The Lingering Impact of WWII on the Security Policies of European States and the Role That Plays in Developing a European Strategic Culture

By Rachel Kramer

The global scale, bloodshed and atrocities of World War II (WWII) rank the conflict as one of the worst, and most staggering, in history. Its residue can be seen in all aspects of life throughout the European continent, particularly in the shaping of security and defense policies of national governments in the years following. The role a European state played in the World War directed the development of its security attitudes, particularly if the state was classified as a victor or aggressor. A good example of this is demonstrated through a comparison of France of Germany. Yet today, with Europe working towards an integrated presence in global governance[1], specifically via the EU, the distinct security attitudes of member states play a major role in the development of a common strategic culture. They directly affect the debate on what form the EU security and defense policy should take, and will be the main inhibitors of success, unless the European community is able to focus on emerging collective norms as points of adaptation and convergence.

To understand the modern competing security identities in the EU, it is important to understand the impact that WWII had on their initial development. A state’s role in WWII directly affected the security position it adopted in the post war years, and influences its defense attitudes in the modern day. This argument can be demonstrated through a comparison of the post-war defense identities that France and Germany developed. France, although occupied by the Axis forces, emerged as a victor, closely aligned with The United States and Britain. The international system regarded France as having provided a significant and valiant effort for the allies, and thus it assumed a dominant position in the post war community.   France was not pressured to demilitarize.   Instead, they were invigorated by their renewed importance in the international system, and developed a pro-projection security policy and favored muscle foreign policy.

On the contrary, Germany was never given the opportunity to maintain a threatening military presence and aggressive security policy. The impact that Germany’s aggression in WWII had on Germany itself, nonetheless the European continent is gargantuan. As aggressors, their violence and military aggression will never be fully forgotten, and the legacy will remain. For instance, in the direct postwar years, the international community, including the West German government, imposed strict restrictions on German security attitudes and abilities. This shaped the development of a significantly different German security policy, especially when compared to their policies from WWII. They developed a strong non-projection policy that favored international legitimization and focused mainly on immediate national defense.

The extent the legacy of WWII had on these states’ security policies is highlighted by scholar Christopher Meyer, who analyzed to what extent European states were inclined to use force. By comparing four separate norms, he established categories that ranged from low to high (Meyer, 29). Germany correlates with the lowest tendency to use force. Their goals for the use of force focus on territorial defense and reaction to direct threats. They are unlikely to support coercive means, and if so, would utilize them sparingly. They mostly prefer neutrality, and they require high domestic and international authorization. In contrast, France correlates with the medium/high end of Meyer’s scale. Their goals for the use of force, aside from national defense, also include humanitarian intervention, self-serving intervention, and pursuit of material or ideological gains. They have a moderate risk tolerance in relation to the way coercive strategy is used, and their preferred mode of cooperation is through teamwork with particular states. Lastly, they require medium international authorization for force projection. Overall, Meyers’s analysis is an excellent representation of how the outcomes of WWII shaped state security norms.

Security policy in Europe has existed for centuries, while the idea of a common strategic culture has only taken a concrete form since 1991. This idea is very new for the continent, and there are numerous pre-existing national strategic cultures among the member states. It is an arduous task to attempt to merge different security identities that have been developed through centuries of bloody histories and are an incorporated part of the states’ norms. As Chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Francois Heisbourg stated, “It is not done well, but you are surprised it is done at all” (Howorth, 179). The major question facing the continent in this process asks what form should this common strategic culture take, and how will the varying security policies be able to establish a collective strategy.

The first possible point of convergence for the member states involves threat perception. Leading up to WWII, the continent operated in a system of relative anarchy, where states viewed their neighbors as constant threats, and there was little interdependence or trust. As shown from both World Wars, the largest threats facing the states were existential and directed at their sovereignty. Furthermore, it was in response to these threats that states developed their national security identities. However, in recent decades the makeup of the European system has been shifting towards integration, communication and cooperation, which forces threat perception to move away from territorial defense. An opinion poll was conducted in 2005 to investigate attitudes toward the developing European integrated security policy. When asked what the EU meant, the third highest answer was peace, behind the Euro and the ability to travel. A high percentage of both French and German citizens relate the EU to peace and its maintenance. This is a good example of how considerably the priorities of security policy have shifted, and how it can be a point of similarity between two states. However, security identity differences still exist, as 44% of Germany relates the EU to peace, 12% more than France, mirroring their reactionary strategy compared to France’s force projection tendencies.

While the member states can mostly agree on the recent shift of threat perception, the specific form of a common strategic culture is still a topic of debate; with two major possibilities. The first is a power projection and robust interventionist strategy, compared to a non-projection strategy that stresses civilian instruments. This dispute again is illustrated by the differing security norms France and Germany try to cultivate within the EU. France, directed by its post WWII identity, has favored a vigorous interventionist strategy. Which, as stated by scholar Jolyon Howorth, would fulfill its 50-year-old dream of being able “to project their national strategic culture onto the rest of Europe”(Howorth, 188). While in comparison, Germany favors a more civilian dependent approach, and is more hesitant to pursue force- projection strategies. This is also demonstrated by a Eurobaroameter poll, which asked for opinions on the development of an EU rapid military force that can be sent quickly to deal with an international crisis. 79% of the French agreed with this development, while only 60% in Germany agreed, demonstrating their aversion to security projection. Furthermore, 32% of Germans disagree with an interventionist force, while only 15% of the French disagree, illustrating their larger preference for a strong security policy. Yet even though there are fundamental differences among the member states in relation to the specific form European strategic culture should take, there is a general agreement towards the need for one. Again, a Eurobarometer poll asked if European member states should agree on a common strategy when facing an international crisis, to which Germany and France agreed 86% and 88% respectively. This validates the problem that the member states agree on the need for a common strategy but not what it should contain.

Emerging collective norms provide member states with possible points of convergence and support the process toward a common strategic culture. They allow for a gradual harmonization of approaches problems, and lead to eventual adaptation to a common purpose without demanding a common identity. One example of an emerging norm is the protection of basic human rights, and the responsibility to protect. This means that it is first up to a state to protect its population from unavoidable catastrophes, and if they are incapable or do not, it is then the responsibility of the international community to step in. This is a common theory among most European states. Furthermore, while this idea has different adaptation pressures for different member states, depending on their national security identity, there is gradual convergence through the use of communication and interaction. This does not mean a common identity is established, but rather an agreement to approach problems in a coordinated way.

Another emerging norm in the European continent is the idea of comprehensive collective security. This developing norm states that the security of a state is linked to the security abilities of their neighbors. This is a sharp contrast to the defensive security policy that governed Europe up until WWII, where a states security was rooted in the weakness or insecurity of their neighbors. However, innovations in globalization, communication, and economic interdependence have shifted this focus. As highlighted by Howorth, this idea of comprehensive security was captured in the European Security Strategy (ESS)[2]. It connected member states by cooperative security, which promoted consultation over confrontation, reassurance over deterrence, and interdependence over unilateralism. This norm directly contests the ‘balance of power’ system that ran the European continent for so many centuries. This trend also facilitates the adaptation of states to support the emerging norm, establishing an increased harmony between states on issues facing the EU.

A third force that pushes adaptation towards a common strategic culture is the relatively recent increasing importance of social relations and how they shape views on material factors, such as military or political power. Up until WWII, states did not place much emphasis on the importance of inter-state relations and their role in defining ideas, beliefs and identities. However, the increased communication and interaction in Europe has highlighted the power of social relations. Constructivist scholar Alastair Johnston states in his socialization theory that interstate relationships can lead to changing state preferences. This is at the center of the formation of a strategic European culture. The national security norms developed after WWII can be reconstructed through social relations. Specifically, state security policies can be shaped by the communication, interaction and sharing of information that the EU provides

Johnston also highlights two micro-processes that are used in social international systems to alter or direct state preferences; persuasion and social influence. These two strategies occur in any socially constructed organization, including the EU. They can be powerful tools to facilitate adaptation from states’ post WWII security policies, to a common European strategic culture. Persuasion is a non-coercive strategy that targets states preferences, opinions and attitudes. Social influence, in comparison, attempts to promote behavior through distribution of social rewards and punishments. Johnston highlights two forms; back patting and shaming, which are imposed by a group of states. This can be seen in regional areas of Europe either publicly supporting or reprimanding other states’ behaviors or positions, ultimately attempting to elicit a change in their policies. Both of these micro-processes have the potential to shape states security policies away from their post WWII construction, and towards and integrated European ideal.

A common opposition to the possibility that states can adapt their post WWII security identities to a common EU strategic culture stems from the realist school[3] of thought. The first aspect of this argument is that it views states as the primary actors in international relations, thus the actions and policies of the EU are driven by the member states’ national policies. Therefore, if the EU were to establish a security policy, it would be “strategic schizophrenic” (Howoth, 182) due to the conflicting national security identities of states such as France and Germany.   Scholar Julian Lindley-French highlighted this issue, stating that such attempted coordination would lead to policy standstill or the renationalization of security policies. However, this argument cannot account for the current level of cooperation and communication within the EU. Due to the social construction of the EU, the policies of individual states are not the ‘be all end all’ of EU policy. Instead, through interstate relationships, there is a development, change, and shift of polices and preferences. This has been highlighted previously through the examples of France and Germany. These two states developed extremely different security identities in the years following the Second World War. However, the developing social construction of the European community has shifted their preferences, albeit gradually. This clearly contradicts the realist argument and supports the possibility of a common strategic culture.

A second facet of the argument focuses on the fundamentals of realist theory. As scholar John Mearsheimer highlights, in the realist school of thought organizations such as the EU are considered ineffective and merely tools for the nation-states to pursue their own interests. This is directly contested by the very attempt of the EU to establish a common strategic culture. The amount of compromise and debate needed for the EU to apply a common policy is a cost that outweighs the benefits for individual member states. For example, what incentivizes France to balance their pro-force projection attitude with Germany’s non-projection and non-interventionist tendencies? Instead of valuing individual states as the primary actors, the members see importance in the combined diplomatic influence the EU holds in the international system.

Lastly, the realist argument highlights the inability for states to cooperate due to a fear of cheating, and the issue of relative gains. The first operates under the realist assumption that states can never be certain of another states’ intentions. Thus they are inhibited from true cooperation due to the fact that they are not able to trust one another. This would stop the process of a strategic culture before it had the chance to begin. The issue of relative gains, as argued by Mearsheimer, is focused on the fact that states are not concerned about absolute gains, but about their benefits in comparison to the states around them. Thus a state is not willing to make an agreement if it means they gain less than a neighboring state, even if it benefited significantly itself. This is argued to block the creation of a common strategic culture, as it must apply to every member state in the EU, which would be an overwhelming issue of relative gains.

However the operation of an Inter-Governmental Organization such as the EU directly contests Mearsheimers’s assumptions, and instead facilitates cooperation.   For example, the EU provides information about member states to other states. It offers direct channels of information into neighboring states’ policies and preferences, which decreases the “unknown” factor amongst states. It also provides transparency, which lessens the fear of cheating among states. Transparency allows members to build trust, and trust allows cooperation.   Another manner the EU helps facilitate cooperation is by providing credibility to states’ commitments. Through the international legitimacy of the organization, and the fact that it has built a credible history, states are more willing to trust it. Lastly, the EU establishes focal points for cooperation, such as trade. The realist argument, although adopted by many analysts, does not fully address the situation of the European community, nor take into account the role the EU plays in facilitating cooperation.

Although there are points of convergence, a desire for common strategy, and an intricate European social construction, the process of developing a strategic culture is far from over. The legacies of the Second World War were so impactful in shaping European national security identities that they are still a point of contention today. Particularly, if a state emerged as a victor or aggressor played a large role on the development of security norms, as shown through France and Germany. France established a pro-force projection and muscle diplomacy policy, as it emerged a victor. While Germany, the main aggressor of the conflict wholly shied away from interventionist and projection policies in favor of reactionary policies. However, although the differences cover a wide spectrum throughout the EU, due to emerging collective norms states are able to find points of convergence. And through the international norm of cooperation and coordination, the members will gradually adapt to certain policies. Yet it is important to stress that this adaptation does not demand a common identity, but focuses instead on developing common approaches to issues. The next few decades will hold challenges for the young common strategic culture of Europe, and it will be imperative that the EU member states focus on cooperation.


Appendix A

Eurobarometer Results


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Works Cited

Howorth, Jolyon. Security and Defense Policy in the European Union. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Johnston, Alastair Iain. “Treating International Institutions as Social Environments.” International Studies Quarterly 45.4 (2001): 487-515. Print.

Keohane, Robert O. “The Promise of Institutionalist Theory Robert O.” International Security 20.1 (1995): 39-51. Print.

Mearsheimer, John J. “The False Promise of International Institutions.” International Security 19.3 (1995): 5-49. Print.

Meyer, Christoph. Changing Norms on Security and Defense in the European Union. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.


[1] An international movement toward cooperation between international actors aimed at solving problems that affect regions or multiple states – without power to enforce compliance

[2] The ESS is a document declaring the security strategy of the EU. It is ultimately aimed at defining strategic objectives and their political implications for the Union.

[3] A school of thought that assumes states are unitary and rational actors, security dominates the international agenda, and states are the most important actors in international relations.