Last week, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta came to Europe to say “goodbye and good luck.” The U.S. is switching its strategic focus to the Pacific; in the future, Europeans will have to do more fending for themselves.
The coincidental eruption of the Mali crisis underlined Panetta’s point. The U.S. found itself legally precluded from intervening because of the overthrow of the democratic government by the Malian army in March. So in this North African crisis, the U.S. would not even “lead from behind” as it had in Libya. Any intervention in Mali was strictly up to the Europeans.
Fifteen years ago, after its shameful failures in the Balkans, the European Union resolved to equip itself with the capacity for collective crisis-management operations, particularly in its own backyard. Relevant institutions were set up in Brussels, and a roster of rapid-reaction “battle groups” was created. A score of missions has since been mounted, predominantly in Africa but also in the Balkans and Afghanistan. But almost always the EU has contented itself with coming in behind, doing a monitoring and training job once the situation has been stabilized by someone else, usually NATO or the U.N. Most of the missions have been civilian, involving police, border managers and so on. None of the battle groups has ever been deployed.