing by the EU in international, "out-of-area" peacemaking and peacekeeping by the EU. The belief that ESDP would be beneficial to U.S. global security interests became the prevalent one.

While this altered perspective preceded the attacks of September 11, there were reasonable grounds in its wake to hope that an upgraded, high-tech, flexible, and interoperable EU force could, on balance, also be a valuable asset in the global war on terrorism. For example, if the EU force were a reality rather than a rhetorical figment, it could play a major role in Afghanistan, thereby contributing to its stability and reconstruction. Interoperability between the force and U.S. special and regular forces engaged in search-and-destroy operations against remaining al Qaeda and Taliban forces could thus be mutually advantageous.

At this point, enter European unilateralism. As the discussion of ESDP evolved over the past decade, much of the agenda dealt with concepts, doctrine, and policies. It seems little concrete attention was devoted to the costs that the rapid-reaction force would entail if it were to be seriously pursued. Preliminary analysis at RAND has conservatively estimated the military investment costs (i.e., development and procurement) of the force to be in a range between $24 billion and $56 billion—an amount about twice that of current annual military investment outlays in the four major EU countries—Germany, France, Britain, and Italy.

Limbo Zone

As the time approached to face up to the need to boosting defense outlays—especially in light of Sept. 11—the EU has quietly and unilaterally shelved ESDP. With the exception of the United Kingdom, Brussels has placed ESDP in a limbo zone from which it is unlikely ever to emerge.

Yet there may be some partly redemptive aspects to this exercise of European unilateralism. Maybe America's European allies will be less disposed to complain in the future about what they regard as instances of U.S. unilateralism if they are reminded of their own. A possible rebuttal by the EU that its abandonment of ESDP is strictly an internal matter, hence not properly construed as "unilateralist," is a flawed argument. Abandonment of ESDP has repercussions—what economists call "externalities"—that affect the interests of the United States, Turkey, and others, but consultations with these affected parties were not held prior to the unilateral jettisoning of ESDP.

And finally, perhaps those in the U.S. policy community who were initially skeptical that ESDP and its rapid reaction force would complement rather than conflict with NATO may have been right all along. The unilateral abandonment of ESDP, however, effectively removes this concern.

Charles Wolf Jr. is senior economic advisor and corporate fellow in international economics at RAND and a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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