Center for Strategic Decision Research


Challenges of European Security

The Rt. Hon. Michael Portillo
Former Secretary of State for Defense of the United Kingdom

I would like to look at the question of security in a context that goes beyond NATO and Europe, and also talk about maintaining global order. In particular I want to question the extent to which the foreign policies of NATO members add to or detract from our security.


The world is full of people who want political change and are willing to do violent things for it if we let them. They will do as much as they think they can get away with. They listen to what we say, but especially they watch what we do. Our body language is more eloquent to them than our rhetoric. Recently our body language has not given the impression of fixity of purpose.

NATO’s success has been founded on clarity of purpose, credibility of deterrence, and the certainty of our response. These three Cs could be summarized by a fourth: consistency.

But clarity, credibility, and certainty are more difficult to maintain now. How is it that Milosevic dares to do what he does in Kosovo? Because he doubts our willingness and ability to intervene. It took us years to get our act together on Bosnia and, despite NATO’s great achievements there, we have been talking of leaving ever since we arrived. Mr. Hans van der Broek, the Dutch Foreign Minister, made a wry comment recently. He said, “Some people claim we learned nothing from Bosnia. That is untrue. We learned that Milosevic has an iron will, and he learned that we do not.”

Is it a coincidence that Milosevic turned up the heat since we backed down on Iraq? I think not. NATO Allies were clearly at odds over Iraq. The distinction between the fire and the fire brigade was not obvious to everyone. In any case, no one believed that the U.S. was going to bring down Saddam. If that had been believed, there might have been more support.

The West now appears to be or can be portrayed as muddled and inconsistent. For example, we say we are prepared to put up in the case of Serbia’s internal affairs, but we wouldn’t even speak up over Chechnya. We go to the aid of Albanians, but not of Rwandans or Burundians. France tests nuclear weapons, but India and Pakistan must not. Saddam must observe Security Council resolutions, but Israel need not.

I understand the reasons. But we must also understand that we have lost moral authority. And when Western leaders are involved in scandal, we lose even more.

We seem to have taken our eye off the ball. In India the BJP won the election on a promise to test a nuclear bomb. What did we do to dissuade them? Nothing effective, anyway. As Kofi Annan said, diplomacy is nothing without weapons; but equally weapons are nothing without diplomacy.

Now we face, in my view, a greater chance of a nuclear exchange than at any other time in the last 30 years. That is a major blow to our security, and I feel we contributed to it by our neglect.

Vigilance is the price of peace, and when vigilance lapses, the consequences are serious. We have ignored Indonesia, too. A united, prosperous, and democratic Indonesia must matter to us if we are to see a balance of power in the Asia Pacific, which I believe should be a principle of our foreign policy.


As far as NATO is concerned, we keep saying, “European Security and Defense Identity: watch my lips.” Our adversaries watch our actions. We keep cutting our defense budgets. The U.S. is now below 4% of the GDP, the U.K. below 3%, Austria below 1%. I am one of the guilty men. I was both Budget Director and Defense Minister in my time. But because we have paid out a peace dividend, we now face a greater risk of war.

SACEUR’s panel was asked during this Workshop whether Turkey feels offended by its treatment by the EU. My answer to that is yes, and it will damage the Alliance. If one thing matters to European security above all else, it is that Turkey should remain pluralistic, secular, and pro-Western. The EU has shown by snubbing Turkey that other agendas matter to it more than security, and the world has taken note.

Meanwhile, we all know that part of the reason for wishing to develop a common foreign policy in the EU is to build the Union into a political bloc in the next century that is on a par with the U.S. and China. Those who dream of that goal believe that Europe should have a foreign policy distinctive from America’s—un-American or maybe even anti-American. The divisions in the Alliance over Iraq show what the effect of that would be on global order and our security.


I believe we must recognize the following: that if we are to deal effectively with Kosovo and Iraq and India and Indonesia, and whatever happens next, we need clear U.S. leadership, and we have to follow that lead. We may all have our occasional differences with the U.S., but in its foreign policy it upholds the values to which we subscribe. If we indulge ourselves in striking too many individual national or European postures, we weaken the efficacy of those values in the world.

I believe that the main threat to our security is not the strength of our adversaries but the weakness of our collective will. The world now doubts that we have the fixity of purpose, the moral authority, or even the means to impose global order. And for as long as we go on cutting our budgets, I doubt that we can prove them wrong.



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