Hard Power or Diplomatic Power? Europe Has Faded From the World Stage


Whether hard power projection or diplomacy, Europe’s role on the world stage might already have evaporated. This article analyses three aspects of a dwindling Europe in the global security realm.

“We are only spectators”

In a December 2023 interview with German daily Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, former German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who served in Angela Merkel’s cabinet, asserted that Europe played “practically no role” in the Middle East today, going on to say, “we are only spectators”. His comments came in the wake of Hamas’s terror attacks against Israel and the war in Gaza. While his assessment may be unsurprising to many, there is an argument to be made that when it comes to international security affairs his words are true not only for European nations’ influence in the Middle East, but for their influence anywhere else, too.

For the purpose of this security policy-focused article, the term “Europe” will be used to describe today’s member states of the EU and the UK. Furthermore, this article is concerned with their roles, whether diplomatic or military, in the security policy domain overseas, not least as it should be taken for granted that Europeans, amongst which four of the world’s ten biggest economies, are able to ensure security on their home continent.

Hard power projection

In 2011, Europe successfully made its case to the world for a UN Security Council resolution and a NATO-led no-fly zone over Libya. The stated goal was to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s air force. The only problem was that European NATO members ran out of ordnances for this limited air campaign within about 3 weeks. This included major European militaries like Britain, France, and Italy. They were also short on aircraft. John Pike, director of D.C.-based think tank Global Security concluded at the time, that it “has not been a very big war. If [the Europeans] would run out of these munitions this early in such a small operation, you have to wonder what kind of war they were planning on fighting”. Libya lies only about 440 kilometres from Sicily and over 6,600 km from the US. Yet, the US had to step in.

When Europeans do not have the power projection for reaching across the Mediterranean Sea, it does not seem unfair to question their global reach. What is needed for that reach is an expeditionary force structure. Different from the force composition during the Cold War, this requires lighter equipment suitable for air transport, a capable blue-water navy, and a stronger emphasis on wheeled rather than tracked vehicles. Up until 2014, and in some cases even 2022, Western European defence planners had gradually shifted towards these expeditionary forces and away form a focus on territorial defence. Perhaps no country placed greater importance on this expeditionary force structure than France. It therefore does not bode well as a case study for Europeans that France recently saw itself fail across the board in out-of-area theatres. This began with the withdrawal from Mali in February 2022. For political reasons, France’s Operation Barkhane, a counterinsurgency deployment, had to shift to neighbouring Niger. The Mali withdrawal was completed on 15 August 2023. Only four months later, on 22 December 2023, France had to withdraw from Niger as well. The odyssey continued and French troops relocated to Chad. Similarly, back in January 2023, Burkina Faso gave France one month’s notice to withdraw from its territory. By 19 February, all French troops had left. It was a combination of a lack of political clout and operational capacity that led to France departing the Sahel. It should be noted, however, that at the time of writing Germany maintains 140 personnel in Niger.

Now that Europe, understandably, refocuses on its own security and territorial defence, the prospect of Europeans allocating resources, and playing an active security part, outside their continent has further diminished.

An exclusive club

In our international rules-based order, hard power should only be deployed as a last resort. The entire UN system is designed to prevent that from happening. And the highest body of that system is the UN Security Council (UNSC). It is the only UN governing body whose resolutions are legally binding to the world’s countries. Out of 193 UN member states, only five hold the power to veto a UNSC resolution (UNSCR). For Europe, those are France and Britain. French presidents and British prime ministers alike frequently cite their country’s permanent seat on the UNSC as a key reason for why they are major powers. This warrants a look at how that power is being used.

France and Britain are often regarded as vital US allies on the UNSC vis-à-vis China and Russia. The three Western democracies form the so-called “P3” on the UNSC. This argument already presupposes that the two European nations are junior partners, and not power players in their own rights. However, readers might be surprised to learn that since the end of the Cold War the two have never once backed the United States with their vetoes. In total, the US vetoed 19 UNSCRs since 1991. Seventeen of those related to Israel/Palestine. One needs to go back to December 1989 to find when France and Britain last used their vetoes together with the US in any context.

While we just looked at the lack of support for US vetoes, an argument for a powerful international actor does not hinge on that actor merely taking on a supporting role for another one. And France and Britain holding different views than the US on Israel-Palestinian relations might be justified. For a fair analysis, one therefore ought to look at when the two use their vetoes in their own rights as standalone actors. This was last the case back in 1976 and 1972, respectively. Both occasions were in the context of decolonisation and concerned their own (former) empires.

Europe’s remaining domain? The honest brokers

A crowning achievement of any diplomat’s career may be to bring warring factions together and help bring about peace to where there was none. Or to prevent escalations of violence in the first place. For this, the world requires mediators and neutral venues to meet. Europe has traditionally been precisely that place. It was in Helsinki and Vienna where the two Cold War superpowers came together to negotiate the SALT treaties that were essential in reversing the potentially civilisation-ending arms race. Neither Finland nor Austria were members of NATO or the EU at the time and could serve as neutral venues. An entirely different example can be found in the Oslo Process of 1993: It sought to bring about lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. While that has evidently not materialised, the ongoing violence in the Near East can hardly be ascribed to Norway. In fact, the country continues to be a mediator for peace. Alongside Cuba, it is a guarantor state and facilitated the peace agreement between FARC and the Colombian government that ended decades of violence in 2016. And it was neighbouring Sweden that brought about the Stockholm Agreement in 2018, which led to a de-escalation and significant reduction in civilian suffering in Yemen. Similarly, Berlin was host to the Libyan peace process in 2020 and thereafter, which had comparable effects in the North African country.

Despite these successes it must be acknowledged that the three cases of Oslo, Stockholm, and Berlin are where today’s examples of the security diplomacy influence by the EU or UK outside their home continent appear to end. Instead, today’s neutral arbiters are often the same nations that are on the rise in other domains, be they economic or military. While the Oslo Process of 1993 was initiated in Norway, the baton of Middle East diplomacy has long passed on. The temporary ceasefire in Gaza from 24 Nov - 1 Dec 2023 and the release of Israeli hostages was brokered in Cairo and mediated by Qatar, Egypt, and the US. Likewise in the region, China brokered the détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023. And together with the UN, Türkiye famously negotiated the grain export deal between Ukraine and Russia in 2022. In regard to African security affairs, where we earlier discussed Europe’s waning role in the hard power domain, the historic peace treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia for which Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize was brokered by Saudi Arabia. The Algiers Process that attempted to bring peace to Mali, albeit unsuccessfully, is also worth highlighting. Most surprising may be that despite some clout and geographic proximity, Europe also played no role in negotiating a potential solution for the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Small European nations like Austria, Finland or Sweden used to be, and as mentioned above still are, able to serve as neutral arbiters between opposing parties. With Finland’s accession to NATO and that of Sweden awaiting, this might have become more challenging. As for the larger countries, it might be telling that the UK’s 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy placed a noticeable and proud emphasis on the country’s international convening power. It referred to the term five times. In the 2023 “refresh” document, all references to it had disappeared.

This article first appeared here: www.boell.de