The US should support Europeans strategic autonomy – Business Insider

  • The US has wielded its influence to hamper moves toward an independent European military capability.
  • But in the current environment, US should support Europe taking primary ownership of its own security.
  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

On the same day France signed a $3.4 billion deal with Greece to provide the Mediterranean country with three state-of-the-art warships, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated a point he has made ever since he decided to run as a presidential candidate in 2017: Europe needs to stand up for itself and take more responsibility for its defense needs.

“Europeans must come out of their naivety,” Macron said during a press conference on September 29. “We must, as Europeans, take our part in our own protection.” The desire for European strategic autonomy may ruffle some feathers in Washington, but a careful assessment reveals this notion aligns with US interests.

It’s easy to chalk Macron’s rhetoric up to traditional French Gaullism. But the sentiment for a more assertive and autonomous Europe extends well beyond French political circles to the very heart of the European Union.

Writing in The New York Times in September, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell advocated for the creation of a 5,000-strong European intervention force that could be deployed in a crisis.

Addressing the European Parliament weeks later, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed, “Europe can — and clearly should — be able and willing to do more on its own.”

Olaf Scholz, Germany’s likely incoming chancellor, expressed a similar theme during the campaign, arguing that a “strong, sovereign Europe” was critical if the continent hoped to be a major geopolitical player.

Germany German troops soldiers Bundeswehr
German soldiers board a German air force A400M at a Bundeswehr air base in Jagel, December 10, 2015.
REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

Unfortunately, the growing tide across Western Europe in favor of strategic autonomy has produced very little follow through. With the exception of the EU’s newly released Indo-Pacific strategy promoting a renewed European role in the region and the implementation of a joint EU defense research program known as Permanent Structured Cooperation (a program plagued with delays), talk about strategic autonomy has been just that — talk.

A big reason for the dilemma is honest disagreement within Europe itself. For countries like Poland and the Baltic states, situated close to Russia and dependent on US security guarantees, there is a concern that strategic autonomy could undermine NATO’s purpose.

But an even bigger impediment is the United States itself, which has effectively used its veto and considerable clout in European defense debates to ensure that any moves toward an independent European military capability is smothered in its crib.

Because the US foreign policy establishment views retaining US primacy in Europe as a strategic imperative, successive US administrations have lectured and at times threatened European governments from doing anything that could potentially compete with NATO, an institution dominated by Washington.

In May 2019, the Trump administration went as far as sending a sternly worded letter to the EU’s top foreign policy official lambasting EU defense innovation as a distraction from NATO activities.

In effect, the US has been hypocritical, complaining about Europe’s unwillingness to invest in its own defense while simultaneously opposing moves that would make Europe a stronger player. The US remains wedded to the idea that anything short of full and complete US dominance in Europe is unacceptable.

Jens Stoltenberg Joe Biden NATO
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and then-Vice President Joe Biden at the Munich Security Conference, February 7, 2015.
CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images

This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. The United States should be embracing a more sovereign, independent Europe, particularly one that takes primary ownership of its own security.

It’s not like Europe is short on material resources. At just over $15 trillion, the European Union’s collective GDP rivals China’s. Of the 10 largest economies in the world, four of them (Germany, the UK, France, and Italy) reside in Europe. At $3.8 trillion, Germany’s economy alone is about two-and-a-half times larger than Russia’s. The US should be cheering a bolder Europe in large measure because Europe can afford it.

More importantly, however, European strategic autonomy is also in the US national security interest. Europe is no longer the center of gravity in the international system like it was during the Cold War, when Washington and Moscow were in the throes of a decades-long global competition for power and influence. Needless to say, that world no longer exists.

Europe is whole, free, and at peace — and has been for decades. To the extent Europe is facing an external threat, Vladimir Putin’s Russia lacks the relative strength of its Soviet predecessor. Despite Moscow’s proficiency in cyberattacks and gray-zone tactics, Russia lacks the capabilities for a full-scale, conventional invasion of Europe.

In short: European policymakers shouldn’t be operating as if they are stuck in a 1970’s time warp. With Washington spending more of its energy and bureaucratic attention on the Indo-Pacific, Europe taking primary responsibility for events in its neighborhood is a common-sense proposition — one that would help free up limited US resources from a region financially and militarily capable of doing more for itself.

Of course, European policymakers could still conclude that strategic autonomy is not the way to go. Or they may not have the will to proceed. Ultimately, this is a decision only Europe can make.

Yet for US policymakers back in Washington, the bottom line still stands: permanently stationing over 70,000 US troops on the continent is simply unnecessary in today’s security environment. All that’s left is for Washington to recognize this reality.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for Newsweek.

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The US should support Europeans strategic autonomy – Business Insider

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