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A major shift in the defense policy of Europe’s great powers

A major shift in the defense policy of Europe’s great powers

The security situation in Europe is changing at a rapid pace, and many European countries have begun to reform their security and defense policies, including Sweden. In the report Rethinking European Military Engagements Abroad – The Strategic Trajectories of the United Kingdom, France and Germany FOI researchers Eva Hagström Frisell and Emma Sjökvist examine how change is unfolding in three European superpowers.

The researchers went through the strategy and policy documents, but also interviewed researchers and responsible officials in the countries, because the developments are so fast that the documents are easily out of date.

– In Sweden, we have built our defense capacity around cooperation with other countries in international initiatives, and then it is interesting to see how these big countries are now changing their policies. Eva Hagstrom Frisell, head of research for security analysis at FOI, says this could affect future requests for Sweden to participate in international initiatives in the event of crises and instability in the immediate area.

Degraded security status

The transformation of European countries in security and defense policy began in 2014 with the deteriorating security situation in Europe and global superpower competition.

– But it was only after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that the need for a new direction received political attention at the highest level and financial investments were made, says Eva Hagström Frizel.

The researchers note that the UK and France and Germany are increasingly focused on regional and collective security and have reduced their participation in international initiatives. An example is Mali, where all countries previously had major contributions but have now withdrawn.

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According to Emma Sjöqvist, an analyst in the FOI’s Department for Security Analysis, many of the earlier international efforts are seen today as failures.

– For example, the effort in Afghanistan and Mali. In the countries we studied, that reduced the political will to engage in major multilateral initiatives, says Emma Sjöqvist.

Converts to collective security

Britain is trying to figure out its role after leaving the EU, and wants a global focus in its foreign and security policy. At the same time, the country has squeezed its resources and reduced the number of defense capabilities, so ambitions have not fully matched the conditions, researchers say.

Of the three countries, change is the fastest in France.

– where they are clearly reorienting their defense forces towards more intensive warfare rather than focusing on international efforts. Compared to Great Britain and Germany, at least on a strategic level, the shift started early, says Emma Sjöqvist.

This happened very quickly because of the President’s ambition to be able to act autonomously in relation to others, as he has great power over defense and security policy.

Germany is very slow. In 2014, a turnaround began as the German armed forces saw collective and regional security as their primary mission.

– but it had little impact politically and no new resources were allocated. Only in February 2022 it came at the highest political level. Then there was talk of a change of era, a review of old decisions and the sending of military equipment to Ukraine. A substantial financial fund has been created to invest in security, says Eva Hagström Frisell.

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However, the long time it took to implement the new objectives has drawn criticism. Germany has a decentralized political system and the longer the resources for defense are reduced, the greater the needs.

Affecting Swedish collaborations

Countries in the report in Africa are moving towards investing more in direct bilateral relations with African countries than in larger multilateral initiatives. There is also increasing focus on the Indo-Pacific region.

All three countries consider NATO’s role to be strengthened in maintaining collective security. At the same time, Germany and France want to emphasize the EU’s support role for NATO, and the EU retains its own crisis management capability while NATO now invests in collective security.

Countries also differ in what they want to prioritize.

– Great Britain prioritizes a presence in Northern Europe, while Germany invests heavily in supporting countries in the East and creates large divisions that can include other European countries. France is investing heavily in rapid response capabilities, says Emma Sjöqvist.

Researchers say how the big powers are acting indicates what smaller European countries should focus on.

– When Sweden becomes a member of NATO, there may be a demand for us to be in the east as well. Who we can collaborate with is influenced by who we already are. Even within NATO, building bilateral ties can be important for joining forces, says Eva Hagström Frisell.