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Europe: Dying days of conscription

23 Sep 2008

The leather-booted feet of a soldier rest on a desk on his last day of duty.
Only a few European governments still adhere to a system of compulsory military service. Daniel Hoegger examines why for ISN Security Watch.

By Daniel Hoegger for ISN Security Watch

The French government announced the suspension of military draft on 27 June 2001. The decision to do so in 1996 came roughly 200 years after the revolutionary regime introduced the levée-en-masse, the duty of all citizens to military service. The principle of a mass army based on conscription quickly spread all over the continent and became the standard military organization not just in Europe but also in the US.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, the vast majority of European countries have begun discussing or have already decided to suspend conscription and rely purely on volunteer forces. Only a few governments still adhere to a system of compulsory military service. While every country has its own reasons, there seems to be some major causes for both the continuation as well as the suspension of conscription.

NATO, a central factor

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War brought about some major geo-strategic changes. Suddenly, large conscript armies for territorial defense seemed outmoded, resulting in a number of military transformations.

"A central factor is definitively NATO membership," Pertti L Joenniemi, senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), tells ISN Security Watch.

The idea of classic warfare has been dropped. Additionally, the end of the Cold War brought about a new conception of security resulting in an abandoning of the primacy of territorial defense and a reorientation toward peacekeeping missions and the fight against terrorism.

Dr Tibor Szvircsev Tresch from the Swiss Military Academy (MILAK) points to further aspects underlining the central role of NATO in the shift of military organization. Though in accordance with Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, every member is part of an alliance, not every member is obliged to take part in every alliance activity. Because of specializations and work sharing, this means even that certain military branches in many countries exist only on a very basic level.

"As an example, not all maritime nations maintain still a fully equipped submarine fleet," Szvircsev Tresch tells ISN Security Watch.

Furthermore, cooperation among members requires a certain standard of training and a certain level of military application.

These new tasks combined with the introduction of advanced technology and modern information systems require high levels of proficiency. Additionally, soldiers have to develop new "soft-skills," e.g. knowledge of foreign languages, diplomatic technique or the ability to adapt in unknown environments.

"An example of this is the situation in Afghanistan not demanding just classic warfare tasks," Joenniemi says.

Both training and operations often require immediately available personnel who are able to take on longer periods of engagement than would be allowed by conscription. It is also questionable whether conscripts are suited for these new operational styles, and there is also the fact that conscripts often are prohibited legally from serving outside their own territorial borders.

Another strong factor for suspending conscription is social change.

"The transformation of attitude toward conscription is rooted in a general value change of society towards hedonism and individualism," explains Dr Szvircsev Tresch.

Additionally, during the Cold War, conscription was almost ubiquitous and serving in the army was understood as a duty of citizenship. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, states began not just to modernize their forces, but also to reduce them by cutting down the quantity of conscripts needed. Eventually, the numbers of eligible people drafted became so low that its legitimacy was increasingly questioned resulting in a rapid loss of popular support for conscription as well for the entire military.

Geography and geopolitics

Nevertheless, despite the fact that most European nations have suspended conscription and replaced it with volunteer forces, some countries still maintain the practice as their chosen form of recruitment.

Geography and geopolitics seem to be central factors of the decision to uphold conscription. While countries further in Western Europe for much longer have been a part of NATO and have thus adapted the organizational and strategic patterns of the North Atlantic Treaty, Joenniemi remarks that the military thinking of former Eastern Bloc states - such as Ukraine or Poland - is still mainly based on classical aspects like war, sovereignty or territorial defense, despite aspired or existent NATO membership.

The close proximity to or even a long border section shared with Russia also may foster arguments in favor of conscription based defense, as with Estonia and Lithuania, for instance.

Unsolved conflicts or tensions between neighboring countries (such as between Turkey and Greece or Azerbaijan and Armenia) also are often brought forward as rationales for maintaining conscription.

While this applies to Finland as well, which still feels threatened by neighboring Russia, the other Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden and Denmark) are making moves away from conscription and toward volunteer armies.

Particularly in Sweden, which has increased its deployments abroad and has even taken the lead for an EU Battle Group, signs are obvious for a shift from classical defense towards a modern intervention force. Also in Denmark, conscription is less universal these days than it is voluntary. Nevertheless, in the event that ranks cannot be filled, there is still a kind of lottery applied to ensure the required draftees.

As far as conscription in Germany and Austria is concerned, historical reasons come into play. After World War II, both countries were prohibited by the Allied powers from maintaining armed forces. Only in the decades to come did Germany (FRG in 1950; GDR in 1962) and Austria (1955) again establish defense forces based on conscription.

Though today conscription in Germany is highly contested, concerns exist that the principle of alternative community service (Zivildienst) would collapse if conscription were to be suspended. The manpower lost if Zivildienst, as an important part of the public health system, were abolished would have to be replaced by a much more expensive professional labor force.

For Austria, a commitment to armed neutrality is a main reason for holding onto the draft system. However, due to the fact that Austria is steadily increasing its missions abroad, extending its contingent of volunteers and, meanwhile, reducing the term of service, the suspension of conscription seems to be only a matter of time.

Also obliged by international law to maintain armed neutrality is Switzerland. Regardless, the establishment of a volunteer army in Switzerland under current circumstances does not appear to be a viable option.

"Successful recruitment demands both high prestige of professional soldiers as well as a high level of unemployment. In Switzerland, both these conditions are currently nonexistent," says Dr Szvircsev Tresch.

The future of conscription in Europe

So all things considered, is there then no future for conscription in Europe?

The general tendency seems clear: During the Cold War, every state protected its independence and territorial integrity with a large army, based on conscription, whereas after the end of the Cold War, we witnessed a process similar to the one in private market economies: large numbers of the manual labor force replaced by specialized technology.

The "enterprise" army thus becomes highly skilled and more professional but also smaller. The protection guaranteed by NATO overcame the necessity for large defense armies based on conscription.

"At the same time, there are signs that states still maintaining conscription do hesitate to change this fact as the shift is often associated with high costs, e.g. for recruiting and marketing," cautions Dr Szvircsev Tresch.

Nevertheless, even NATO members that have not yet suspended conscription will do so in the foreseeable future and implement an all-volunteer force. The almost complete suspension of conscription in Europe is only around the corner.

Daniel Hoegger is a former ISN summer editor. He has a master's in political economy from the University of Birmingham.


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