Europe Needs to Cure Its Military Malaise!

Jyri Raitasalo is Military Professor of War Studies at the Finnish National Defence University. The views expressed here are his own.

Western states have redefined their take on international security, defence and the very logic that underscores relations between states within the international system during the post-Cold War era. When the Berlin wall fell, and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the West practically dropped the ball on deterrence and defence. As a consequence, many European states have virtually decimated their military forces. During the post-Cold War policy of cashing-in “the peace dividend”, European defence budgets have declined, troop levels have been axed and military capabilities to deter – and if necessary to fight – large-scale conventional wars have atrophied.  This post-Cold War era military malaise has infected many European states in particular, but the symptoms of it have become apparent also in the United States, where near-peer competitors or revisionist powers have become – once again – the gold standard against which to evaluate the needs and requirements of long-term military capability development. The good news is that there is an antidote for this military malaise, if properly digested. The bad news is that it will take more than a decade to overcome this disease – even in the best of circumstances.

By Jyri Raitasalo
Expert, Western armed forces

The Western post-Cold War era defence outlook has been based on two fallacies that together have caused the predicament that Europe as a military actor faces today. First of all, many Western states have held overtly optimistic views on the possibilities to redefine the rules of the international security architecture on their own terms. Secondly, Western states have resorted to the use of military force in many cases where the possibilities to succeed have been meagre or non-existent. In other words, the West has relied too often and too much on the military instrument to solve politically motivated problems. As a consequence of these fallacies, many Western states – mostly in Europe – lack the military capabilities that are needed in the contemporary and future security environments.

For more than two decades Western states have developed military doctrines, capabilities and ethos in large part unsupportive of the contingencies that Western militaries might face in a matter of months or years. Simply put, the guidance for long-term defence planning within the West has been laid on shaky foundations for almost thirty years. This will haunt the West for years, if not decades, as defence capability development is a long-term endeavor. This problem is most serious for European states, which have outsourced much of their military security to the United States.

Redefining international security on Western terms – unsuccessfully

Concerning the first Western defence policy fallacy, the “winners” of the Cold War have misread the possibilities to rewrite the rules of the international security game. Very early on – starting in the early 1990s – former adversaries and enemies were engaged and many of them have since been merged into the Western security community. On two crucial accounts the policy of engagement and enlargement has failed – concerning Russia and China. While it was easy to foster the spirit of engagement and integration vis-à-vis smaller states in Central and Eastern Europe, it was much more difficult to change the ground rules of international politics by trying to overcome or bypass the traditional power game between great powers.

For the West, much of the “threat vacuum” caused by the demise of the Soviet Union was filled with the “new” threats that could hamper the maturation and development of the emerging globalizing world system that was witnessing an American “unipolar moment”. It was believed – and declared – that the interdependent globalizing world fosters cooperative security and non-zero-sum thinking among key actors and stakeholders of international politics – states.

In fact, highlighting the effects of globalization on international security became an instrument of Western policy – a narrative strategy to get rid of “old fashioned” power politics, political rivalries and spheres of influence thinking among states in general and great powers particularly. Of course, the narrative on globalization has been mostly a Western one, not only describing the emerging world order, but also prescribing one. After all, “a New World Order” was supposed to emerge out of the ashes of the Cold War as mankind was supposedly witnessing the “End of History”. It was a worldview where state-on-state wars – and especially large-scale wars between militarily advanced great-powers – were fading into the dustbin of history. From then on, it was supposed to be all about “new wars”, which threatened the stability and steady functioning of the emerging globalizing world. And others – even Russia and China – were called upon to join the fight, whether under the auspices of peace-keeping, military crisis management, or counterinsurgency operations.

Even though the narrative on globalization picked up speed at the same time as dust was starting to settle from the end game of the Cold War, it was only one perspective through which to assess and evaluate the post-Cold War international security environment. And it was a dominantly Western approach. From the perspective of China and Russia, globalization offered ways and means to ameliorate their economic situation and thus facilitate the development of political power and military capabilities over the long run. However, cooperative security within the globalizing world system represented only one side of the coin to the very actors that had to deal with the emerging rules of the international security game described and defined mostly within the Western security community under the political, economic, cultural and military preponderance of the United States.

Western myopia for the other side of the coin – great-power politics and balancing Western (read: American) power – continued for twenty-some years. It was not corrected by the Russian President Yeltsin before the Kosovo war (1999) when he noted that “I told NATO, the Americans, the Germans, don’t push us towards military action… Otherwise there will be a European war for sure – and possibly world war.” Nor was this myopia affected by the speech of President Vladimir Putin in Munich Security Conference in 2007, or the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Great-power challengers and the threat of large-scale war in Europe or Asia were suppressed from most Western defence planning assumptions until 2014. This was mostly due to political expediency as the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had morphed into quagmires that threatened the political legitimacy and military effectiveness of many Western states engaged in expeditionary warfare out-of-area. For many within the Western political stratum it gradually became a question of national pride and military credibility as well as personal political survival not to exit from Afghanistan or Iraq on unfavorable terms. For years sunk costs – in blood and treasure and also political capital – have defined Western outlook to these crises more than strategic security interests.

Overreliance on the military

The second Western defence policy fallacy is related to the militarization of security policy since the Cold War’s end. Many non-military security issues have been dealt with Western armed forces. The militarization of human security (humanitarian interventions) and counter-terrorism (War on Terror) are the most explicit examples of transferring non-military security issues to the military domain. This did not happen overnight however.

For the last twenty plus years, Western states have been redefining international security, but not under the conditions of their own choosing. Right after the Berlin wall fell, international events forced the West to respond – in one way or another. Starting with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, followed by humanitarian catastrophes in (post-Gulf war) Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia and Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone to name some “events”, Western post-Cold War defence outlook has grown and matured. Fueled by the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 in the United States and the following Global War on Terror, The US-led Western approach to international security continued to change relying even more on the use of military force actively.

As practically all inhibitions to the use of military forces were lifted with the demise of the Soviet Union, the avenue for increased military activity out-of-area was possible. With the emergence and strengthening of the Western narrative on globalization, military activity “out there” became called for – it was a logical response to a worldview of increasing interconnectedness and interdependence and the need to manage “new threats” everywhere – as their consequences supposedly influenced Western security and as boundaries allegedly have become porous.

Time and again, Western militaries were called to manage the emerging post-Cold War security environment. The small(er), all-volunteer military forces were easily sent to do something when crises hit the globalizing international system. And the post-Gulf war notion of an ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) facilitated sending militaries in expeditionary operations. After all, the RMA was purported to cause foundational changes in military effectiveness by removing the significance of military mass and replacing it with good situational awareness, precision guided munitions, better force protection and other benefits of high-tech warfare.

Starting in the early 1990s, the Western way of war has moved into the air domain. Practically any military operation – war – that the West has prosecuted has relied on air supremacy provided by the United States. With the “revolutionary” possibilities to lower the level of collateral damage and civilian casualties in any military operation, the avenue for more frequent use of Western military force was opened. But as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – and the short air operation over Libya –  have showcased, even the best of military-technical capabilities does not easily translate into politically favorable outcomes. Despite the fact that this became obvious no later than 2005–2006, the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq have continued to this day.

Humanitarian interventions, counter-terrorist operations and counterinsurgency operations have consumed a lion’s share of Western strategic energy during the last twenty-five years. They have sucked the air out of the Western strategic discourse and degraded the possibilities to devise meaningful long-term defence policies and military capability development programs. This has become painstakingly clear in the aftermath of Russian invasion of Crimea, its proxy war in Eastern Ukraine and the way of war Russia is conducting in Syria together with the Bashar al-Assad regime. Similarly, the emboldened actions of China in the East and South China Seas – together with its long-term military capability development project – have revealed the hollowness of many Western armed forces vis-à-vis the great-power approach to international security that China and Russia are advocating.

Prescription for Europe

Europe is not a military actor per se, but a melange of almost 30 states which share a bundle of strategic interests and have built their collective military credibility within the context of NATO. For more than twenty years European states have spent too little on their militaries. While doing so, they have – together with the United States – fostered an expeditionary military mindset and developed their military forces according to the principle of multinational out-of-area military operations. For almost 30 years the yardstick for military development, procurement, exercises and doctrine development has been peace enforcement, crisis management, counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency operations. “Big war” – as an approach – has been absent. And according to the long-term logic of military capability development, it will take at least a decade – most probably something like 20-30 years – to reinstate lost military capability and to draft needed policies and doctrines as well as to foster military ethos related to the needs of European and Western security in a world of great-power rivalries.

The military capabilities that most European states can muster today are not designed to function well for deterring a great-power adversary or defending national or alliance territory. Many European militaries are puny capability-wise and due to long-term financial neglect (so-called austerity policies) their ability to fulfill alliance commitments is questionable. And to make a bad situation worse, many of these militaries have been focusing on the wrong problem since the early 1990s.

The problem of post-Cold War Western defence outlook is well expressed by the way that Russian action in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine has been analyzed and portrayed. Rather than frame Russia’s actions as the use of brute force, many Western analysts and pundits have focused on the so-called hybrid warfare, fake news, “maskirovka”, “troll armies” and information warfare by Russia. It seems that many analysts have lost a meaningful vocabulary for traditional predatory great-power actions that are military in nature. Much on the focus has been on the way that Russia manipulates Western narratives by buying Facebook ads and posting untrue content on social media. As if any of these had some relevance on Western relations with Russia – or Ukraine’s relations with Russia.

As President Trump has forcefully noted – in a lineage of several Presidents of the United States – it is time for European states to take more responsibility for deterrence and defence in Europe. The ongoing global power shifts will inexorably require Europe to take more responsibility military-wise. The time of American military welfare on rich Europe will be over in the foreseeable future. Before this happens, it would be advisable for European states to possess military capabilities that are needed in the emerging world of great-power competition and potentially even great-power war. Rebuilding lost capability will take time. It would better start today – as we do not now when the next strategic surprise will confront us. Most likely, it is already in the making.

The military malaise that has infected many European states is curable. So far it has weakened the ability of European states to deter aggression and if needed to thwart large-scale military threats. What is needed – after almost three decades of “cheap defence” and “small war” approach – is time, resources and perseverance to overcome this disease. European states can – individually and collectively – be credible military actors in the future, if so desired. One way to do so would be to:

  1. Focus! Most security issues are not military issues. Military force should be used with restraint and as a last resort. Deterrence and defence are tasks that armed forces can actually perform successfully. Dealing with e.g. terrorism, large-scale immigration or nation-building are not military tasks. They are tasks for other authorities – and should be kept that way.
  2. Stop accentuating “fake news”, “information warfare” and “hybrid warfare”! Deception, propaganda, narrative manipulation et al. are normal tools of statecraft that states and other actors have used for centuries – and continue to do so. Ways to counter these are mostly non-military.
  3. Produce a clear executable plan of defence development with a price-tag! Many past declarations, action plans, final communiqués and roadmaps have proved to be politically correct declarations and unrealized promises that were never intended to be executed.
  4. Spend more money on defence! 2% of GDP on defence is a good start, but after two decades of underinvestment, it will not suffice for most European states. “Smart defence”, “Pooling and Sharing” or cooperative procurement will not compensate for the lack of needed financial resources.
  5. Invest more on procurement and force size! High-end warfare requires mass as well as technological sophistication. Units below the brigade size do not count much – even if they are networked. The time of “niche capabilities” is over.

All the above-mentioned points are applicable to NATO. But they are intended – first and foremost – to describe the needed national decisions and actions within Europe. The root causes of the European military malaise are located at the national – not alliance-wide – level. Therefore, effective cure requires addressing these national level problems.

Jyri Raitasalo is Military Professor of War Studies at the Finnish National Defence University. The views expressed here are his own.



LtCol, Dr.Pol.Sc. Jyri Raitasalo is Military Professor of War Studies at the Finnish National Defence Univerisity (FNDU). He holds the title of Docent of strategy and security policy at the FNDU.
During his latest assignments, Jyri Raitasalo has served as senior staff officer (strategic planning) at the Finnish MOD, the Commanding Officer of the Helsinki Air Defence Regiment (Armoured Brigade), Head Lecturer of Strategy at the Finnish National Defence University, ADC to the Chief of Defence and Staff Officer (strategic planning) in the Finnish Defence Command (J5). Jyri Raitasalo is a called member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.

Jyri Raitasalo is a highly valued member of the editorial expert team at Defence and Intelligence Norway.