The United States has resisted European Union calls for a greater degree of European strategic autonomy in the area of defense and security. The United States should drop its objections, agree with its European allies on how to ensure that strategic autonomy translates into greater European strategic responsibility, and then integrate this agreement both into the new strategic concept of the United States. NATO and in the new strategic compass of the European Union.
The call for greater European strategic autonomy is defended by France and has been incorporated into European Union documents for half a decade. The United States resisted because it is seen as a challenge to NATO, as a formula for military redundancy, and impractical since the European military is only capable of limited independent operations without the support of the United States. . A senior US defense official once captured the emotional American response by joking: “I told my wife this morning that I wanted more strategic autonomy and tonight I’m staying in a hotel.
The time for a change in US policy is ripe for several reasons. Europeans feel a greater need for strategic autonomy amid doubts about the reliability of the United States sparked by former President Trump’s contempt for NATO, as well as recent flawed consultations regarding the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the Australian Submarine Agreement. The United States is calculating the increased military capabilities it needs to deter an aggressive China in Asia and needs a stronger European partner to share the burdens. And NATO and the EU will publish strategic documents next year that will chart the way forward for the military planning of these two organizations for the next decade.
The starting point for transatlantic talks could be the next meeting between Presidents Biden and Macron at the end of October. These talks aim to overcome the breakdown in bilateral relations caused by the AUKUS defense agreement and the associated abandonment of the Australian contract to purchase French diesel submarines. Wider transatlantic consultations will be needed, in part to assure NATO allies that there will be no reduction in the US commitment to deter and defend against Russia. But if Biden and Macron can get along, the rest should follow.
The starting point for a discussion of strategic autonomy and the rebalancing of NATO responsibilities is to define the concept in a way that strengthens the alliance.
The concept should focus on two military objectives. The first objective of greater strategic autonomy should be to develop European capacities to carry out crisis management operations in Europe’s neighborhood without depending heavily today on American catalysts such as strategic transport and refueling. The withdrawal from Afghanistan again demonstrated Europe’s continued dependence on American catalysts. The second goal should be to reduce Europe’s excessive dependence on the United States to defend the European continent against Russia or any other competitor. If a conflict broke out with China in Asia, Europe could not count on sufficient American reinforcements in Europe and would have to take over.
One way to set a military standard for strategic autonomy is to agree that Europe will provide half of the “level of ambition” currently agreed to by NATO. This would translate into a Europe capable of single-handedly carrying out three small, almost simultaneous operations and one large operation. Given Europe’s current lack of catalysts, its relatively low readiness rates, and its fragmented military-industrial complex, it will take time to meet this standard. Strategic autonomy will therefore be a process, not a diplomatic declaration. But the process should start now.
Greater European strategic autonomy will require more, not less, transatlantic consultations on politico-military issues. Currently, these consultations within NATO rely heavily on American leadership because only Washington has the capacity for independent action on a large scale. When Europe acquires the military capabilities necessary for genuine strategic autonomy, its political voice will be amplified. Diplomatic differences may still arise, but a dialogue between equals is more likely to overcome points of disagreement. However, new NATO-EU coordination mechanisms will be needed.
The concept could also lead to a new division of labor within the alliance. It doesn’t need to split the alliance. It would just create more clarity as to who would lead certain missions and what they need to do to be successful. For example, European countries could become the first responders to future crises in neighboring North Africa and the Middle East. They can take the lead in cooperative security missions such as training with NATO partners around the Black Sea or in the Western Balkans. The United States would continue to conduct collective defense operations against a major adversary in Europe. To reassure NATO’s eastern allies, Washington should step up this commitment, perhaps by moving more ground forces to Europe.
Institutional and command arrangements should be refined. The European Union or individual European nations could conduct smaller operations. France has carried out several operations of this type in North Africa. Most larger operations would continue to be carried out by NATO because its integrated military command structure has unique experience in this area. Under the so-called Berlin Plus command arrangements, adopted in the 1990s but never used, the NATO command structure can be used for EU-led operations with a European Deputy SACEUR in charge. These Berlin Plus arrangements should be dusted off and exercised. This would be a more effective way to achieve strategic autonomy for the EU than to build duplicating European command structures from scratch.
Europe’s strategic autonomy would also require some refinements in defense-industry cooperation. The EU already has a European Defense Agency, a European Defense Fund and permanent structured cooperation, all designed to make the European defense industry more effective and efficient, but results have been mixed . A transatlantic compromise would be necessary to further encourage the rationalization of the European defense industry without excluding American technologies which could improve their performance.
Accepting greater European strategic autonomy will be much more effective in rebalancing transatlantic military responsibilities than continuing to harass Americans over burden sharing and the defense spending target of 2% of NATO’s GDP. Rather than focusing on abstract percentages, Europeans will be more effectively stimulated by understanding what they are supposed to contribute and why.
Hans Binnendijk and Alexander Vershbow are both Distinguished Fellows of the Atlantic Council. Binnendijk is a former senior director of defense policy at the NSC and director of the NDU Institute for National Strategic Studies. Vershbow is a former NATO Assistant Secretary General and US Assistant Secretary of Defense.