The United States has resisted European Union calls for a greater degree of European strategic autonomy in the realm of defense and security. The United States should drop its objections, agree with its European allies on how to ensure that strategic autonomy results in greater European strategic responsibility, and then embed that agreement in both NATO’s new strategic concept and the European Union’s new strategic compass.
The call for greater European strategic autonomy is championed by France and has been incorporated in European Union documents for half a decade. The United States has resisted because it is seen as a challenge to NATO, as a formula for military redundancy, and as impractical since European militaries are capable of only limited independent operations without U.S. support. One senior U.S. defense official once captured the American emotional response quipping: “I told my wife this morning that I wanted more strategic autonomy and tonight I am staying in a hotel.”
The time for a shift in U.S. policy is ripe for several reasons. Europeans feel a greater need for strategic autonomy because of doubts about American reliability prompted by former President Trump’s disdain for NATO, as well as recent flawed consultations relating to troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Australian submarine deal. The United States is calculating the increased military capabilities it needs to deter an aggressive China in Asia and requires a stronger European partner to share the burdens. And both NATO and the EU will issue strategic documents next year that will set the course for these two organizations’ military planning for the next decade.
The place to begin transatlantic discussions might be the upcoming meeting between Presidents Biden and Macron in late October. Those talks are designed to get beyond the rupture in bilateral relations caused by the AUKUS defense agreement and the associated abandonment of Australia’s contract to purchase French diesel submarines. Broader transatlantic consultations will be necessary, in part to assure NATO allies that there will be no reduction in the U.S. commitment to deter and defend against Russia. But if Biden and Macron can agree then the rest should follow.
The place to start a discussion about strategic autonomy and rebalancing NATO responsibilities is to define the concept in a way designed to strengthen the alliance.
The concept should focus on two military goals. The first goal of greater strategic autonomy should be developing European capabilities to conduct crisis management operations in Europe’s neighborhood without today’s heavy reliance on American enablers such as strategic lift and refueling. The withdrawal from Afghanistan again demonstrated Europe’s continued dependence on U.S. enablers. The second goal should be to reduce excessive European reliance on the United States to defend the European continent against Russia or any other peer competitor. Should conflict break out with China in Asia, Europe would not be able to count on adequate U.S. reinforcements in Europe and would need to pick up the slack.
One way to establish a military standard for strategic autonomy is to agree that Europe will provide one-half of NATO’s current agreed “level of ambition.” That would translate into Europe being able to conduct three nearly simultaneous small operations and one major operation on its own. Given Europe’s current lack of enablers, its relatively low readiness rates, and its fragmented military industrial complex, meeting this standard will take time. So strategic autonomy will be a process, not a diplomatic declaration. But the process should start now.
Greater European strategic autonomy will require more, not less, transatlantic consultation on political-military matters. Currently those consultations within NATO rely heavily on American leadership because only Washington has the capacity for large-scale, independent action. When Europe acquires the military capabilities needed for real strategic autonomy, its political voice will be amplified. Diplomatic differences may still arise, but a dialogue among equals is more likely to overcome areas of disagreement. That said, new mechanisms for NATO-EU coordination will be needed.
The concept could also lead to a new division of labor within the alliance. That need not divide the alliance. It would just create greater clarity as to who would lead certain missions and what they need to do to succeed. For example, European nations might become the first responders to future crises in neighboring North Africa and the Middle East. They may take the lead for cooperative security missions such as training with NATO partners around the Black Sea or in the Western Balkans. The United States would continue to lead collective defense operations against a major adversary in Europe. To reassure NATO’s eastern allies, Washington should reinforce that commitment, perhaps by moving more ground forces to Europe.
Institutional and command arrangements would need to be refined. The European Union or individual European nations might lead smaller operations. France has led several such operations in North Africa. Most larger operations would continue to be conducted by NATO because its integrated military command structure has unique experience in doing so. Under the so-called Berlin Plus command arrangements, adopted in the early 2000s but never used, NATO’s command structure can be used for EU-led operations with a European Deputy SACEUR in charge. Those Berlin Plus arrangements would need to be dusted off and exercised. That would be a more efficient means of achieving EU strategic autonomy than building duplicative EU command structures from scratch.
Strategic autonomy for Europe would also require some refinements in defense-industrial cooperation. The EU already has a European Defense Agency, a European Defense Fund, and Permanent Structured Cooperation, all designed to make Europe’s defense industry more efficient and effective, but the results have been mixed. A transatlantic compromise would be needed to further encourage streamlining of Europe’s defense industry without excluding American technologies that could improve their output.
Agreeing to greater European strategic autonomy will be much more effective at rebalancing transatlantic military responsibilities than continued American harping about burden sharing and NATO’s 2 percent of GDP defense spending goal. Rather than focusing on abstract percentages, Europeans will be more effectively stimulated by understanding what they are expected to contribute and why.
Hans Binnendijk and Alexander Vershbow are both Distinguished Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Binnendijk is a former NSC Senior Director for Defense Policy and Director of NDU’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. Vershbow is a former NATO Deputy Secretary General and US Assistant Secretary of Defense.
Editor’s note: The article was updated on Oct. 11 to correct the Berlin Plus command arrangement’s adoption date (2003).