Divergent Security Strategies: EU-US Continental Drift?

Written by | Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

US President Donald Trump’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy (NDS) see the global security order as a content in which China and Russia as well as rouge regime such as North Korea and Iran try to challenge the established framework. While it is unclear to what extent the US security strategy will be inspired by this security outlook, the two documents point out to the strategic shift that is currently underway in US security and defense policy.

Washington’s emphasis on inter-state competition may be a continuation of patterns that started years ago, but it does not really sit well with the outlook and priorities of the United States’ European allies. For the most part, Europeans have not been willing to embrace the notion of great power competition and the zero-sum view is therefore inconsistent with their worldview.

However, the reluctance to see the global security in zero-sum game view does not mean that Europeans are naïve. On the contrary, recent developments in the countries surrounding the EU such as the war in Crimea coupled with the new administration in Washington made Europeans strengthen their defense. A few European strategic documents – including, importantly, the 2017 French Review of Defense and National Security – also offer clear-eyed evaluation on the consequences of global strategic competition.

Both trans-Atlantic partners do share an over-arching interest in taming the rising influence of authoritarian powers such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. Yet, they differ in their respective threat perceptions and prioritizations. American concepts such as ‘peace through strength’ are concerning to European leadership, most of which would prefer soft power and diplomacy. In this respect, while the NSS and NDS are generally favored by European decision-makers for their view of Russia as a revisionist power, the possibility of further deterioration in US-Russian relations and its impact on European security worries Europeans.

Meanwhile, few European capitals share the Trump administration’s view of China being a revisionist power. Although, Brussels is hardening its view on China, this has mostly applied to the economic sphere. Some European leaders even see Beijing as possibly a useful partner when it comes to upholding multilateralism or combating climate change in opposition to the Trump administration. Since very few EU countries have any military presence in the Asia-Pacific, they do not really see China as a strategic military threat.

As opposed to the American interest in Asia-Pacific, Europeans have largely focused on a number of crises closer to home: Brexit, Crimea and Russia’s search of sphere of influence in the East or the migratory pressures from North Africa. Yet, the diverging interests of the US and Europe are not irreconcilable. Countering Russian ambitions is key to Europe’s security and also a good fit with Donald Trump’s strategy. Europe’s interest in stabilizing North Africa is also in Washington’s interests and coincides with the larger objectives in the Middle East.

Above all, Europe and the United States are in a need of a joint vision. The security framework that connects both continents together is based on shared political and strategic concerns. The NSS and NDS highlight the challenges that the democracies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean will have to deal with in the coming decades.

‘Continental Drift?’ – Op-Ed by Erik Brattberg and Etienne Soula – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(The Op-Ed can be downloaded here)


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