Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

The European Union between its Civilian Vocation and Military Transformation – Reviewing the Academic Debate

by Raluca Csernatoni



The European Union, as a suis generis actor in international relations, has prompted across academia different responses to the ontological and epistemological challenges of capturing the fleeting nature of its unique and complex institutional identity. From this perspective, it would be misleading to apply classical state-centered templates of analysis to a multi-faceted entity. The EU is neither an intergovernmental organization nor a fully-fledged supranational or federal state. Rather than conceptualizing the EU in the traditional language of a Wesphalian, state-centered theoretical key, one should take into consideration and recognize the EU’s multi-dimensional nature and its constant institutional development.

The very unique nature of the EU determines an array of further debates regarding the EU’s external roles and EU’s presence as a post-sovereign and post-modern polity, thus creating novel ways of engaging the international system. Existing academic literature in International Relations has often used the concept of “civilian power” to prescribe the EU’s external perception and roles: a civilian power being an entity that does not use military, hard power to assert its presence in the international system, but a complexity of normative, economic, financial, diplomatic, and political means. Taking into account the sui generis nature of the EU and its particular external action, the research interest is dedicated to the EU’s identity dilemma between preserving its civilian vocation and pursuing an ambitious military transformation.

The actual validity of the concept of civilian power is under discussion, as the right concept to be used as regards the EU’s international presence. Several authors and academics take center stage in the debate: from François Duchêne, K. Twitchett, H. W. Maull, Ian Manners, S. Stavridis, Adrian Hyde-Price, Sonia Lucarelli and Roberto Menotti, to Nicola Casarini and Constanza Musu.

The classical view of the EU as a civilian power was first forged by François Duchêne in the 1970s. The author envisaged a distinctive role for the European community that emphasized ideational and value-based influences, low politics, and non-state actors. The intellectual father of the civilian power concept argued that the traditional military power had given way to a progressive civilian power as a means to exert influence in the international system and a better alternative and response to the rising complex interdependence of the international system. Drawing on Duchêne’s innovative concept, K. Twitchett and H. W. Maull have further developed the concept of civilian power to comprise three basic characteristics summarized by Ian Manners in his article Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?: economic power as the central means to achieve national goals; international conundrums would be solved primarily by diplomatic cooperation; and the predisposition to use multilateralism and legally binding supranational institutions to achieve international progress. By contrasting the EU to the afore-mentioned conceptual framework, one could fairly conclude that it closely fits in the description of a civilian power.

However, as it was well observed by S. Stavridis in his working paper Why the “Militarizing” of the European Union is strengthening the concept of a Civilian power Europe, the concept of civilian power has recently come under scrutiny and become more or less obsolete, due to the EU’s recent developments in the field of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) and in terms of a blatant militarizing orientation with the European Defense Agency (EDA). Such militarizing moves push the EU towards most-possibly achieving the finalité politique of what Galtung envisaged about the EU, i.e. “a superpower in the making”. It could be stated that the EU’s normative, civilian-based foreign policy aspirations and legitimacy were conditioned on rethinking its “powerless power” status in military and security terms. The issue to be considered is that normative influence in the international system to be credible and effective needs to be backed by raw military power and security and defense capabilities.

By addressing the intricacies of the above-mentioned security and defense developments, in his article Europe and the new balance of global order, Hans W. Maull tackles the rather stringent identity dilemma of the European Union, torn between its civilian classical vocation and its more recent militarizing endeavors. The EU, Maull argues, has become an international force in international relations and has had significant impact in shaping its environment and the other parts of the international system. The EU is seen by the authors as a postmodern force resorting to sophisticated civilian foreign policy tools, rather than a modern, more military-oriented power. By following Maull’s argumentation, it could be argued that the EU, through its uniqueness and normative civilian-oriented discourse rather than hard-power military policies, has shaped its environment by “civilizing” international relations and by acting as a normative power promoting its own regime of values.

Nevertheless, the EU’s shifts towards securitization in military terms and its evolutionary backlash into modernity suggest the reemergence of an insecure international context. Considering that economic global governance alone and the promotion of normative soft-power-type of discourses cannot guarantee a world order without the backing of a strong arm, the EU is currently pursuing militarizing instruments to respond to international threats. Terrorism, WMD proliferation, the hawk-ish unipolar security policies adopted by the US, all overshadow and overweight the efforts of a civilian approach to shape the international system. Hence, in the context of an international system dominated once again by militaristic and security-driven agendas, the EU finds itself again at a crossroads.

The question to be asked is whether there is a true contradiction between the EU’s civilian power status and its militaristic-oriented new identity. Will the new militarizing trends undermine the core values of what it has been termed as a postmodern civilian power or a successful civilian alternative to the hard power type of hegemonic international dominance?  The foundation of the EU’s special civilian mission, international political responsibility or historical memory of past tragedies, are all underlying the EU’s normative discourse and self-perception as a democratic, human rights, and value-and-norms promoter. This is contrasted to the international status-quo’s orientation towards a new hard power security discourse that forces the EU to accommodate and change its international agenda in militaristic terms.

A first possible innovative answer to the afore-mentioned EU’s identity dilemma could be found in Stelios Stavridis re-interpretation of the original Duchêne approach of “civilian power”. Stavridis argues that it is high time for the EU to transcend the concept of civilian power “by default” and reach the status a civilian power “by design”. Stavridis’ argument, taking into consideration that military force continues to have central importance in the international arena, suggests a mutation from a civilian presence without no military capacity and empty rhetoric towards strategic conviction and a powerful EU military arm. The use of military capabilities can be of a civilian character if they are used for the purpose of promoting human rights and democratic principles. Drawing on Maull’s argument that Germany remains still a civilian power despite its participation in NATO-led military actions, Stavridis’ perspective asks an important question: whether there can really be a successful civilian power without the backing of military means. From a similar position, Adrian Hyde-Price, by exploring the significance and effects of the EU’s emerging security and defense policy, makes a clear deference between the EU as a “civilian” power and the EU as a “civilizing” power. His argument is that if the EU does not develop credible military crisis management capabilities, it will be unable to “civilize” and exert its agency in the international system without the support of a strong arm.

Nevertheless, in their interpretation regarding the conflicting values of the EU’s external action and when discussing the problematic behind the use of force as coercive intervention, Sonia Lucarelli and Roberto Menotti raise important questions regarding the “militarization” of EU as a civilian power. According to the authors’ interpretation, the option to use force in furthering European Union norms is severely limited. In the case of the EU’s security and strategic discourse, the use of force and military means are perceived as extreme measures, legitimatized only by exceptional circumstances. This idea is accounted for by the EU’s civilian original purpose: the construction of an area of peace and prosperity among its member states. Consequently, Lucarelli and Menotti tackle the “dilemma of coercion” as being an extremely difficult challenge for the EU to surpass: if on the one hand the use of force evidently contradicts the EU’s civilian core values, on the other hand, intervention in the name of EU values and norms could be seen as necessary to reinforce the EU’s international credibility and global stance.

The above-mentioned dilemma could find a theoretical synthesis in the work of Nicola Casarini and Constanza Musu. In their book, European Foreign Policy in an Evolving International System The Road Towards Convergence, Nicola Casarini and Constanza Musu analyze the EU’s grand strategy, its security goals and the ways it plans to ensure its security. The authors see the European Security Strategy as the EU’s identity search for a “postmodern realism”. Their controversial concept of “postmodern realism” could be seen as a possible conceptualization of the EU’s dilemmatic actorness, comprising both a postmodern understandings of the EU as a civilian, norm-promoter power, and at the same time as a militarizing and self-interested international player. Thus, in an international system shaped by anarchical tensions, in which security remains the first priority on the agenda, military power is not absent from EU’s security strategy either. It is meant to converge with the EU’s normative mission and civilian aspirations.

A new conceptual categorization for the EU’s dilemmatic identity is required: the EU’s struggle between a purely civilian identity and a hard-power, militaristic-oriented one is not a question of dichotomy or contradiction but rather a willingness to accommodate both dimensions in a new and original perspective. Conversely, the concept of a “civilian power”, or at least parts of what it stands for, could be still rescued from obsoleteness. The EU could still be analyzed through the lenses of a civilian power by taking into account its willingness to remain faithful to its value-based discourse and by using its military arm to reinforce and protect a more credible normative position on the international scene.

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Bretherton, Charlotte, and John Vogler, The European Union as a Global Actor. Routledge, 1999

Bull, H., “Civilian Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?”. Journal of Common Market Studies 21 no. 2, (1982):149-164

Duchêne, François, “The European Community and the Uncertainties of Interdependence” in Kohnstamm, M. and Hager, W. (eds.) A Nation Writ Large? Foreign Policy Problems before the European Community. London: Macmillan, 1-21.

Casarini, Nicola, and Constanza Musu, eds., European Foreign Policy in an Evolving International System. The Road Towards Convergence, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

Hyde-Price, Adrian, “The EU, Power and Coercion: From “Civilian” to “Civilizing” Power”, CIDEL Papers. Oslo (22-23 October 2004):1-21

Hyde-Price, Adrian, ‘“Normative” Power Europe: a realist critique’, Journal of European Public Policy. 19 no. 2 (March 2006): 235-251

Keohane, O., and Joseph Nye, World Politics in Transition. Boston: Little and Brown, 1977

Lucarelli, Sonia, and Ian Manners, eds., Values and Principles in European Union Foreign Policy. London: Routledge, 2006

Manners, Ian, “Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms”. Journal of Common Market Studies 40 no.2, (2002): 235-258

Maull, Hans W., “Europe and the new balance of global order”. International Affairs 81 no. 4 (2005): 775-799

Stavridis, Stelios, ‘Why the “Militarizing” of the European Union is Strengthening the Concept of a “Civilian Power Europe”’. EUI Working Papers, 17 (2001): 1-21

Telò, Mario, Europe: a Civilian Power? European Union, Global Governance, World Order. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006

Twitchett, K. “External Relations or Foreign Policy” in Twitchet, K. (ed.) Europe and the World: The External Relations of the Common Market, London: Europa 1976.

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2 comments on “The European Union between its Civilian Vocation and Military Transformation – Reviewing the Academic Debate

  1. Alexander Svitych

    I loved this post. It raises a very important question on how to reconcile the civilian nature of the EU with its growing militarization. The overview of the academic debate on the issue is a thorough and extensive one. The final idea to combine both dimensions (normative-based discourse and “military arm”) in one new perspective is an innovation in itself. All in all, the post involves you into a very interesting discourse, yet with many open questions. Although I’m not an expert on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, the topic fascinated me.

  2. Alexander Svitych

    Several observations can me made regarding the nature of the debate highlighted by the author.

    1) My biggest claim to the academics is the apparent attempt to “save the outdated concept” (in this case the EU’s civilian power), trying to reconstruct theory to make it fit the facts. One needs intellectual courage to refute, or at least challenge a carefully built-up concept or theory. Unfortunately, based on the works mentioned in the post, I do not see any serious attempts to approach reality from different perspectives instead refurbishing old ideas.

    2) In this regard, none of the authors mention corporate lobbying that has been of tremendous influence in the militarization of Europe. the vivid developments in the EU’s defense industry can be explained by corporate profitability. This trend, for example, has been exposed by Transnational Institute in their research on the drone policy development with the European defense and security corporations seeking to profit from it.

    3) While the corporate factor may seem non-theoretical for an academic debate, the trend of corporate lobbying highlights another major development – fading away of nation-states and the emergence of corporate-states. This trend has been extreme in the core of the capitalist world (like the EU and USA), but also on its periphery. The new polities can be called corporations-states, because the insatiable drive for expansion and profit growth displayed by corporations starts to prevail over the national interests. It can be claimed that there is even a conflict between the decaying nation-states and the aggressive corporation-states. Or, from another perspective, the structure of the nation-states is exploited by corporations to serve their interests at the expense of the nations-states.

    The militarization of the EU is a classic example in this regard. How many EU citizens are aware that their taxes are funding the the European arms industry? Except a narrow number of experts and analysts, the public has been excluded form the process.

    4) On a side note, what is labelled as “the EU’s normative-based” approach in the academic world, may be inf reality nothing but a pretext for preemptive wars and interventions, with slogans like “protection of the rights of minorities” or “war against terrorism” used to protect the power of the capital.

    5) In conclusion, as is very well noticed in the post, the contradiction between the civil and military approaches in the EU is the opposition between post-modern and modern. The militarization of the EU does not mean return to modernity. this simply cannot be done to natural laws of history. In modern times armies were raised weaponry was increased for security or waging wars. In the age of post-modernity (now) militarization is used as another tool to empower corporatocracy.

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