Prepared for the IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, March 11, 2002

The Role of Europe in the Middle East: An American Perspective

Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies

We need to be very careful about labels when we talk about issues like the role of Europe in the Middle East. To begin with, the West does not deal with the "Middle East," it deals with specific problems and contingencies that affect some 21-23 different nations that are located in an arc reaching from Morocco to Iran, Yemen, and Somalia.

There are at least four strategic sub regions: North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf, and the Red Sea and the Horn. Roughly two-thirds of the states in the Middle East have borders or coasts that extend beyond the region, and problems and contingencies often cut across regional boundaries. This was the case when Libya invaded Chad, it is the case with the conflict in Afghanistan and the Western Sahara, and there are gray areas like Cyprus where a geographically Middle Eastern state is a longstanding source of political conflict between two members of NATO: Greece and Turkey.

There also is no "Europe" in the sense that European states share a common set of interests and priorities. Immigration and illegal labor, like drugs, are a common problem  to some degree, but some European states have far more serious problems with these issues than others. The Mediterranean states necessarily are more concerned with developments in North Africa. There still seems to be considerable uncertainty in "Europe" as to whether Turkey is a European state, and Turkey has common boundaries with two major regional problems" Iran and Iraq.

 All European states are dependent on global trade and the flow of Middle Eastern oil imports, but again to different degrees. The Balkans are certainly part of Europe, but cannot be separated from the issue of Islam, and related problems in the Middle East. Looking towards the future, if Russia and the states of Southeastern Europe are fully recognized as parts of Europe, the already blurred lines between the Middle East and Central Asia will become even more of an issue, and other European priorities will be added to those of today's "Europe." Moreover, some issues are Atlantic, some primarily involve the US, and some primarily involve Europe. Algeria is not Saudi Arabia.

These points are obvious at one level, but not at another. There is a tendency to assume  that that the best solutions are common  solutions involving Atlantic or European unity. There are demands that institutions like NATO and the EU should be able to take common action, often without thinking out the consequences. Political leaders and  diplomats call for common consultation, often with an  implied veto by those to be consulted or an implied view that Atlantic or Europe coalitions are more important than regional coalitions. Military planners and strategists talk about the need for common capabilities and unified power projection forces without defining the contingency or the mission capabilities that are needed.

Given this background, the primary answer to the question of what role "Europe" should play in the "Middle East" is that is should play a pragmatic one in which different mixes of European states bring different mixes of capabilities to an issue and actively work towards viable solutions. There will be times  when action should occur on a NATO or EU basis; there will be many – if not most – times when it should not. There will be many times when action will  be Atlantic, and involve the US and a limited number of European states.

If "Europe" is to play the right role in the "Middle East," it will have to play the equivalent of three dimensional chess and will have do so with the equivalent of twenty or more players on the "European" side. There will be many cases where US action must focus on regional coalitions with Middle Eastern  states, and where planning and operations cannot depend on US consultation or common action that is "Eurocentric" in character. This is not an excuse for American  "unilateralism," but it is a reality that serious consultation only involves players in the game, not those who sit on the sidelines.

The Priorities for "European" Action: Looking Beyond the Military Dimension

Many  of the most important roles that Europe can play will not be military. Energy is a case in point. Both US and European forecasts call for massive increases in OPEC production, the vast majority of which must come from the Middle East and the Gulf. The Persian Gulf nations are expected to be the principal source of marginal supply to meet increases in demand. The US Energy Information Agency projects that OPEC production will be over 57 million barrels per day by 2020 (almost twice its 2000 production) in its reference case. It will be 45 million barrels in the high price case, and 67 million in the low price case (The forecasts of total world demand for oil range from about 125 million barrels per day in the low price case to about 115 million barrels per day in the high price case).

The sheer scale of the shift in global dependence on Middle Eastern oil exports –  and Europe like the US  is dependent on the global economy and global flow of oil and not today's flow of oil exports to meet national demand) is illustrated by the radical shifts that are predicted in dependence on the Persian Gulf. The EIA reports that the  historical peak for Persian Gulf exports (as a percent of world oil exports) occurred in 1974, when they made up more than two-thirds of the crude oil traded in world markets (The most recent historical low came in 1985 as a result of more than a decade of high oil prices. Less than 40 percent of the crude oil traded in 1985 came from Gulf suppliers. Following the 1985 oil price collapse, the percentage of Gulf exports began a gradual increase, but off in the 1990s at 40 to 50 percent when non-OPEC supply proved to be unexpectedly resilient.

The fact that 66% of the world's proved reserves are in the Gulf (25% in Saudi Arabia alone), and well over 70% are in the Middle East, has steadily changed these figures since that time. The EIA now estimates that Gulf producers will account for more than 45 percent of worldwide trade by 2002 – for the first time since the early 1980s. After 2002, the Gulf share of worldwide petroleum exports is projected to increase gradually to almost 60 percent by 2020. In the low oil price case, the Persian Gulf share of total exports is projected to exceed 67 percent by 2020. All Gulf producers are expected to increase oil production capacity significantly over the forecast period, and both Saudi Arabia and Iraq (assuming the lifting of United Nations export sanctions after 2002) are expected to nearly triple their current production capacity.[1]

The expansion of productive capacity will require major capital investments, and political stability or at least enough stability to allow the oil and gas sectors to operate. The tension, poverty and demographics of the Middle East, however, ensure that stable energy development, production, and exports will involve major problems with political stability,  asylum, terrorism, and immigration. This means that Europe must play a critical role in terms of trade policy, development aid, and energy investment, and the realities of world politics and the world economy are such that Europe must play a role that is far greater than its proportion of dependence on Middle Eastern energy imports.

The non-military role of Europe must extend into several critical areas of diplomacy, investment, trade, and aid:

The Priorities for "European" Action: The Security Dimension Outside the Middle East

No matter how successful the US and Europe are in dealing with the problems in the Middle East, they will still have to deal with the problem of terrorist and asymmetric attacks inside the US and Europe. The end result is that some of the most important security actions that Europe can take in dealing with the Middle East will have to be taken either in Europe or on an Atlantic basis. To be specific, the problems and tensions in the Middle East require the following steps on the part of both Europe  and the US:

The Priorities for "European" Action: The Military Dimension Inside the Middle East

The military dimension of Europe's role in the Middle East is not unimportant, but it should be clear from the previous analysis  that it is not the dominant role that Europe should play and  that NATO, the EU, and European capabilities should not be judged in terms of creating Eurocentric military coalitions or new European military power projection capabilities. There is a European tendency to act as if the fact that the US is now the "world's only superpower" in terms of global military power projection somehow sets the standards and priorities for strategic action, and that what the world needs is another "world's only superpower" in the form of Europe. It is far from clear that this is the case.

The Gulf War and the Afghan conflict have shown that even a limited military contribution from European states and NATO can have tremendous political  value. The long-standing  strategic relationship between Britain and the US in the Gulf, and  again in Afghanistan, has shown how important limited coalitions can be in showing Western solidarity and reducing the image that the US is acting in isolation and  as some form of "neo  imperialist." In  all frankness, the role of those European nations that choose to play an active role in US-led military actions in the Middle East has also helped temper an American tendency to overreact – or at least overstate. It has also often forced the US to at least pay far more attention to contrary views and different options.

At the same time, there really seems to be no practical prospect that Europe will either produce a true war fighting, power projection force capable of fighting a major contingency in the Middle East for at least the next decade, or any coherent NATO or EU approach to force modernization that will give more than select elements of a few national  military forces anything like parity with US forces. In spite of the endless exhortations for such forces (on both sides of the Atlantic), the desirability of the unobtainable is moot. Worse, it tends to distract both Europe and the US from what Europe can and should really do.

Barring an all-out war for the security of the Gulf, involving threats that do now not exist, "Europe's" key military roles in the Middle East will be to assist individual friendly states in dealing with internal and low-level conflicts as was the case in Chad, to help in peacemaking and national building exercise, and to assist the US  in adaptive coalitions where the US must – as was the case in the Gulf War and Afghanistan – give primary attention to regional alliances with Middle Eastern states.

NATO can play a critical role in  providing a  forum and infrastructure base for such European action, but it is important to note that such roles and missions do not require cohesive NATO or EU action or broad technological parity with the US. They do not require European airlift, air combat, naval, or amphibious capabilities on a par with the US. They do not require independent corps  and multiple air wing-sized power projection forces. Indeed, the fact that "mission unfundable" is "mission impossible" will often be irrelevant.

What such operations do require is a willingness to commit peacekeeping forces to missions that involve casualties. In means rethinking a large number of current arms  sales efforts to looking beyond profiteering and transform them into serious military and security assistance efforts with equally serious efforts to at least reduce the endemic corruption and dishonesty in European arms sales to the American level – which is scarcely beyond reproach. It means taking a truly serious look at the need to expand the role individual European states play in helping Middle Eastern states improve their intelligence and internal security operations.

At the same time, it means rethinking individual national force plans so that the emphasis on grandiose and unobtainable levels of force improvements are replaced with practical  efforts to develop force elements that can be projected into the Middle East on a national level in a form that is fully interoperable with US and regional forces and that does not end up in diverting more US C4I/ISR/BM/BDA (command, control, communications, and computer/intelligence and strategic reconnaissance/battle management/battle damage assessment) and logistic resources than the contribution is worth.. The fighting in Afghanistan has shown that properly trained European special forces can be worth at least as much as  heavy armor in some contingencies. The Gulf War showed that the European lead in mine warfare forces could be of critical strategic value.

While the Gulf and Afghan Wars have shown the value of extremely expensive US satellite and UAV, command, control, communications, and computer; intelligence and strategic reconnaissance; and battle management systems that Europe cannot afford to duplicate, they have also shown that properly configured modern European attack aircraft can fight very effectively using US capabilities if they have the right secure communications, data links, and laser or GPS guided weapons. In short, if the issue is how to play a useful role – rather than achieve technological parity – there are affordable solutions to creating many needed mission capabilities.

More broadly, if European nations are willing to focus on the military art of the fundable and the possible, there are three other areas they need to examine in terms of both potential military missions in the Middle East and supplementing them with new approaches to arms control and counterproliferation:

More broadly, however, the US and Europe should at least consider cooperation in creating a form of extended deterrence and military retaliation against any nation that uses weapons of mass destruction against a nation without such weapons, or aids or tolerates a terrorist movement that uses such weapons. At least on the part of the US, this should involve the tacit threat of escalating to the use of nuclear weapons. Arms control and well-meaning security agreements are probably not going to be enough. Limiting the worst forms of asymmetric warfare and terrorism are going to take sticks as well as carrots.

The Need for Difference, Disunity, and Dialectics

In summary, the most useful role that Europe can play in the Middle East is to not be the United States, to not seek an impossible European or Transatlantic consensus,  and to not attempt to create European military capabilities that are broad copies of American forces. Far too much of the dialog on Europe's role in the Middle East either focuses on how to critique American policy rather than refine European policy or on how to replicate US military capabilities or build impossible European institutions rather than determine what European capabilities are both affordable and needed. As we say in English,  the eternal lingua franca of Europe, vive la difference!

[1] EIA, Annual Energy Outlook, 2002,, January 29, 2002.