Panetta’s speech in Brussels: The triumph of hard power

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European members of NATO must increase their defence spending in order to bridge some key capability gaps, despite the economic crisis and fiscal austerity, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says at a conference organised by Carnegie Europe in Brussels on October 5.

Leon Panetta delivered his first public speech to European audience after assuming office three months ago, and just before attending his first NATO ministerial meeting. The speech, perceived as an outline of US policy towards the alliance ahead of the 2012 Chicago Summit, covered NATO’s performance in Afghanistan and Libya and addressed the dangers that the current economic turmoil poses on allied military posture.

US Defence Secretary stressed that in times of strict austerity measures, the alliance must rely on its members even more. In his opinion, NATO countries do not need to choose between fiscal security and national security. Having said that, Panetta recalled his successful time in the Congressional Budgetary Commission as well as a strong confidence among US military commanders that the massive cuts in defence spending adopted by US Congress are achievable without a loss in country’s military power capability to protect its security and interests worldwide.

In this context, the Secretary addressed the recent operation in Libya, and appreciated European leadership in this endeavour. However, he identified key capability gaps revealed in the course of allied intervention. First of all, Panetta pointed at a dramatic shortage of well trained targeting specialists in the involved European militaries. This shortage causes significant difficulty in translating intelligence information into targeting data for airstrikes. Second, US official complained about insufficient amount of precision guided munitions in European inventories, making precision airstrikes virtually impossible. Then, he listed strategic shortfalls of such capabilities as refueling tankers, unmanned aerial reconnaissance and intelligence. All of these three categories of capabilities had to be delivered by the US, and had not it been the case, the entire Libya operation would be impossible to execute from the very beginning.

In conclusion, US Defence Secretary made it clear that in time of serious austerity measures adopted in Washington, the US will no longer be able to provide such assistance to its European allies. Accordingly, without a proper increase in European defence spending and bridging of key capability gaps, NATO will no longer be able to execute such missions as in Afghanistan and Libya. Most importantly, these words come from an official unanimously approved by US Senate, with a powerful respect in both US parties, and who strongly opposed the policies of Bush administration.

Panetta strongly signalized the effectiveness and indispensability of NATO, and described the Libya operation as a general success, made possible by effective burden sharing on the side of some non-American members of the alliance: the UK, whose airmen flew one third of all sorties, attacked 40% of targets and provided necessary helicopters; Italy, with its key role as the most adjacent state; Denmark, Norway and Belgium, who together flew more sorties than France; Bulgaria and Romania, who provided ships in order to monitor arms embargo; and – „as usually” – Canada. In words of the Secretary, NATO showed effectiveness of its command structure and expressed his conviction that NATO still remains the only alliance capable of executing such a mission, despite being committed elsewhere at the same time.

The financial aspect of NATO’s immediate future was the key dimension of Panetta’s speech. He argued that while Europe has experienced downfalls in defence spending of 2% in average in the last ten years, the US must limit its defence spending by $450 billion over the next decade. Every spending above the strict ceiling will be sequestered. At the same time European NATO allies need to boost their intelligence, reconnaissance, alliance ground surveillance and other key capabilities in order to be able to act in their immediate neighbourhood. In Panetta’s strong remark, NATO must not repeat mistakes made by the allies after previous major armed conflicts and hollow out its resources. Global threats and uncertainties are growing, while the US will no longer be eager to pay for its European friends’ security.

On the margin of Panetta’s speech, one can easily distinguish some hard power factors coming out more intensively at a time of economic turmoil. On one hand, it is not difficult to understand American position. The value of NATO in the eyes of many Americans is falling, more than 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. While caring of its ailing finances, America is reasonably trying to limit its international commitment and maintain its own powerful military. The defence industry is always hungry for more orders, with thousands of jobs at stake. Europe though, be it in the framework of NATO or the EU, considers military sector as a natural primary target for cuts and savings. At the same time, once its global ambitions grow, Europe finds itself unable to effectively project power in its immediate proximity without American assistance. As a senior American official remarked in an interview with Peter Spiegel for the „Strategic Europe” series by Carnegie Europe (14.09.2011), if the EU is not able to deal with an uncomplicated air campaign against a third world military such as Libya’s, it will never become a hard power. More and more people consider NATO as an increasingly useless relic of the Cold War, but at the same time these very people fail to come out with any formidable European alternative.

At least, as Carnegie Europe’s Jan Techau commented on Panetta’s speech, there is yet no talk in America about trading Asia for Europe. But nonetheless it is high time to face the truth that the US might eventually leave Europe alone. And even more, it is vital to acknowledge that despite the austerity, despite European postmodern and post-historic identity, despite EU global soft power posture, international politics is still founded on hard power. Only those capable enough can prevail.

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Paweł Bieńkowski

Absolwent Instytutu Stosunków Międzynarodowych UW (2011), studiował również na University of Kent w Canterbury (2008-9). Odbywał staż w brukselskim Egmont – The Royal Institute for International Relations, gdzie prowadził badania dotyczące współpracy UE z jej partnerami strategicznymi w dziedzinie zwalczania zagrożeń transnarodowych (2011). Reprezentant Polski na obchodach EU-China Year of Youth 2011 w Brukseli i Shenzhen. Praktykant w Ambasadzie RP w Pekinie (2010). Prezes Koła Wschodniego UW (2007-2009). Działa na rzecz popularyzacji idei Azji w środowisku akademickim. Członek Centrum Inicjatyw Międzynarodowych w latach 2010-2013.

1 komentarz on "Panetta’s speech in Brussels: The triumph of hard power"

  1. Follow up needed! Were there any reactions from the European side upon Pattena’s request/order?
    In mine point of view, Europe will simply behave as if nothing was said, ignoring the American calls to higher their defence budgets. Well, it isn’t obviouslyy a new strategy – It’s been happening already since the end of the Cold War. „Americans are from Mars, European from Venus”, as R. Kagan stated. The latter rely on the safety constructed and given to them by the former. Casually, this is paradoxically a fault of the US that Europe neglects today military power, preferring soft/civil/normative power or ‚structural foreign policy’, according to S. Keukeleire. Americans are ‚the bad world sheriff”. The EU can then play a role of the good one…

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