A new study on European defense capabilities highlights a dilemma: As the US pivots away, the onus is on Europe to do more globally. But the obstacles are big: defense cuts, public skepticism, and political reluctance.
The fretting and prevarication over the crises in Libya and Syria showed that the appetite - both public and political - for intervention is fading across the western world. So there was something defiant about the speeches made at last week's Munich Security Conference on the future of foreign "engagement."
While President Joachim Gauck appeared to turn all of Germany's old historical truisms on their head by suggesting that the Bundeswehr should not be kept out of international conflicts "on principle," US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to conjure a new sense of purpose: "So as a transatlantic community, we cannot retreat and we must do more than just recover - all of us," he told the conference. "What we need in 2014 is a transatlantic renaissance, a new burst of energy and commitment and investment in the three roots of our strength: our economic prosperity, our shared security, and the common values that sustain us."
Who is supposed to lead this sugar-rush of foreign engagement is less clear. Kerry's language - at least on the surface - was inclusive: "In order to meet today's challenges both near and far, America needs a strong Europe, and Europe needs a committed and engaged America," Kerry said. "That means turning inward is not an option for any of us. When we lead together, others will join us. But when we don't, the simple fact is few are prepared or willing to step up."
However, despite the conciliatory tone, experts say the message was more than clear.
"This 'transatlantic renaissance' was a polite way of saying, 'Time for you Europeans to grow up and look after things in your own back yard,'" said Nick Witney, former British diplomat and policy fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Squaring the circle of defense cuts
But what do those words amount to when Europe is has so many economic problems that "turning inward" seems like a natural problem? The UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on Wednesday released its "Military Balance" - the think tank's much-anticipated annual assessment of the world's military capabilities and defense economics, whose introduction summed up the double bind that Europe finds itself in: "Defense spending is shrinking in European countries at a time when the reorientation of US defense policy towards the Asia-Pacific places a greater share of the burden for international security on them, particularly in Europe's fragile vicinity to the south and the east."
"How does it all fit together, right? Well, it doesn't - that's probably the bottom line at the moment," said Henrik Heidenkamp, former strategy advisor at the German Defense Ministry and research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. "Gauck's speech must be seen as a critical voice from the back, if you will - a reminder of what the state's responsibility is and should be."
There's only one way, as far as Heidenkamp is concerned, that Europe can bring Gauck's vision to life: "The only way it can fit together is to make cooperation among European nations work," he told DW. At the moment however, "you still have a lot of ring-fencing, national prerogatives, which make it difficult."
2014 - the crunch year
"That implies tough decisions," added Heidenkamp. "Which parts of our capabilities are willing to pool and share? Where are willing to give up sovereignty and transfer it to a European level? That implies military industrial capabilities too, by the way. If you don't do this properly you're not much of a valuable player in this regard."
There are plenty of signs that 2014 will be a crucial year for military cooperation. NATO's mission in Afghanistan is coming to an end, and the organization's summit in the UK in September this year will provide a good opportunity to stop and re-think the point of such missions in the future. Witney thinks that Afghanistan was really more about diplomacy than nation-building.
"The Afghanistan engagement was an aberration from the point of view of all the Europeans," he told DW. "Each and every one of us went there with no enthusiasm in our hearts for doing anything for the sake of the Afghans, and with no belief that this was really related European security. The publics were never convinced, and rightly so. The driving force for getting into Afghanistan was relations with Washington."
That all needs to change, said Witney: "The temptation is to pull the blanket over our heads - say, 'the Arab Spring has gone wrong, what can we do about that? Precious little, so let's just stay aloof.' I think that's terribly short-sighted for a continent such as us - with expensive tastes and strong views about matters like human rights, democracy, and genocide."
Winning round the public
Even if more active engagement is in everyone's interests, the problem, of course, is convincing the European people - skeptical of any kind of foreign intervention at the best of times. "The elite politicians need to bring security and defense policy onto the agenda, they need to talk about these things," said Heidenkamp. "The issues need to be explained much more than they have been done before."
At the same time, Heidenkamp said it would be unwise just to dismiss public objections: "The military instrument must be incorporated much more efficiently into a broader whole-of-government approach, particularly at the European level. If the public understands that engagement in foreign conflicts is not first and foremost a military task, but the task of the whole government, then they will appreciate the necessity to engage in conflicts before they go as wild as they have done in Syria, for example."