Since the intervention in Libya in 2011, which highlighted strong dissensions between France and Germany in the conduct of military engagement, Europeans have been waiting for a new opportunity to prove they could unite around a common objective, away from Brussels and the near-constant series of crisis meetings.
The March 2012 coup in Mali and the subsequent Islamist takeover of half of the country - which forced the government to call for France's help - seem to provide this opportunity. Mali is a textbook example of how the spillover effects of a limited intervention can lead to the deterioration of an already fragile region. France understands that the lack of a unified European response and the limited support the United States is ready to provide may further embroil it in a conflict that has wider consequences. Limited engagement does not necessarily mean that the consequences will remain limited as well. History, both old and recent, shows that initially limited operations can easily morph into either military escalation or an extension of initial aims, a phenomenon known as "mission creep."
The French intervention is already escalating, in large part due to the EU's increasing strategic retrenchment and U.S. prudence at a time when most Western powers are thinking about reducing their external commitments and focusing on nation-building at home. Moreover, France does not share the United States' or even NATO's power of attraction, and few countries have come to its support despite the undeniable regional and international legitimacy of its operation. The operations have been praised by U.S. conservative intellectuals as a new expression of French unilateralism, and by others, including in the Obama administration, who see French operations as a way of avoiding direct U.S. military involvement. But, at the same time, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton's slow response time in accelerating the process of the European Training Mission to Mali only illustrates the lack of readiness in Brussels, and that UN Resolution 2085 authorizing the deployment of UN forces to Mali has been relegated to a mere afterthought. But the French military is nevertheless facing the hard reality of acting on its own, with very little support from other European allies, and even less from African countries.
The latest intervention shows that the only military allies that France can capably rely upon are the United Kingdom and the United States. This raises an important question about the strategic future of Europe and the transatlantic community. Does the future of crisis management in key strategic areas for Europe lie in the EU or in the transatlantic triangle of France, the U.K., and the United States, a situation in which Germany remains conspicuously absent and where other European states - such as the Nordic countries and Poland - can increase their strategic relevance? It is, in that sense, interesting that the two countries that have contributed the quickest to the mission - the U.K. and Denmark - are hostile to or absent in the ongoing Common Security and Defense Policy negotiations.
The predominant absence of European contributions to the Mali mission also reflects the general absence of interest in Africa for many European countries. This is a misguided calculation, as Europe's emerging security threats lie more in Africa than in the Pacific. In fact, at a time when the United States and Europe are preoccupied with the effects of emerging economies - in particular China - more attention should be paid to the dangers posed by failed and failing states in Africa, and especially in the Sahel. U.S. President Barack Obama has already invested considerable resources in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, including military support and training for local security forces so they can then contain threats on their own. But this outsourcing strategy cannot work if such military training is conducted in a political vacuum, such as if the security forces being trained are not attached to or do not pledge allegiance to a legitimate political authority.
Current and looming threats in Africa cannot wait for Brussels to get its house in order. In the face of U.S. disengagement from certain regions, the glacial pace at which decisions are taken at the national level to support France's efforts in Mali only underscores the need for European leaders to be willing to discuss common security issues. Perhaps only then will Europe to remain (or finally become?) a strategically relevant actor.