European defense is on the move. Over the summer, the European Commission announced a modest European defense fund to support both defense research and development as well as initial steps in capability developments. At the same time, a small chain of command has been set up in Brussels to run E.U. military training missions in fragile states. Last week, the European Union Council inaugurated a new type of defense cooperation among European countries, dubbed the Permanent Structured Cooperation. It aims at fostering cooperation on concrete capability projects and is supported by increased coordination on defense planning among E.U. member states. Taken separately, each of these steps is modest, but they all point in the right direction — toward more “strategic autonomy,” a goal defined in the last E.U. Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy.
These steps have been received with mixed feelings in Washington. While some have expressed skepticism, others have raised objections that these moves could drain resources away from NATO. In other words, E.U. defense cooperation is seen by Americans as either insignificant or problematic. Both attitudes do not help define a meaningful U.S. response to these efforts, and both stand at odds with the stated American interest that European allies should bear their fair share of the burden of their security.
Within NATO, the United States has been rightly hammering European allies who do not spend enough on defense. But this has produced only limited results. There are various reasons for this, but one often overlooked is that the NATO framework and American security guarantees have tended to stifle the ability of European allies to own their defense policies. Of course, NATO has structured European militaries to a very large extent, prioritizing modernization and interoperability. But the flipside is that most European states heavily depend on the alliance’s threat assessments to evaluate the strategic environment and on NATO’s defense planning process. European allies contribute to shaping NATO policies, but rely on them to such an extent that it ends up stifling national thinking. Integration of European allies’ defense policies within NATO has gone so far as to make it unnecessary for many of them to develop a consistent national defense policy on their own. As a consequence, strategic thinking has atrophied in most European states, who have cut their defense budgets since the end of the Cold War — happy to delegate their defense policies to NATO and pursue other spending priorities.
This lack of ownership affects the political level, where security and defense issues do not rank as priorities for most E.U. leaders. Nowhere is this more blatant than on nuclear issues, where some European allies have been tempted to embrace a disarmament agenda that is not consistent with what they agreed to within NATO. Several factors are at play, but the nuclear issue is also a symptom of a broader disjunction: Many European allies simply don’t feel in charge, because the United States is taking care of them. Guarantees provided by the NATO framework allow them entertain a delusional sense of security. This is a classic Catch-22 situation typical of any alliance system, on full display in today’s NATO.
In his own way, President Donald Trump understands this. His insistence on making U.S. security guarantees conditional on European allies “paying up” is an attempt to address the issue. But no one in Europe wants U.S. security guarantees made more uncertain in today’s strategic context, with the Russian threat looming large again over the continent. Efforts to empower Europeans within the NATO framework can only go so far, because what is needed is more ownership and more responsibility, which means more autonomy. As such, the only way to empower the Europeans is to encourage them to make progress on their own, without U.S. supervision. It has to happen outside the NATO framework.
This is where the European Union can help. Of course, the E.U. does not lend itself easily to real strategic thinking, as it was conceived in the first place to forestall hard-power relations among its own member states. But progress on European defense cooperation is a sign that Europeans are adapting to the changing strategic environment because they can no longer afford to overlook the very real threats at their own borders. In a way, European leaders are also adjusting to the evolution of U.S. foreign and defense policy, which they see as less engaged and less predictable, focused on more strictly defined US interests that do not fully align with European security needs. The German foreign minister expressed this view quite bluntly in a recent speech in Berlin. The notion that Europeans should achieve more “strategic autonomy” was adopted in the European Union’s Global Strategy for Foreign and Defence policy even before the 2016 U.S. election, as a reflection of Obama’s foreign policy choices in Syria and in Ukraine.
If real progress is to be made beyond rhetoric, Europeans will have to figure out how to do it on their own — including, crucially, at the national level. The European Union should not seek to produce a fully integrated defense policy, but rather enable member states to do more and better on defense. This is exactly the philosophy which underpins the new Permanent Structured Cooperation. In his speech about Europe at the Sorbonne, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a revival of what he calls “strategic culture” in European countries. What he means is that Europeans should own the whole of their defense policy and take responsibility for it. In order to do that, he argued, any cooperation among Europeans is good, whether it be inside or outside the E.U. framework, through ad hoc multinational cooperation. He went on to propose a “European intervention initiative” based on a willing-and-able approach that will strengthen the European contribution to both NATO and the European Union.
There is no European Union versus NATO theology at work here, only the attempt to make European states more responsible for their own defense policy and therefore make their defense effort stronger and more coherent in a pragmatic way. Of course, these plans should not weaken the transatlantic link. But as many have already argued, the real risk for the transatlantic relationship today does not come from Europeans trying to achieve more autonomy on defense, but from American unpredictability itself. The United States should neither downplay nor discourage those efforts, but rather quietly support them. For Washington, the choice is between having dependent European allies who will remain weak as a consequence, or allowing them become more capable and more independent. In the long run, only the latter will really make the transatlantic alliance stronger.
Paul Zajac is a French career diplomat and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) where he focuses on Europe and the European Union, transatlantic and European security issues. Before joining AEI, he was deputy director of the Center for Analysis, Planning, and Strategy (Policy Planning) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. The opinions expressed here are his own.