Beginning in the summer of 2014, I was provided a unique opportunity to live and work in Paris for one year. From this home base, I was permitted to travel anywhere in Europe and Eurasia that I wished as long as certain provisions were met (the location had to be in my plan and I had to be allowed entry). I recently departed the City of Light. This is what I learned.
During my year in Paris, I was required to meet several objectives, to include familiarizing myself with US government policy and its formulation, learning about US military involvement in Europe and Eurasia, seeking experiences to interact with other national militaries, and increasing my understanding of the European and Eurasian regions through personal study and firsthand experience.
Ultimately, the experience was useful in helping me identify regional trends that I think will shape Europe’s future political and security landscape.
After one year, I am still by no means an expert in European and Eurasian political or security affairs. Yet, I think that I can can comfortably say I am more knowledgeable than before thanks to a combination of travel, practitioner insights, and a graduate degree earned the year prior. Ultimately, the experience was useful in helping me identify regional trends that I think will shape Europe’s future political and security landscape.
To understand Europe as a region, it must be remembered that Europe encompasses many nations that regularly exercise parochial interests. Although, many are hopeful that European nations will continue to move in a direction of greater solidarity. In the mean time, Europe’s main unifying body, the European Union (EU), is effective at creating some governing laws and policies but individual nations still retain a significant amount of autonomy and their national interests often trump the EU’s interests.
Many members fear what the precedent any departure could mean for the future stability and functionality of the union.
People and Money
Some of the issues that will continue to shape regional European political and security landscape are as follows (in no particular order). The recent tensions in Calais over migrants crossing between France and Great Britain are an example of one issue that will haunt Europe as a region for some time to come. Recent horrific tragedies have brought this trend to the forefront of current events. The path and final destination of the migrants and refugees who safely make it to the shores and borders of Europe is creating tension among EU members, especially for those on the southern tier like Spain, France, Italy, and Greece. For now, individual citizens and the larger European nations, like Germany and France, continue to accept migrants and refugees but the EU is struggling to find a viable option to stem the flow and prevent tragedy. A change to the Schengen Area is not out of the realm of possibility.
The stability of the union — whether it be the EU itself or the Euro economic zone — is also contested given the possibility of one member nation’s departure(Great Britain) and one Eurozone nation’s departure (Greece). For now, a “Grec-xit” has been averted and many hope (and just as many doubt) that Greece can turn around its broken bureaucratic and budgetary practices to prevent another scare. Likewise, many EU members fear what the precedent any departure could mean for the future stability and functionality of the union.
How Safe is Europe?
Social and economic issues are not the only regional challenges Europe faces today. Many European nations are faced with questioning their own security. An old foe, Russia, has again reared its head and stomped back into Eastern Europe. After several years of playing nice, the US and NATO were largely caught off guard and had to mount a counter campaign and reverse many policy initiatives aimed at cooperation with Russia and reset. Much of their positive effort was suspended despite expending significant political capital on befriending Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union and prior to the Crimea and Ukraine crises.
Finally, the scourge of conflict in the Middle East continues to worry European nations. Whether it is the threat of terrorism in their cities or the implications of efforts to train, equip, and support various regional and national security and militia forces, no outlook appears promising at this point to deliver stability to the Middle East.
Focus on France
For France, in particular, the US has found itself more often than not aligned with and in support of “our oldest ally’s” efforts to curb terrorism and build stability, especially in Africa and the Middle East. While France’s efforts likely relieve pressure from the US having to go it alone, it is necessary to realize that France’s interests in Africa mostly extend to its former colonies and to those nations with stakes in the French defense industries. So while it is certainly good for US security interests that the French are being proactive (i.e. operational deployments along with active diplomatic efforts), one must recognize that these efforts are limited to specific regions and countries. They are not meant to shape or influence large swathes of the continent. Some (or all) of this constraint is because of the limitations currently imposed on the French military.
Due to the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the government is requiring the military to conduct more domestic operations than originally planned in their budget. This unforeseen operational tempo has largely fallen on the French army causing it to stretch its budget all-the-while placing a higher burden on military personnel, units, and equipment.
Maintaining active sanctions against Russian businesses and some notable figures have been the most high profile efforts.
What is the US Doing?
On the policy front, the US has pushed for European unity on their collective relations with Russia. Thanks in part to Germany’s willingness to stay the course, maintaining active sanctions against Russian businesses and some notable figures have been the most high profile efforts. Sanctioning Russia, however, has proven difficult for many former Soviet bloc (now EU) countries that have maintained historical ties to Russia. Public and political support for Russia still lingers in parts of these nations. Russia’s robust energy network that supplies many European nations has also proven a difficult obstacle to overcome.
To foster an overall annual increase in the EU and US economies, the current US administration has pushed to increase trade with the EU in the form of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP). In the same vein, the US has urged NATO members to hold fast to (or work up to) spending two percent of their GDP on defense. Yet, many small NATO allies have tended to spend more on niche capabilities like Special Operations Forces than on modernization or mass. On the other hand, those on the “North Eastern flank,” like Poland, have recognized Russia is no longer a docile bear and have begun to modernize and prepare for worst case scenarios.
Where’s the Rub?
Is the US in a position to do anything about these trends? I would argue yes and no. On the security front, the US broke its gaze on the Pacific and realized not all was well in Europe after Russia annexed Crimea and incited (and supported) separatists to break apart Ukraine. This has lead to policy initiatives like the European Reassurance Initiative as well as an increase of US and NATO military operations in Europe. All of this to prove to our NATO allies (and to Russia and the world) that the US has not forgotten about its Article V commitments and that peace and the security of Europe still matters. In addition to these initiatives, the US should provide diplomatic and operational support to its allies and partners who have been more willing as of late to go beyond rhetoric such as aforementioned Poland and France.
On the contrary, the days of the Marshall Plan are long gone. On the social and economic front, the US does not have many uni-lateral options. The US can strongly suggest that Europe listen to its policy recommendations. It can also provide money and programs to support US and allied interests. But at the end of the day, the Europeans must buy in and commit to making their own path. If either the US or EU want to treat the causes of the trends highlighted above and not just the symptoms, the US should chose to lead through multi-lateral coalitions (or empower other European nations to do so).
These are just some of the recent trends spreading across Europe that I noticed during my year in Paris. It is by no means all inclusive and many of the issues and problems that these trends present are extremely complex with no easy solution in sight. Yet, because I was exposed to a wide range of European political and military issues, I think that I emerged more capable of understanding the region and able to contribute regional resolutions.
Jason James is a U.S. Army officer and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Post Graduate School with a Masters Degree in European and Eurasian Security Studies. He is a French speaker and a European and Eurasian specialist. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.