Bilateralism and minilateralism are Europe’s secret assets

Following the war in Ukraine, policy makers in Europe and North America moved quickly to strengthen defense cooperation in Europe. Headlines inevitably focus on NATO and the European Union. Yet this ignores the reality of how European defense cooperation is actually established, fostered and solidified. Indeed, the essence of defense cooperation in Europe is a network of hundreds of bilateral and minilateral collaborations. Often, NATO and the European Union function simply as a framework into which European countries load their existing bilateral and minilateral efforts.

To better strengthen European defence, political decision-makers should appreciate the dynamics of these numerous collaborations. Taking advantage of the current circumstances to build more mini-ties and bilateral relationships, especially where leadership and financial circumstances are most conducive, will strengthen Europe and make its multilateral institutions all the more formidable.

A history of bilateralism and minilateralism

Within months, NATO countries deployed thousands of troops and significant capabilities to bolster the defense of members on its eastern flank. In a stunning transition, two traditionally militarily non-aligned EU states, Sweden and Finland, have reassessed their geostrategic position and submitted applications for NATO membership. The debate on strengthening the “strategic autonomy” of the European Union has further intensified and, once again, member states are discussing the coordination of their defense spending via joint purchases.

These vital initiatives could not function without existing and critical lower-level collaborations. For example, Russian military actions in recent years in Ukraine have prompted allies on NATO’s eastern flank to work quickly with their bilateral and minilateral partners. The UK has played a leading role in Estonia, building on the close relationship the two countries have developed by carrying out dangerous operations for a decade in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Lithuania is an important defense market for Germany and, unsurprisingly, the Bundeswehr is leading NATO’s efforts there. Thanks to cultural similarity and extensive prior military cooperation, the Czech Republic has sent the most troops to Slovakia and oversees the international forces there. For similar reasons, France deployed 500 troops to Romania. These relatively low-key actions have been crucial in developing the necessary bottom-up relationships, norms and experiences on which the more recent grandiose announcements are based.

Although Finland and Sweden intend to join NATO, they have also considered it essential to sign bilateral mutual security agreements with the United Kingdom. This could happen quickly, mainly because Helsinki and Stockholm have established a relationship of trust with London by working together in the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force. The dynamic of the European Union is the same as that of NATO. For example, in 2017, the European Union created the Permanent Structured Cooperation to strengthen defense cooperation between its member states after the Russian occupation in Crimea. However, most of its projects were based on existing bilateral and minilateral defense initiatives, and participating states often simply renamed them according to new EU vocabulary.

The fact that existing bilateral and minilateral relations are the basis for defense cooperation in Europe is not a new phenomenon. A survey of 70 examples of European defense collaboration found that most have five or fewer participating states, and many are purely bilateral. These collaborations range from the creation of multinational units to cooperation in armaments, training, logistics, surveillance, operations and/or command and control. Most often, these collaborations are not part of NATO or the European Union, but they can quickly be renamed EU and NATO projects if necessary.

States can also use these collaborations to shape NATO and EU policies. For example, the NATO operation in Libya in 2011 was essentially an Anglo-French war, as France and Britain pushed for intervention and took the brunt of the fight. They used the NATO command structure to coordinate their war effort, and the limited military support they got from some NATO members helped fill their capability gaps. The context was a historic and comprehensive Franco-British bilateral defense agreement, the Lancaster House Treaties, which the leaders of the two European military powers had signed a year earlier. The launch of the European Union’s European security and defense policy in 1999 also stemmed from a Franco-British bilateral agreement in Saint-Malo in 1998 as well.

Network strengthening

To improve NATO and EU defense cooperation, one has to look under the hood to appreciate the role of these efforts. Academics have already stressed that Europeans must recognize the minilateral underpinnings of the European security architecture. This matches my experience as a former defense official. European defense ministries do not always think in terms of institutions such as the European Union and NATO. They have their own considerations and use the framework that best suits their purposes, which may be NATO, the European Union, or smaller formats. Launching an initiative at this level is often more effective and can yield results more quickly.

As I argue in my recently published book, while these forms of cooperation are not new, their recent proliferation is unprecedented in European history. Moreover, they provide the substance of practical military cooperation in Europe, on which NATO and the European Union can build. Thus, understanding the dynamics behind them is crucial to fostering effective defense cooperation in the future. Research in my book indicates that when European nations embark on new defense collaborations, five structural and situational factors are important for success.

First, NATO and the European Union continue to provide the crucial structural context in which bilateral and minilateral cooperation can take place. The member countries of these two institutions are part of the European security community. The members of these alliances understand the concept of security in the same way, their fundamental interests are generally aligned and, more importantly, they no longer consider resolving their misunderstandings with each other through military force. This deep-rooted trust between EU and NATO members is an essential prerequisite that allows for the proliferation of multinational defense collaboration. This means that if Sweden and Finland join NATO, it will undoubtedly influence cooperation, especially in Northern Europe and the Baltic region.

Secondly, cooperation is motivated by the fact that European armed forces feel that they do not have the financial resources to achieve their objectives themselves. Thus, they turn to each other in the hope of making up for their shortfalls. (It’s not that it always works. If budgets are cut, cooperation can always fail.) The third structural factor is existing defense collaborations. New cooperation initiatives are generally based on previous ones. If countries pursue ongoing military projects together, they are more likely to launch new ones among themselves rather than with an entirely new partner. That is why NATO members who had a relevant bilateral relationship with some allies on the eastern flank led the international efforts there.

Structural factors create the conditions for cooperation, but situational factors trigger collaboration. The first situational factor is personal relationships. Cooperation usually begins when two or more leaders – politicians, civil servants or military officers – invest extra effort in making things work. These leaders tend to have great chemistry, a necessary ingredient when creating something new that requires huge extra commitment. For example, David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President at the time, had good chemistry and could agree on the Lancaster House Treaties in 2010. Even though all other factors may be aligned, something similar is unimaginable. with Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron due to their different characters and strained relationship.

Finally, from a situational point of view, a favorable political environment is also necessary. This can come either from public or national actors, or from international developments. Without it, the leaders who drive collaboration would be working in a vacuum and unable to realize their ambitions. By now, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly created a political climate in Europe quite conducive to defense collaborations.


If policymakers wish to strengthen European defense through more bilateral and minilateral collaboration, they must rely on these five factors. This starts with appreciating how the potential NATO memberships of Finland and Sweden would create new opportunities for small-scale collaboration. Policy makers should also view their current minilateral efforts with the understanding that they are the best source of potential partners for new efforts, while choosing new partners with consideration for the potential for future cooperation they bring. Additionally, they should assess the economic viability of new defense engagements and collaborations not only from their perspective, but also from their partners’ side.

Decision makers also need to be aware of situational factors when launching new collaborative efforts. For example, if the personalities in crucial positions do not match, collaboration should not be forced and decision makers should wait for more favorable circumstances. However, if there is strong chemistry between the leaders, they should exploit this opportunity quickly. Finally, the war in Ukraine has created an extremely favorable political environment. This situation is extraordinarily rare and can serve as a starting point for minilateral and bilateral initiatives that will pay dividends for decades.

Dr Bence Nemeth is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of Defense Studies at King’s College London, where he primarily teaches military officers at the UK’s Defense Academy. Prior to joining King’s, he spent eight years in various defense policy and planning positions with the Hungarian Ministry of Defence. His book, How to achieve defense cooperation in Europe? – The sub-regional approachwas published by Bristol University Press in 2022.

Image: Estonian Ministry of Defense