European leaders greeted Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election with relief. Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, Biden does not want to undermine the EU, and believes in the value of NATO and the principle of multilateralism. Many Europeans will want to forget Trump’s presidency ever happened, and in the Biden era they may row back on their efforts to develop EU ‘strategic autonomy’ in security and defence. The EU has been trying to develop its capacity for independent military action since the launch of its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in the late 1990s. But in its latest incarnation, strategic autonomy is French President Emmanuel Macron’s brainchild.
The term has been used to describe Europeans’ efforts over the past four years to develop their capacity to carry out military operations without US support, and develop more arms together at home rather than buying them abroad. The subject has already received renewed attention with the US election. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer argued that Europeans should abandon “illusions” of European strategic autonomy since they would not be able to replace America as a security provider, echoing arguments that leaders of Central and Eastern European member states have often made in recent years. Other politicians, like Macron and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, have argued that Europeans cannot be sure of America’s reliability and that Biden’s victory should not distract them from efforts to advance their strategic autonomy.
However, the distinction between a ‘European path’ and a ‘transatlantic path’ in EU defence is misguided, and the supposed disagreement between Berlin and Paris feeds a straw man debate. Europe needs to become a more capable security and defence actor, both to work better with the United States, and because it will have to go it alone if its interests are not aligned with the US. While the Biden administration will probably be more supportive of EU defence efforts than the Trump administration has been, it cannot be expected to hold Europeans’ hands through another four years of debating strategic autonomy. Europe cannot continue to look to the US to answer key questions on what its interests are and how it should pursue them. Instead, European governments should take advantage of the fact that there is no longer the distraction of an adversarial transatlantic relationship, and invest both financial and political capital into strengthening their ability to carry out military operations, whether through the EU, NATO, or other frameworks. And the ability to act is not enough: Europeans will also need to summon up the will to act effectively.
Europeans need to focus on becoming more capable defence actors, whether through the EU, NATO or other formats. To do so, they should, firstly, focus on improving Europe’s capacity to act rather than on abstract debates. Proponents of strategic autonomy should shift their emphasis to advancing a more concrete debate about threats and capabilities, which would in turn help persuade both European sceptics of strategic autonomy and the US of the merits of a stronger EU in security and defence. A starting point to convince sceptics could be investing seriously in aligning NATO and EU defence efforts. Secondly, the EU should ensure that its initiatives deliver. The defence budget cuts in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis had lasting effects across the EU. With substantially reduced funding in the EU’s 2021-2027 budget, EU defence initiatives, such as PESCO, the EDF and CARD, can hardly contribute to preventing a similar dynamic today, safeguarding European capabilities, technologies and skills. Thirdly, Europeans will have to invest more in the readiness of their armed forces, and their ability to move, but also into emerging civilian technologies with military applications, such as quantum computing or artificial intelligence, not least to assure that their military forces remain fully interoperable with the US military.
Europeans should not be tempted to act as if Trump’s presidency never happened. It would be a mistake for them to relax and abandon their defence efforts now that Biden has won. Trumpism in some form is likely to endure, meaning that Europeans cannot be sure whether Biden’s successors will be committed to European security. Moreover, deep shifts are underway in US foreign policy which will mean that the US is likely to be less focused on Europe in the future. Even if another Democratic president were to follow Biden, foreign policy isolationism has become prevalent in significant parts of the American left. Europeans have to take on more responsibility for their own security, both for their own sake and to strengthen the relationship with the US. This will not be easy, especially in the context of the COVID-19 induced economic slump and the defence cuts that may follow. Nevertheless, Europeans have little choice but to try.
Instead of endlessly debating labels, Europeans should focus their efforts on how to improve their security and defence capabilities – and then actually use them if necessary. Europeans do not need to choose between pursuing their security through the EU on the one hand, or through NATO and the alliance with the US on the other, nor should they. Instead, they need to invest in their ability to act together to secure their neighbourhood, both within the EU and through other frameworks, in order to be able to act alone if the US will not. This need not undermine NATO or the EU’s relations with the US. Instead, a stronger and more confident Europe will be better able to look after its own security and place the transatlantic bond on a more solid footing.
‘European Strategic Autonomy and a New Transatlantic Bargain’ – Policy Brief by Sophia Besch and Luigi Scazzieri – Centre for European Reform / CER.