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History’s barriers to European joint security

Dec 26,2021 - Last updated at Dec 26,2021

BERLIN — Ever since the United States began reconsidering its engagement in world politics, it has been withdrawing — strategically and mentally — from many regions and pivoting towards the Indo-Pacific, , its only real rival for twenty-first-century global leadership. In this new context, what should Europe aspire for? Can the European Union at least partly fill the resulting security gap?

When it comes to forging a common security and defence policy, the EU has been moving at a snail’s pace, even as its rhetoric has raced ahead. Despite experiencing four years of former US president Donald Trump’s Euroscepticism, there is still a yawning gap between European expectations and reality.

As one of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced regions, Europe certainly could afford to pursue its own defense and security strategy. European thinking, however, has not yet united behind that idea. Historical experience still has too much weight, as does the deeply held assumption that America will always step in if push comes to shove.

The main reason the EU remains paralysed — even incompetent — in matters of security policy lies with its two largest and most populous founding members, Germany and France. These two (relative) heavyweights have roughly the same strategic potential. Without them, practically nothing can happen in terms of security policy. Though a consensus among all 27 member states is required to make any real progress toward a common security framework, France and Germany are the only members with the necessary resources to turn a new vision into a new reality.

But old habits die hard. During the four decades of the Cold War, Western Europeans relied on a US security guarantee that entailed both a large military presence in the heart of Europe and a nuclear counterstrike capability to respond to an attack by the Warsaw Pact. Though a nuclear war would have reduced much of Europe to a pile of radioactive rubble, this arrangement nonetheless secured the peace in the region. Western Europeans contributed their own troops through NATO, but they remained wholly dependent on the US, even after the Cold War ended.

One problem is that the EU is not a federation with a single central government, but rather a confederation of sovereign states, each with a distinct historical character that informs its security policy. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Franco-German relationship. Both countries are so close to each other geographically and historically, and yet still so far apart on security matters — so much so that they can almost be regarded as opposites.

The centuries-long enmity between the Germans and the French gave way to cooperation and friendship only after Germany lay in ruins, occupied by the Allied forces and partitioned at the end of World War II. In the ensuing decades, Europe finally found peace and made progress toward deeper integration and a common legal system — all under the protection of the US security umbrella.

But history still looms large in French and German attitudes toward security policy. For its part, France still identifies as a great European power, owing to its nuclear weapons; its permanent seat (and veto power) on the United Nations Security Council; its overseas territories in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean; and its presence in Western Africa.

Germany, by contrast, shed its great-power ambitions after its two disastrous, failed attempts at world domination in the twentieth century. Regardless of which parties are in power, German governments do not use military assets and arms exports as tools of foreign policy, leaving it to the US to wield these hard-power instruments. Germany’s post-war pacifist U-turn continues to define its self-perception precisely because it yielded such positive results. By focusing on the economy, peace, and (eventually) orderly reunification, Germany has become a modern success story.

France can thank Charles de Gaulle for its continued self-identification as a great European power. Despite its defeat in 1940, post-war decolonisation, and a partial falling out with the US over NATO, France’s basic self-perception did not change. Germany, on the other hand, owes its post-war resurgence to a decisive break with its own history, for which it accepted unambiguous responsibility. The US security guarantee and presence was crucial for this reappraisal.

Yet, while contemporary France and Germany reflect the historical paths they have taken, they nonetheless are reliant on each other. Ultimately, their own national interests and the EU’s interests are aligned, because they will sink or swim together. There are no viable alternatives, especially if the US security guarantee for Europe is faltering.

In this context, developing a common security and defense policy will require enormous compromises between the various constituencies comprising the European family, whose radically different historical experiences and traumas will remain the biggest barriers to progress. No grand settlement will finally reconcile French and German perspectives. That process will reflect an ongoing — and perhaps perpetual — process of negotiation. That is the only way to make Europe work, especially when it comes to security policy.


Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

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