PARIS — In terms of defense, Europe has long lived in la-la land, a world made of cotton and kindness. Protected under the U.S. umbrella since 1945, it fed on the dividends of peace. Certain that social wellbeing was superior to matters of defense and security, Europe reduced its defense budgets for years. Now, Russia's imperialist ambitions and Islamist terrorism have woken up the continent.
On the advice of his military chiefs, French President François Hollande has stopped the constant tightening of France’s defense budget, which was threatening its long-term military model. Eastern European countries, starting with the Baltic nations, splashed out on defense thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Germany is starting to break away from its post-World War II disarmament process "thanks" to ISIS. Still, only a few European NATO members actually respect their commitment to spend 2% of their GDP on defense, though they vow to do so at every summit meeting.
This awakening is too little too late considering how serious the threats are on the Old Continent and in France. According to the French chief of defense staff, Pierre de Villiers, there are two threats: the return of powerful nation-states and radical Islamist terrorism. He warns that neither of these threats will diminish in the coming years even if ISIS is eventually defeated by the international coalition in the Levant.
A former colonial empire with nuclear weapons, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council engaged in many fights abroad, France is the only country aware of the need to fend off both threats simultaneously. Eastern Europe worries mostly about the rise of a powerful Russia. The southern part of the continent is anxious about the threat of terrorism. This gap between southern and eastern Europe leads to different judgments, which affects the entire bloc's defense.
While Europe ponders the necessity to bolster its defenses and judges the hierarchy of threat, the rest of the world is in a fast-paced arms race. To the east, Russia has been increasing its defense budget considerably these past few years. It's modernizing its nuclear-deterrence capability, developing its navy and reinforcing its conventional forces.
In a world that's growing more unstable and dangerous, all the biggest powers are investing substantially in military force. In Asia, these include China, India, Pakistan and Japan. North Korea leader Kim Jong-un announced on Dec. 31 that his country is now a nuclear power. Armament is also clearly underway in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf monarchies, in addition to Iran and all countries around the Levant, are reacting to the region's instability and chaos.
"We are at war," De Villiers declared recently. "And you can't win a war without an effort at war. It's the price to pay for peace."
Europeans have long forgotten that history can be tragic. The biggest shock this year might come from the other side of the Atlantic. "The continental drift that's pushing America toward Asia will accelerate under Trump," predicts general Vincent Desportes, a former director of the Paris-based École de Guerre. "It's thus possible that Europe will feel the need to regain its strategic independence. It will then have to organize the continent's defense."