Europe: Soft Power Is No Power

05/13/2013 12:45 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2013
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It would be an understatement to say the European Union is going through difficult times. Most of its member states are stuck in an economic crisis that many Europeans blame on austerity measures enforced by the EU, perceived as a faraway, bureaucratic entity that has spun out of control and is out of touch with the concerns and hardships of ordinary Europeans. In many countries, Eurosceptic parties are booming in the opinion polls, calling for either a full withdrawal from the EU or at least a stop to giving the EU more powers. Pro-Europeans have a hard time defending their vision of a more integrated EU -- according to them, the only way for Europe to get out of the current crisis and be prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.

Most of these debates between emboldened EU critics and defensive EU supporters focus on economic policies and the need for a new institutional framework. What has always surprised me is that so little attention is payed to the necessity for the EU to better coordinate its foreign and defense policy. Of course, there are the usual arguments claiming that member states will never be willing up to give up their sovereignty on these issues or, when they do, nothing will come out of that because they won't be able to agree on a common position. Some important recent reports showed, once again, how short-sighted and out of date this line of reasoning is.

Before going into the justifications for new initiatives on this topic, let me demolish a popular misunderstanding. Mostly American critics of Europe always point to the continent's low level of military spending. So why bother with EU's defense policy, they say, if apparently Europe is not willing to pay for it? The fact is that "European countries collectively accounted for 20 percent of the world's military spending in 2011, compared with 8 percent for China and 4 percent for Russia," according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. The real problem is not the total amount of money spent. It is the incredible level of inefficiency.

That enormous gap between military spending and battlefield impotence needs to be bridged for several reasons. One was bluntly explained by NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a speech at the European Parliament last week: "We Europeans must understand that soft power alone is really no power at all. Without hard capacities to back up its diplomacy, Europe will lack credibility and influence."

Another was lucidly put in a recent article by several Brussels think tanks in which they stressed the need for Europe to find a new voice in a world in which power is shifting eastwards: "The EU should find a new purpose and narrative for Europe's global role, moving beyond past 'normative' or 'civilian' models in the search for a role which matches its real strengths and assets, principles and ambitions."

In "Europe's Strategic Cacophony", a policy brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Olivier de France and Nick Whitney made it crystal clear how big the need is for the EU to get its act together on foreign and defense policy and converge on some key propositions:

"[T]hat if Europeans are to continue to count for something in the world, then they are condemned to co- operate; that effective armed forces are among the assets they will need to deploy, as instruments of power and influence as much as for "war-fighting" purposes; and that maintaining effective armed forces will require biting the bullet of significantly greater mutual dependence."

Let's hope at least some of this thinking is taken onboard by EU leaders when they get together at the end of this year to discuss EU's defense policy. It is true that solving the economic crisis in Europe and restoring confidence among European citizens that there is light at the end of the current dark tunnel full of budget cuts -- and rising unemployment is the biggest challenge. But Europe will only be able to play a leading role globally if it manages to translate economic strength into a united and effective foreign and defense policy to safeguard its interests abroad and promote its unique model of cooperation in other parts of the world.