ANALYSIS: US focus turns to Asia, Europe questions its defence future
By Niels C Sorrells Feb 4, 2012, 14:57 GMT
Munich - No European leader would willingly return the continent to Cold War conditions, when it was split in two by a border bristling with troops and nuclear weapons.
But now, having avoided a war, Europeans are finding that it's hard to be considered - at least in terms of global defence - boring.
It doesn't help the mood that much of the attention is shifting to China, where, unlike Europe, the economy is percolating and a series of potential skirmishes, either directly or indirectly involving the Middle Kingdom, is drawing much of the world's attention.
As if to drive home the point, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta arrived at the Munich Security Conference to tell the audience that, despite Europe's continued importance and plans to bring more US troops to Europe for training, the focus of a constrained US military would by necessity be turning to other regions, including China.
The news did not improve the continental mood.
'(Europe) will not be the loser continent in this debate between the United States and Asia,' said EU Internal Markets Commissioner Michel Barnier. 'We need to continue to improve upon our weaknesses and we're not done with this work.'
German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere urged the US not to overlook the values of a reliable, if staid, ally.
'That makes it a good partner. After all, you don't stay young and sexy for your whole life.'
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told her European counterparts not to worry. The value of the US-European alliance should not be measured in boots on the ground or in dollars spent, she argued, but in the quality of the relationship.
'I have heard some of the doubts expressed,' she said. 'But the reality couldn't be clearer.
'Europe was and remains our security partner of first resort. I would argue the trans-Atlantic community has never been more closely aligned. The breadth and depth of our cooperation is remarkable.'
But other leaders said it was becoming clear that European concerns about its loss of status - whether it be in terms of a weakening trans-Atlantic relationship, ongoing concerns about sluggish economies, or continuing problems in getting European militaries to effectively work together - are starting to hamper its ability to make its weight felt on the international stage.
'This continent has largely been missing in this debate,' said Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd during a panel on the rise of China and its effect on Europe and the United States.
'This continent of Europe has so much to offer in terms of experience,' he said. 'The danger I see in Europe is Europe progressively becoming more introspective and preoccupied with questions about its economy, and that Europe talks itself into an early political and economic grave.'
Bates Gill, the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said many of the concerns Europe has are out of its control.
'It's true that the NATO alliance is going to remain the most important political and military alliance,' he told dpa.
'But the US, especially under fiscal distress, is going to refocus its attention on the top priorities. As Panetta said, China and the Middle East.
'The mistake is thinking we can resurrect the alliances of the past.'
Still, there were some ways to at least partially shield Europe from a decline into obsolescence, speakers said.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a plea for European NATO members to improve their abilities to work together. That means simple matters such as more joint training operations and more complicated problems of making technology compatible across different technologies.
Some of the problem simply stems from a lack of focus on defence issues.
'For many European countries, the threat to their common currency may be their biggest worry ... their banks, not tanks,' noted conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger as he opened the event Friday.
But Gill remains sceptical as to whether Europeans are willing to reach into their pockets to boost their defence capacities, especially in the midst of an unfolding financial crisis.
'The European countries are certainly not going to support any measures investing in military strength to the detriment of what they view as a hard-earned peace dividend. There just isn't the appetite.
'I don't think anyone is facing up to it.'
And that, according to de Maiziere, might sum up the problem in a nutshell.
'Just leading isn't enough, you also have to know where you want to go,' he said.