European soldiers, often mocked by American analysts in recent years, are back in fashion. France’s intervention in Mali has inspired commentators on both sides of the Atlantic to wonder whether, in the words of Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, “the European Union could become the world’s policeman.” French President François Hollande’s willingness to go to war excites those who believe the Obama administration is too cautious in its use of military strength. Philip Stephens of the Financial Times observes that “Europeans have caught the interventionist bug just as the U.S. has shaken it off.”
There are some obvious problems with this sort of commentary. As Stephens points out, European countries simply lack the military means to lead truly large-scale interventions. The U.S. still has 15 times as many troops in Afghanistan as France has in Mali.* And, as Applebaum notes, the political turmoil inside the EU makes it hard for the bloc to act effectively abroad. Germany does not share France and Britain’s interest in campaigns in Africa. Other EU members like Poland are also unenthused.
But historians reviewing the past two years will face a conundrum. Why have some EU states, led by the U.K. and France, embarked on new wars in a period of acute financial uncertainty and defense cuts?