It appears that the great experiment with counter-insurgency has run its course. In Afghanistan, a dramatic downsizing of the NATO presence is drawing near. In the United States, the so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region signals that the armed forces can return to the business of preparing to fight regular adversaries.

Recent doctrinal developments such as the Joint Operational Access Concept and AirSea Battle provide sufficient proof of this. Contrary to the doctrinal soul-searching after Vietnam, the pivot entails a rapid de-prioritisation of US land power. As John Mearsheimer predicted at the annual conference of the US Army War College, the rise of China completely reshuffles the cards amongst the different armed services.

But where does this leave the European Allies? As the National Security Agency must have found out already, the Europeans are not planning to join the Americans in the Far East any time soon. After all, they have a turbulent neighbourhood to watch out for. Hot spots such as the Sahel and the Horn of Africa continue to pose strategic challenges. It therefore seems clear that the capability mix European armed forces require must display more continuity than the one across the Atlantic.

In my new book, I argue that recent operations undertaken by European forces have given birth to a generic blueprint for designing military campaigns. This template is based on a combination of deterrence and capacity building. Tactical displays of air power and land patrols are designed to influence the cost-benefit calculations of local spoilers. At the same time, European trainers are engaged in reinforcing local capacity for maintaining security. The growing number of military training missions – including the one to be pursued in Afghanistan post-2014 – suggests that this template has lost none of its appeal. While it is not devoid of problems, it does offer a credible strategy for containing instability on Europe’s southern flank.

Budgetary constraints suggest that European military interventionism is likely to become more selective in the years ahead. While it is true that land-centric campaigns often become prohibitively expensive, European experiences in places like Chad and Mali suggest that limited means can sometimes suffice to have a strategic effect. More importantly, as European forces cannot pivot away from their neighbourhood, European militaries must invest in joint capabilities and retain the hard-won ability to shape events on land.

Alexander Mattelaer is the Assistant Director of the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and the author of 'How Afghanistan has Strengthened NATO', which appeared in the December 2011–January 2012 issue of Survival. His new book, The Politico-Military Dynamics of European Crisis Response Operations, has been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Back to content list

Politics and Strategy Homepage

The Survival Editors' Blog

Ideas and commentary from Survival editors and contributors

Latest Posts

  • Politics and Strategy
    10 April 2014

    Rolf Tanner: The sectarian moment

    Lawrence Freedman once described narratives as 'compelling story lines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn'. Such tales lay out the causes of a conflict, delineate friends and foes – along with their respective motivations...

  • Politics and Strategy
    17 March 2014

    Mark Fitzpatrick: Good luck to the Iran nuclear negotiators – they’ll need it

    Senior-level talks on the Iran nuclear issue resume in Vienna this week amid a generally upbeat mood. The parties are rolling up their sleeves, staffing their teams and getting to grips with key issues. Long gone are the trying talks of...

  • Politics and Strategy
    11 March 2014

    Mark Fitzpatrick: The touchy issue of Japan's plutonium

    A workshop in Beijing last week on strategic nuclear issues in Northeast Asia, which I jointly organised with the China Institute of International Studies, took an unexpected turn. As specified in the agenda, China’s plutonium reprocessing plans were duly discussed; but...

  • Politics and Strategy
    10 March 2014

    Jeffrey Mazo: Billions and billions

    On Sunday night, 9 March, a new 13-part science documentary series on US television was introduced with a video message from President Obama. The first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, was shown simultaneously on 10 networks in the Fox...

  • Politics and Strategy
    10 March 2014

    Samuel Charap: A deal to avert disaster in Ukraine

    Events in Ukraine are hurtling towards disaster for all involved. But there remains a glimmer of hope for a diplomatic solution that keeps the country whole. The contours of a potential deal are becoming clear. However, the actions taken by...