It was an American who spilled the beans. The reason why a majority of European countries are not participating in air support operations for the Libyan uprising is not because they disagree in principle with this strategy, but as US Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently pointed out, because their military budgets are too limited.

What the boss of the Pentagon said was true, but it was not the whole truth. Not only do many EU countries lack any real military capacity — they have relied on America since the beginning of the Cold War, and the disappearance of the Soviet threat has only led them to further reduce their military spending — but even the major European powers, even Paris and London, have only a very limited capacity to project military force.

France and Great Britain have the firepower to take charge of the Libyan operation, but as they are already committed elsewhere, and in particular in Afghanistan, they are hampered by dwindling stocks of munitions and a lack of men and equipment at a time when these problems will certainly be made worse by budgetary difficulties.

No doubt this news is likely to solicit a chorus of approval from those Europeans who believe that their countries have no business being involved in Kabul, Misrata or Abidjan. But if we look beyond the debate on the legitimacy of these military campaigns, it is clear that any power that deprives itself of military means is condemned to accept that it will have no political existence.

The United States is no longer willing to fund European defence

To be heard and carry weight in the international arena, it must have the necessary capacity to take action or react to events, and there are two reasons why this is particularly true for the European Union at the start of the 21st century.

The first of these is that even those Europeans who believed that military dependence on the United States was the best means of guaranteeing cohesion among the western powers were obliged to revise their position when the Americans did not lift a finger to provide support for Georgia in its conflict with Russia. In August 2008, the most Atlanticist Europeans suddenly discovered that America was prepared to prioritise the stabilisation of its relations with Moscow over one of its most faithful European allies and assert its own interest to the detriment of a solidarity that Europe had believed to be unshakable.

As a result, even Poland embraced the idea of a common European foreign and defence policy and this development was all the more timely inasmuch as it was immediately followed by the crash on Wall Street. Having already decided that it was not going to allow a minor European conflict to undermine its international interests, America was obliged to inject so much public money into measures to rescue its economy that even the Pentagon had to participate in the drive to shore up federal finances.

The United States is no longer willing to fund European defence, and there is hardly any reason to expect that this will change anytime soon. That was the perfectly explicit sense of Robert Gates’ message, which is already evident in the Americans’ deliberate strategy of leaving Europeans in the front line in Libya. Now that they have been forced to shoulder most of the burden of this operation, European states must be aware that they will have to increase military spending, especially in the context of the Arab Spring and a prolonged period of instability in a region that extends from Rabat to Sana’a.

Austerity likely to create significant political tension virtually everywhere

No one knows what the outcome of the Syrian regime’s bloody excesses will be, but the certainty is that it will have a chain of consequences for the rest of the region, and the same can be said for the fall of Gaddafi, which will herald radical change in the North African political landscape as soon as it happens. All of this is taking place within a stone’s throw of Europe which can not remain indifferent or expect not to be affected.

This is the second reason why European states can no longer ignore the need for spending on defence. However, at a time when budgets have been cut to the bone in most EU countries, and austerity measures, which have become unbearable in Greece, are likely to create significant political tension virtually everywhere, any plan that involves diverting funds from education, health care or municipal spending to the armed forces is simply out of the question. The only way for European states to increase their military capacity is to share resources and develop common programmes.

Great Britain and France have already begun to do this. In spite of its Atlanticism, even Great Britain has understood the need for such a step — and it is one that will also be necessary in fields other than defence. The countries of the EU will have to share resources and push for greater harmonisation of policies in every field. This is the lesson that we should learn from the remarks made by Robert Gates.

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern