Defence and Security

The Role of Europe's Smaller Countries

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Defence and Security : The Role of Europe's Smaller Countries - Joris Voorhoeve


All Western European countries, be they large or small, are subject to powerful external international forces which they cannot control by themselves. Both large and small countries therefore have the same need for strong international organisations to collectively defend the interests and values of Western Europe.

It is not always possible to draw a distinct line between small and large countries. To take the Netherlands as an example: in geographical terms it is a very small country, if we look at the size of the population it is average for a member of the European Union, and in terms of economy and finance it is a medium-sized country, particularly with regard to its very large investments abroad. I therefore sometimes refer to the Netherlands as a "pocket-size middle power."

In general terms, Germany, France and Great Britain are thought of as the large countries of the European Union. These countries are distinct from the other member states on the basis of a combination of factors such as their international political position, geographical size, population, economic weight and military power. In a broader perspective, Italy and Spain may also belong to the group of large countries. But, the differences between these two countries are considerable: the Gross National Product of Italy is, at 1,100 billion dollars, almost twice as high as that of Spain (582 billion dollars).

The common denominator for the smaller countries in Europe is the fact that they have to protect their interests with limited means of power. To this end, they have joined international cooperative organisations such as NATO and the European Union. Certainly for all countries, it is an interest, in itself, for these international organisations to function well. This certainly applies with regard to the new international relations which have taken shape since 1989: the familiar threat of a large-scale offensive with a short response gave way to a much less distinct security situation, which, however, is not without serious risks.

Reorganisation of NATO

In June 1996 in Berlin, the North Atlantic Council decided that the adaptation of the allied structures should contribute to the creation of a European defence and security identity within NATO. The development of the Combined-Joint Task Force (CJTF) concept should, among others, enable the use of "separable but not separate military capabilities" in WEU-led operations. Efforts to bring about a European defence identity should go hand-in-hand with preserving and reinforcing transatlantic relations.

The French rapprochement with NATO deserves special mention, as it has been crucial to the development of a European defence identity within NATO. A European defence that extricates itself from the Americans is not possible, nor a European defence without the French. Hopefully, further rapprochement with France will lead to a return of France to the integrated command structure in the years to come.

Over the last few decades it has often been said and written that further-reaching European cooperation would ultimately clash with healthy relations with the United States. "Berlin," however, offers the possibility of reconciling the two.

There are more reasons for regarding NATO's new approach in a positive light. NATO is a tried and tested organisation, and is the most suited to lead larger and more complex operations. From a political, military, and financial point of view, it would be bad politics to create an entirely new politico-military organisation for European operations.

We must not blithely assume that the American involvement in peace and security in Europe will always remain as close as it has been in recent decades. Domestic political discussion in the United States sometimes shows a certain amount of disaffection with Europe. We must make an effort to promote lasting American involvement. This is another good reason for continuing to use NATO wherever possible.

Effectiveness of the EU and WEU

Effectiveness, or capability to act, is a subject that is discussed extensively in the European Union and the Western European Union. And rightly so, for this aspect is in urgent need for improvement. One of the solutions in the European Union may be more decision-making with majority voting. Thus far this has not proved to be the solution for the common foreign and security policy.

Whatever the case, such a development is certainly not possible for defence: no member state would permit the erosion of its sovereign rights in this aspect. A certain amount of flexibility must apply at the military level: countries not wishing to participate in an operation cannot be forced to do so; in turn, they cannot prevent others from doing so. These are what are known as "coalitions of the willing and able."

Both the common foreign and security policy and the WEU would certainly benefit if the largest member states agreed with each other more often. This would also be in the interest of smaller member states, which have an equally great need for well-functioning international organisations. However, accord is all too often out of reach, regarding both foreign policy issues and the possible deployment of military personnel. Last year, a role for the WEU in Albania was initially not even raised for discussion in the WEU, for fear of discord. Only after endless talks did a small police advisory mission come into being. The WEU could play a useful role for this very type of limited operations. If we also look at the European response to the crisis with Iraq regarding UNSCOM, and at the violence and tension in Kosovo, what we hear are usually the interpretations and opinions of individual European countries. Because these interpretations and opinions are rather diverse, the European Union does not assume a clear standpoint in such matters.

As long as Germany, France and Great Britain fail to agree with each other a great deal more than is currently the case, the prospect of a European security and defence policy will remain poor. For the time being, it would be better for the WEU to concentrate on the common implementation of none too complex tasks, which require relatively few resources. The most important way of giving more shape to European security and defence politics is still the NATO framework, as brought up to date by decisions taken in Berlin.

Smaller Countries as Brokers

Acting as a type of diplomatic broker, some of the smaller countries can sometimes play a useful role, also in the field of defence. Over the last few years, the armed forces of the Netherlands have entered into a large number of bilateral and multilateral cooperative frameworks, with, in the first place, the German-Netherlands Corps. It is important to note that the Dutch armed forces have not limited themselves to one cooperative partner. In recent years there have been various initiatives which, apart, from Germany, have been focused on Great Britain, France and Belgium in particular.

An agreement has been entered into with Great Britain, that provides for structural cooperation in preparing for and conducting crisis management tasks. A number of Dutch officers have for some time now been working at French headquarters. This is important if we are to become familiar with the ways of thinking and working within the French armed forces. The integrated Belgian-Ducth naval headquarters is now functioning in the Dutch naval base at Den Helder. The Belgian and Dutch air forces are also cooperating in the Deployable Air Task Force, which has led, among other things, to a combined detachment in Villafranca. Furthermore, the Netherlands is participating in new international initiatives, such as the setting up of SHIRBRIG, the multinational high readiness brigade, which can be deployed within 10 to 20 days for operations under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. Smaller countries are capable of flexible participation in a diversity of frameworks.

In this way, they are sometimes able to bridge gaps between larger countries. Smaller countries can also play a broker's role in the preparations of Central and Eastern European countries for NATO membership. Smaller countries are valued discussion partners, as they are not assumed to be working towards reinforcing reinforcing their own base of power.

The same holds true for peace operations, for example being the Belgian role of lead nation of UNTAES in Eastern Slavonia. Several years ago, in 1995, the Netherlands participated in the setting up of the Rapid Reaction Force allocated to UNPROFOR, together with France and Great Britain. The strong military actions of the RRF against Bosnian Serb military targets paved the way for the Dayton peace agreement and for IFOR.

This and other examples illustrate clearly that smaller countries are not consigned to simply wait and be subject to whatever larger countries may decide. Indeed they, too, can give shape and direction to security and defence policy within the EU and other cooperative frameworks.

The required resources

If smaller countries want to continue to play their role well, they must have the necessary resources and sufficient numbers of well-educated and well-trained people. This applies not only to diplomacy, but also to the armed forces. It also requires a certain financial effort. It is not an easy task to objectively determine what would be reasonable. In the Netherlands defense expenditure amounts to 1.9 percent of Gross National Product. The average for European NATO-members countries is 2.2 percent. This is an important indicator in order to determine that, after years of cutbacks, we must try to keep pace financially. Smaller countries should also contribute pro rata in promoting global peace and security.


Well-functioning international organisations are vitally important, particularly for smaller countries: without the international rule of law and international organisations to uphold it, they would be at the mercy of the law of the jungle. Leadership by one or more larger countries does not appear to be a luxury. Yet for smaller countries there are still possibilities for exercising constructive influence. What they can and must do is to keep their defence effort up to the required level, enabling them to make a good contribution to the common defence and peace operations. The role of broker is also a good opportunity for smaller countries to help give shape to security policy. Bringing large parties together: today's world is certainly in need of this.

Joris Voorhoeve is the Minister of Defense and Minister for the Netherlands' Antilles and Aruba Affairs. Dr. Voorhoeve worked with the policy analysis division of the World Bank (1973-77). From 1977 to 1979 he was a member of the Netherlands Council for Government Policy. He has also served as a member of the Lower House of the States General (Dutch parliament) and from 1986 onwards as the Chairman of the Liberal Party faction.