U.S. President Joe Biden travels to Europe this week to begin a series of meetings with European allies, his first international trip since entering office. Biden telegraphed his main message for the G-7 and NATO summits in The Washington Post, writing that both meetings will be squarely about “realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners” while ensuring democracies around the world will be able to compete in the 21st century.
As one might expect, summits like these usually produce flowery joint communiques, group pictures and self-reassuring words of alliance solidarity. But for the United States, trumpeting NATO’s longevity or embarking on grand trans-Atlantic initiatives is insufficient.
Rather than cobbling the Europeans together and pushing them to follow Washington’s lead, the Biden administration should be working to encourage more capable, independent allies. This means getting rid of some bad habits and allowing, rather than inhibiting, Europe to take more responsibility for its own affairs.
Military spending is a prime example. Successive U.S. administrations have pressured European allies to increase their defense budgets, both to lessen the security burden on Washington and to increase NATO’s overall military capacity. While President Donald Trump will forever be known as the man who chided Europe for pinching pennies on defense, U.S. presidents from as far back as Dwight D. Eisenhower have been consistently frustrated with the continent’s unwillingness to meet U.S. demands. Even President Barack Obama referred to European governments as “free riders” that were largely comfortable with outsourcing their security needs.
Obama and Trump, of course, have a point. In terms of defense expenditures, most European nations are far below NATO standards. Excluding the United States, only 10 out of 30 NATO members spend 2 percent or more of their gross domestic product on their defense.
To take one of the most egregious examples: Germany, the largest economy in Europe, maintains a military that remains in a state of disrepair. As illustrated in Afghanistan, NATO as an organization is highly dependent on the U.S. for the most basic functions.
The United States, however, is not absolved of blame for this situation. While European governments are predominantly responsible for the state of their militaries, Washington has contributed to the problem by frowning upon — if not discouraging — Europe’s movement toward strategic autonomy. The U.S. defense establishment in effect criticizes Europe for taking steps toward what Washington has long wanted it to do: boost the strength, lethality and overall effectiveness of European militaries so the U.S. can spend more time on higher priorities in the Asia-Pacific region.
For decades, the concept of European strategic autonomy has been viewed warily by U.S. officials. The word “autonomy” conjures up images in Washington of allies going their own way and adopting policies that may contradict U.S. policy. When France and Britain were working on joint defense initiatives in the 1990s, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Paris and London these programs should preferably be under the auspices of NATO rather than outside it. In December 2000, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen waved off the prospect of a common European Union defense capability as a threat to the very existence of NATO.
The reticence in Washington with European strategic autonomy in the military realm persists to this day. In 2019, the Trump administration sent a sternly worded letter to the EU’s top diplomat expressing deep concern about the European Defence Fund and the Permanent Structured Cooperation program, both of which aim to increase synergy and interoperability between the militaries of EU member states. Just as Albright and Cohen did in the past, Trump officials didn’t hesitate to remind European leaders that NATO, not the EU, was the preeminent Western military alliance and one that was exclusively responsible for keeping the continent whole, free and at peace.
In short: While Washington will support European allies building more effective forces and assuming greater responsibility for the continent’s own defense, it will only do so if those efforts are within the confines of NATO, an alliance solely reliant on the United States.
The U.S. is interested in Europe strengthening its defense, but not to the point where the continent no longer follows America’s lead. Washington’s concerns with strategic autonomy, therefore, have less to do with duplication of weapons systems than they do with control. The result is the U.S. is stuck holding the bag, and Europe is relegated to junior, rather than equal, partner in the relationship.
President Biden has an opportunity to part ways with decades of ineffective U.S. policy in Europe, which has reinforced the burden-sharing issues multiple administrations in Washington have purportedly sought to resolve. But to do so, the U.S. needs to do less for Europe, loosen the reins and stop taking issue with allies seeking to take the initiative — even if NATO isn’t the sole beneficiary. Programs like a joint European defense fund on weapons research and inter-European training exercises should be applauded, not ridiculed.
Concerns about Europe turning into a strategic rival of the U.S. are overstated. But a feckless Europe wholly at the mercy of the U.S. military, unable to do much of anything on its own, is very real.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.