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A few good soldiers could go a long way

Posted: April 3, 2013

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While the presence of 50 soldiers may seem miniscule side-by-side the several thousand French and Malian soldiers currently operating in the West African country, the Czech contribution to the European Union military mission is surprisingly large when compared with the manpower provided by other member states and demonstrates a willingness to participate in a key defense experiment others have been reluctant to support.

Amid austerity and internal economic woes, the lack of initiative by most European Union countries to contribute troops to a seemingly obscure defense operation in a landlocked African country is understandable. But it fails to explain why other countries of post-communist Central Europe, which share similar motivations as the Czech Republic for being active members of supranational defense blocs like NATO or the EU, had such disparate reactions to the Mali mission.

The Czech Republic's defense budget, slashed by almost 20 percent since 2009, is the fastest-decreasing of all 28 NATO member states. This year's approved expenditure currently stands at 42.1 billion Kč, but at just 1.1 percent of GDP, it falls below NATO targets of 2 percent. NATO has previously warned Czech officials they risk undermining the country's role in the alliance if cutbacks persist.

Poland, by comparison, is one of few EU countries that hiked their defense budgets this year, due in part to an effort to bring its policy in line with NATO requirements. With a defense budget nearly five times as large as that of the Czech Republic, Poland's decision to send only 20 troops to Mali seems counterintuitive and is emblematic of the overall dissonance of objectives marring the EU's common defense policy.

The stated purpose of the French-led presence in Mali is to protect Europe from terrorism bred by extremist Islamic groups in regions struggling with state capacity. This may seem a distant threat to politicians in Warsaw or Bratislava, who are still dealing with populations more conscious of an enigmatic Russian menace. All the same, failing to streamline an EU-wide defense objective could deal a damaging blow to the Continent's unifying structures at a time when it can least afford it, both financially and strategically.

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