Soft power no match for hard reality

While defence budgets have continued to rise in China, Russia, the United States and India, military spending in the EU has remained stagnant over the last ten years. For El País, Europe’s global influence is now based on soft power, which cannot adequately replace the hard power of a real common defence policy.

Published on 27 July 2009 at 16:12

With the loss of 19 troops in three weeks, the month of July has proved to be an ordeal for British forces in Afghanistan. The high rate of casualties, most of which were caused by roadside bombs, has launched an outcry in London and prompted questions about the suitability of equipment used by UK soldiers.

The ongoing controversy in Britain, which along with France is Europe’s major military power, also raises a deep seated issue with regard to the EU and the overall capacity of European forces: Is it in line with Europe’s ambition to be a world power? A cursory examination of statistics on defence spending leaves no doubt: whereas all of the major world powers have significantly increased their defence budgets over the last decade, funding for the military in Europe has barely risen above levels that were current ten years ago. In short, European armed forces are growing weaker by the day.

There is no denying the facts. According to figures from the prestigious Stockholm International peace Research Institute (SIPRI): between 1999 and 2008, Chinese military spending rose by 194% in real terms, Russian spending was up by 173%, US spending increased by 66% and India added 44% to its military budget. Over the same period, funding for France’s armed forces rose by 3%, Italy added just 0.4% to its budget, and Germany cut spending by 11%. In view of its involvement in Afghanistan, military spending in the United Kingdom rose by 20%. We can therefore conclude that in Europe as a whole, spending has risen by just 5%.

“Military spending is stimulated by three basic factors,” explains SIPRI military spending researcher Samuel Perlo-Freeman. “For example, involvement in armed conflicts is a major driver of US spending, while the desire for global and regional power status has boosted spending in China and Russia, and strong economic growth generally facilitates increases in military budgets. European spending is not driven by any of these factors, and European countries are focused on other goals, which they do not believe will require more military power.”

It follows that Europe’s global influence is increasingly dependent on what is termed “soft power,” which relies on Europe’s importance as an economic and trading force, its cultural appeal and its attractive mixture of free market economics and social security protection. Many would argue that this is a positive development, but not everyone shares this view. The statistics show that competition remains intense in a world that is by no means as noble as the partisans of soft power would have us believe — a world where hard power counts as much as it did when Stalin, in reply to questions about relations between the Soviet union and the Catholic Church, ironically remarked: “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?”

For Yves Boyer, Assistant Director of the French Foundation for Strategic Research, “The fact that Europe has not matched the growth of other powers is a genuine concern. If we want to avoid the inevitable decline of Europe, governments must ensure the provision of adequate means in industrial, cultural, diplomatic and military sectors — even if that means going against public opinion. Governments have the right to act in the strategic interests of their countries.”

However, this is not the case. On the contrary, the last ten years have been marked by stagnation in spending, and estimates for forthcoming budgets are not likely to reverse this trend — especially in the context of the current financial crisis, which has resulted in reduced margins for manoeuvre.

“In spite of the slowdown in investment, which has limited the availability of equipment,” adds Yves Boyer, “Europe still has an advantage in terms of know-how. But even this technical expertise will need more resources if it is to survive, and the current downward spiral is a real threat to that.”

In evaluating the scale of investment required, we should bear in mind that with a combined population equivalent to the population of the US, and a combined GDP that is only slightly lower, Europe’s five main military powers — France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain — spend just 40% of the US defence budget on their armed forces.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that the simple addition of defence budgets does not reflect any political reality. Even if the election of Nicolas Sarkozy — and his bid to establish closer links with NATO and the United States — has prepared the ground for a common European defence policy, no real progress has been made. Europe’s military budgets remain fragmented in a world where nation states beyond its borders are increasingly well armed.

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