The Comprehensive Approach in Euro-Atlantic Security

The transformation of the international arena in the last two decades and the respective revisions of international conflict management have made the realignment of traditional security concepts possible and necessary. With the widening of the notion of security, conceptual approaches within the international community to handle the new conflict management challenges altered as well. In this context, the need for the so-called “Comprehensive Approach” has been acknowledged by international actors as the key to achieve effective conflict management by improving coordination and coherence of various conflict management instruments.[1] In both Brussels and Washington, the Comprehensive Approach has become a strategic imperative and the EU and U.S. continue to adapt their conflict management arrangements. On the EU side, the Lisbon Treaty ratification and the creation of new structures recently created a new framework for comprehensive conflict management.[2] Also, U.S. operational experience resulted in increasing acknowledgement of the importance of capability coordination and civilian conflict management.

This essay argues that after a decade of institutional restructuring and excitement about Comprehensive Approach principles, there is an opportunity for a transatlantic EU-U.S. agenda on comprehensive conflict management cooperation. Analyzing strategic and organizational steps taken on both sides of the Atlantic to improve conflict management coherence, this essay also addresses how efforts to improve conflict management coherence can result in transatlantic conflict management cooperation.

New Conflicts Require New Concepts

The scope of contemporary conflict is usually of such scale that no single international organization, government, ministry, or agency can manage and reduce them by themselves. The complex challenges posed by international conflict with social, economic, and military causes and diverse symptoms today require an immense degree of coordination among all actors involved as well the coordinated use of humanitarian, development, political, diplomatic, and military conflict response instruments. Concepts and structures developed to implement the Comprehensive Approach aim at adjusting conflict management measures to the complex security environment by bridging the institutional and policy gaps, integrating civilian and military capabilities, and formulating common objectives and more integrated strategies.[3]

Yet, the lack of coherence among conflict management instruments as well as among diverse actors is one of the most cited causes for poor success rates of international conflict management.[4] Over the past years, the EU and the U.S. continued to adapt their concepts and structures to improve conflict management coherence. Though vastly different narratives—the EU one of creating policies and institutions with the Lisbon Treaty and the U.S. one of adapting existing institutions and policies—the need for a Comprehensive Approach in international conflict management has gathered similar support and momentum in both the EU and U.S.

EU Conflict Management after Lisbon

The EU has proclaimed itself a global leader in the Comprehensive Approach arena, emphasizing its self-perception as a normative power and a particular pride in its civilian conflict management instruments. The recent far-reaching EU reform on the Comprehensive Approach resulted from the Lisbon Treaty, which introduced several structural innovations directly intended to make EU conflict management more coherent. Among many other things, the Lisbon Treaty merged conflict management responsibility, which was formerly separated between the Council Secretariat and the European Commission, in the form of a unified High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Performing a double-hatted role as both High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission, the post carries out conflict management duties that were formerly separated between three official EU positions: the High Representative for CFSP, the foreign minister of the rotating presidency member state, and the Commissioner for External Relations. It thus unifies conflict management domains that used to be fragmented between the supra-nationally organized Commission and the intergovernmental Council. In doing so, the High Representative is equipped with several competences that range from the coordination of internal CFSP decision-making processes, the bundling of member state resources and the support of their role as CSDP[5] driving forces, as well as the creation of an EU security policy profile. The post is complemented by a European External Action Service (EEAS), which merges parts of the Commission and the Council Secretariat, to give the new office a Foreign Service capacity and a joint diplomatic service for the EU. The EEAS likewise mirrors the idea of an institutional merger between the Commission, the Council, and the member states.

For many observers, these structural changes offer the potential to improve EU conflict management coherence. However, the Lisbon Treaty fails to create a genuinely coherent structure as the institutional fragmentation remains between civilian CFSP conflict management instruments and the Commission’s development policy and humanitarian aid. In addition, conflict management decision-making continues to rest primarily with the member states.

The U.S. and the Quest for Conflict Management Coherence

By contrast, the starting point of U.S. Comprehensive Approach efforts was the perception that the U.S. military does too much, leading to an over-militarization of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. debate and structural changes thus took place in a framework in which the military was the major actor in terms of international engagement and financial clout. On the heels of frustrating experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with the Pentagon being a major driver of reforms, steps were taken to advance U.S. civilian crisis management capabilities, leading to the establishment of the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) within the State Department in 2005 and to the creation of the Civilian Response Corps in 2008 to provide deployable U.S. civilian capabilities. The S/CRS major responsibility was the interagency planning and coordination of reconstruction tasks. The conceptual focus of stabilization and reconstruction[6] was accompanied by the growing institutional importance of civilian crisis management. However, the new institutions were confronted with a lack of White House support, underfunding from Congress, and opposition from the State Department and USAID.

The 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR)[7] reemphasized the importance placed on smart power and the objective to strengthen U.S. civilian conflict management instruments. Adopting the civilian power concept in its heading, the report largely focused on internal government structures and put forward several reform measures regarding cooperation between the State Department and USAID. Furthermore, the QDDR integrated the S/CRS into the new State Department Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, which was created in November 2011.

Just as it seems too early to evaluate the EU’s post-Lisbon structures, an assessment of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization is too early as well. However, while hopes for a further strengthening of civilian conflict management instruments in the U.S. were high, rather little has actually changed after the QDDR. Even more so, though the S/CRS has been uplifted bureaucratically, it seems to have become less operational. Furthermore, budget disputes indicate that, despite the support that emerged in favor of civilian conflict management instruments, U.S. efforts in this direction are unlikely to further increase. Moreover, the sustainability and endurance of these arrangements are far from secure.

Toward a Transatlantic Comprehensive Conflict Management Partnership?

As the EU finished its latest round of reforms for building more coherent and effective crisis management structures, the U.S. pursued its own comprehensive conflict management efforts. Though the EU’s coherence problems are not solved with the new structures, in particular the new EU High Representative and the European External Action Service constitute an improvement of the previous situation, facilitate links to the U.S., and create a framework for greater transatlantic cooperation and a prerequisite for improved U.S.-EU discussions. On the U.S. side, the conflict management approach moved toward an increasing emphasis on the civilian aspect and thus converged with that of the EU. These developments can be seen as the coinciding shifts that occurred on both sides of the Atlantic somewhat recently and that present an opportunity to advance the EU-U.S. partnership framework on comprehensive crisis management.

Importantly, in this regard, the “NATO first” approach seems to have given way to pragmatism, leaving NATO no longer categorically predominant for U.S. policymakers.[8] The EU’s development in the CSDP area seems to be increasingly viewed as a helpful tool to make the EU a more capable actor and permit more engagement. However, NATO’s aim to develop its own civilian capabilities reiterates not only the question of overlap between EU-NATO conflict management, but also the question of the scope of EU-U.S. conflict management cooperation. Another question that needs to be answered is a transatlantic division of labor. Such a division of labor in terms of a functional specialization in the sense that the U.S. deals with hard security issues involving military involvement and the EU would play out its soft security approach based on its civilian capabilities would result in transatlantic crisis management diverging again. As both the EU and the U.S. consider how to best organize civilian and military crisis management capabilities coherently, this opens new opportunities beyond a division of labor.

Avenues for EU-U.S. Partnering

In light of converging strategic interests and geographical areas of engagement, current and future EU and U.S. conflict management efforts are likely to take place in similar theatres. Continued U.S. skepticism of the EU as a capable conflict management actor can only be overcome by improving the EU’s operational crisis management capacity and effectiveness. Unless the EU can offer support in areas of high importance for the U.S., working together with the EU in conflict management is unlikely to be a priority for the new U.S. administration. The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to remain a U.S. national security priority for the next decade. A greater EU commitment in these two countries in particular will thus be crucial to advance broader EU-U.S. cooperation.

From a U.S. perspective, comprehensive conflict management cooperation with the EU offers a source of legitimacy for both civilian and military efforts initiated by the U.S. as well as a platform to implement and formalize international norms contributing to international stability. In addition, particularly the EU’s civilian conflict management capabilities also offer operational benefits for the U.S. and ultimately increase the effectiveness of American efforts. Though the U.S. has already made important progress in the establishment of civilian operational capabilities, scale and scope of demand is likely to exceed these efforts and U.S. conflict response capacity.[9] For the EU, moving toward expanding transatlantic crisis management cooperation can provide an opportunity to increase EU crisis management visibility. As the EU views itself as a Comprehensive Approach leader, an increasing EU-U.S. partnership could encourage the EU to strive toward actually operationalizing this vision.

In this vein, there are a number of areas where the advantages of an EU–U.S. comprehensive conflict management are apparent and in numerous instances both partners already worked closely together, for example U.S. participation in the EU CFSP missions. Also, the annual EU-U.S. summit is a logical opportunity to discuss relevant conflict management issues, which can be further deepened on the level of other high-level transatlantic initiatives, such as the common visits by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the EU High Representative Catherine Ashton to the Balkans. These are important signals toward common transatlantic conflict management and should result in the development of a schedule of regular consultations dedicated to emerging conflicts and ongoing missions. However, it is highly questionable how useful and reliable cooperation with the EU is from a U.S. perspective when it comes to highly controversial cases, such as Libya or Syria, where the EU is not likely to agree to any substantial engagement due to the remaining intergovernmental structure of EU conflict management and diverging interests of member states.

Due to the above-mentioned issues, rather than striving for conflict management cooperation with overambitious objectives, the coordination of EU-U.S. efforts should focus on smaller areas where both actors already have achieved results, and have proved their individual capability and strength, for instance in the field of development cooperation.[10] This is even more important as future conflict management activities will be limited by the economic constraints resulting from the financial crisis and serious fiscal pressures. Along with these financial considerations there is an evident lack of interest and decreasing political will to engage—despite ongoing need. Transatlantic conflict management thus also needs to be rethought in terms of selectivity; less ambitious cooperation efforts could ultimately safeguard transatlantic strategic interests.

Dialogue on a strategic level remains largely important in this regard and is the area in which collaborative effort has the potential to sustain long-term cooperation. The development of an “intellectual foundation” for comprehensive conflict management strategies and operations, including the need for a common definitions and concepts, has to be part of this. In an analysis of cooperation between two actors often considered as being as distant as “Mars and Venus” in their foreign and security policy approaches, finding common ground and the articulation of what would comprise success of transatlantic engagement is fundamental to success. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should strive to bridge differences at the outset of any concrete conflict management engagement by articulating agreed goals. In this context, both the EU and the U.S. also need to rethink their perception of each other: Developments in the U.S. show the increased appreciation of civilian conflict management instruments and signal that the EU no longer has a monopoly on smart power appreciation and Comprehensive Approach aspirations. The EU, for its part, has proven in several missions that it is capable of operationalizing its various crisis management instruments as a capable conflict management actor.

In times of the ongoing euro and debt crises in the EU, the focus of attention is drawn away even more from EU foreign and security policy-related questions. In addition, the structural innovations of the Lisbon Treaty created a lot of confusion, not just within the EU but even more so on U.S. side, which doubts that these new instruments transformed the EU into a more capable conflict management actor. The EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2012. While the reaction to this was mixed in the media and public, the Prize should nonetheless serve as a morale boost for a struggling EU to mature in a way that increases its role in relation to conflict management. Institutional self-confidence plays an important role in this development and U.S. support is thus crucial for the EU to develop into a more capable and reliable conflict management actor. In the current situation, the most important step in an evolving EU-U.S. comprehensive conflict management partnership is a clear sign by the U.S. that it still believes that the EU will do so.

 Ms. Svenja Post was a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow in September-November 2012.


[1] Besides the Comprehensive Approach labeling, a multitude of concepts and terminological variations—such as the “Whole-of-Government” denotation, the United Nation’s “Integrated Approach” and “Integrated Missions,” or the famous “3D” concept—appeared on the national and international level. In order to avoid conceptual misunderstandings, the notion of the Comprehensive Approach in this essay is used as an umbrella term for efforts taken to increase conflict management coherence and coordination.

[2] The full text of the Lisbon Treaty is available at:

[3] Claudia Major, Tobias Pietz, Elisabeth Schöndorf, Wanda Hummel, Wanda, “Crisis Management Toolbox – From Civilian Crisis Prevention to Peacebuilding: Principles, Actors, Instruments,” in Preventing Conflict, Managing Crisis. European and American Perspectives, ed. Eva Gross, Daniel Hamilton, Claudia Major, Henning Rieke (Washington, DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations:2011), pp. 91-137, <>.

[4] Research on the success rate and sustainable peace and stability of conflict management operations indicates a relapse of 23% as the short-term risk and the estimate of 40% for the ten-year risk of all peace processes into conflict or the freezing of conflict. See Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, and Måns Söderbom, “Post-Conflict Risks,” Centre for the Study of African Economies/ University of Oxford CSAE Working Paper Series 12 (2006), <>.

[5] With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) was renamed Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).

[6] U.S. responses to emerging challenges of conflict and instability were established under the auspices of “stabilization and reconstruction” since the endorsement of the National Security Presidential Directive-44 (NSPD-44) in 2005. At the strategic level, the 2005 Department of Defense Directive 3000.05 mandated the U.S. military to treat stability and reconstruction efforts on equal priority with combat operations.

[7] The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) is available at

[8] In the past, the U.S. expressed concerns that the development of the EU’s CSDP could result in a wasteful duplication of scarce resources seeing its military instruments as a duplication of NATO instruments.

[9] See Paul B. Stares and Micah Zenko, “Partners in Preventive Action. The United States and International Institutions,” Council on Foreign Relations Special Report, September 2011.

[10] Some of these elements such as doctrine and concepts, education, leadership, and training, already received attention in a 2007 joint EU-U.S. Work Plan on crisis management, which aimed at advancing respective EU and U.S. approaches. Work Plan: EU-U.S. Technical Dialogue and Increased Cooperation in Crisis Management and Conflict Prevention (March 2008), <>.


The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.