Europe’s Defense Debate Is All About America

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Last year, when French president Emmanuel Macron declared in an interview with the Economist that NATO was “brain dead,” he caused a stir throughout Europe. Official European reactions came quickly, and they were negative across the continent. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “any attempt to distance Europe from North America will not only weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance, it is also risking dividing Europe itself. European unity cannot replace trans-Atlantic unity.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that she could not support Macron, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki went as far as to qualify Macron’s statements as “dangerous.” Rather than hearing the French wake-up call, the rest of Europe rallied around the NATO flag. Instead of advancing the European debate and generating support for greater European defense efforts as Macron probably hoped to do, his statements apparently had the opposite effect. Allies eventually decided to bury the controversy in a reflection-group process, following a German proposal. Macron recently repeated his call for a stronger Europe at the Munich Security Conference, causing less irritated reactions — yet this event should not be seen as representative of the European debate. A large number of Europeans remain skeptical of Macron’s vision of a less dependent Europe.

In times of increasing European doubts about the transatlantic link and in light of the massive problems European defense is facing, this can seem surprising. Three years into the administration of President Donald Trump, and with a good chance that Trump might be reelected in 2020, most Europeans understand very well that the transatlantic relationship is in a bad state. “Westlessness,” a sense of loss of purpose for the West, was the main theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference. Europeans are also increasingly aware that the rise of China will have a long-term impact on Euro-Atlantic security relations. For example, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s new president, announced that she wants her commission to be “geopolitical” in light of a world characterized by great-power competition. Yet openly saying that Europeans must stop relying almost exclusively on the United States for their defense remains something of a taboo. Breaking it triggers the reactions Macron experienced. Another reason for the pushback against Macron’s comments is that in many Europeans’ eyes, France, its military strength notwithstanding, is probably the least credible leader on the issue of European defense unity given its own Gaullist legacy.



The key point to understand about the European defense debate is therefore that it is all about the United States — at least indirectly. For the vast majority of Europeans, their attitude toward the United States — and thus NATO — determines their attitude toward European defense cooperation, not the other way around. Likewise, in times of growing transatlantic uncertainties, expectations about what the United States will do are what determines Europeans’ willingness to even think about a possible plan B.

The Link Between Attitudes on the United States and European Cooperation

That European attitudes toward the United States determine attitudes toward European defense cooperation is linked to threat perception. Threat perception varies widely across Europe, in both the nature and the intensity of threats perceived. In a nutshell, the debate is about threats from the south (failed states, terrorism) and threats from the east (Russia). Historical legacies obviously matter in countries’ threat perceptions, as does geography. A country’s defense priorities then inform its perceived and actual dependence on the United States. For the Atlanticists among the Europeans, this is thus not simply about blind followership no matter what Washington does or says. It is ultimately about ensuring the nation’s survival. Hence the United States as the independent variable — and the fear to engage in any kind of activity that might alienate Washington.

That attitudes vis-à-vis the United States are the determining factor thus applies to the United Kingdom and Germany as well as other traditional Atlanticists such as the Netherlands. The rule of thumb holds even more true for the so-called Eastern flank countries, that is the Baltic states, the Nordic states, Poland, or Romania. The equation is simple: Without the Americans, they are helpless in facing their main threat, Russia. The greater the fear of Moscow, the stronger the respective capital clings to the United States. What Atlanticist countries are interested in today is effective deterrence against Russia. In their certainly accurate view, nobody else can provide credible deterrence but the Americans. Therefore, the transatlantic security link remains the only game in town: this means NATO, as well as all the bilateral U.S. engagement in European security, including with non-NATO countries Finland and Sweden. Any European type of defense cooperation, such as the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy, is consequently relegated to second place: a nice-to-have, which must not negatively affect NATO. Real defense is about Russia, together with the United States, as there is simply no viable alternative to Washington.

French Exceptionalism

The major exception to that rule is France. France’s attitude vis-à-vis the United States traditionally derives from Paris’ own priorities. With its own (exclusively national) nuclear deterrent and a self-image as a capable military actor with global reach, France just does not consider its own survival to be linked to U.S. engagement in European security. In terms of defense, the French key priority is fighting terrorism in the “global south,” in particular in Africa. In these endeavors, France cooperates very closely with the United States and has tried hard to convince the United States to not abandon it in West Africa. (With some success: In late January, U.S. Defense Secretary Marc Esper announced that the United States would not completely withdraw forces from the region.) Yet, close transatlantic security ties are simply not as vital for France as they are for other European countries. Replacing the United States as a partner in the Sahel is obviously hard to do, but not impossible — in particular if Europeans join forces. The “traditional” Russian threat to European security is, in turn, not very high on France’s agenda, nor is conventional deterrence against Moscow — and that is the Eastern flank’s key preoccupation. Thus France’s engagement in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltics is in reality better understood as Paris securing, for instance, Estonia’s support for expeditionary operations in the Sahel. For France, that is what real defense is about.

Replacing the United States is not on France’s agenda. Yet, Paris apparently fails to understand the fears that lead many Europeans to bet so heavily on the United States. As seen from Paris, and given French defense priorities, the United States is less difficult to replace than as seen from Warsaw. Moreover, France simply does not seem to understand that anything emanating from Paris is seen against the backdrop of several decades of Gaullist legacies, of which Macron’s Economist interview is the latest example. That many perceive Macron as pursuing a Gaullist agenda certainly does not help Paris’ cause — precisely because it is viewed as France’s cause rather than Europe’s.

What’s the Right Dose of U.S. Engagement?

That Europe’s defense debate is all about America is nothing new. How much America is the right amount? This argument goes back to the creation of NATO. Among the stranger aspects of this debate is that many Europeans approached it as if the degree of U.S. engagement were decided in Paris or London rather than in Washington. It was in any case fears of weakening NATO that made Britain oppose defense becoming an area of European integration, an attitude that only evolved to some degree during the late 1990s. An early illustration of America’s centrality is also the preamble the Germans added to the 1963 Franco-German Elysée Treaty. This preamble, which stressed Germany’s interest in a larger European community including the United Kingdom and close ties with the United States, infuriated de Gaulle, and to this day, France and Germany are not on the same page when it comes to their Atlantic preferences.

After the Cold War, the debate continued to pit the proponents of a “Europe of Defense” (that is: France) against the Atlanticists — with the latter camp growing with each round of E.U. and NATO enlargement. Europeans continued to debate how much of America they wanted in their defense. One explanation for France’s “return” to NATO in 2009 is thus Paris’ realization that such a “Europe of Defense” is unlikely to see the light of day, as former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine writes in his 2012 official assessment. In sum, in all these debates, France traditionally stood, and continues to stand, on the other side of the European mainstream. At least in its modern version, this has yet little to do with anti-Americanism, but rather with the divergent priorities outlined above.

Does Europe Need a Plan B?

The European debates of the 1990s, such as on the European Security and Defense Identity or the traditional French take on “l’Europe de la defense”, were mainly academic in nature. After the demise of the Soviet Union, or so many Europeans thought, defense had become a sort of “nice to have.” Many European countries preferred to take advantage of the peace dividend, notably those in Western Europe. This changed with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. NATO found a new raison d’être and is again considered the security linchpin in the vast majority of European capitals. But the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president led to questions of whether the United States would still be the partner the Europeans needed. After all, Trump had inter alia claimed the Atlantic alliance was “obsolete,” and NATO summits are nowadays considered diplomatic nightmares in numerous European capitals. Europeans seem to finally understood that the degree of U.S. implication will be decided in Washington, rather than in Paris or Warsaw. Thinking about a plan B consequently would appear a sensible thing to do.

The result is essentially the debate on European strategic autonomy. In this current version of the European defense debate, fault lines once again run exactly along the lines described above. Threat perception determines the degree of dependence on the United States, which in turn determines attitudes toward European defense efforts. France is thus the self-proclaimed leader on European strategic autonomy. The “Atlanticists” on the Eastern flank, in turn, are most skeptical of any attempt at building a European defense. Then-Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło for instance declared that “the so-called strategic autonomy of the EU [must] not lead to weakening of [the] European contribution to [the] deterrence and defence potential of NATO.” Some even went as far as to argue — long before the French president’s Economist interview — that “Macron’s visions are suicidal for Poland.” More nuanced academic assessments also come to the conclusion that the United States is simply irreplaceable in European security, identifying a “strategic autonomy dilemma” based on the need to preserve Washington’s engagement.

In short: yet again, this is all about America. Really strengthening European defense efforts indeed is plan B to many, and only of interest if plan A — NATO backed by the United States — is not available. Whether plan A is really off the table is hotly debated. The lack of a European consensus on the need for a plan B stems from divergent analyses of the transatlantic link’s future trajectory. In the French discourse and debate, the “progressive and unavoidable disengagement of the United States” from Europe is considered a given. Mounting frustration about not getting the message across may thus partly explain Macron’s harsh words on NATO. In Germany, despite Merkel’s statement that Europe needs to take its fate in its own hands, hopes still seem high that transatlantic relations will go back to “normal” after Trump. In many Eastern flank countries, the standard argument is that Trump actually increased funding for the European Deterrence Initiative and that there consequently is no need to worry. Other items regularly mentioned by Poles or Swedes (as well as Americans meaning to reassure the Europeans) as proof of the United States’ commitment to European security are various polls and references to support for NATO in the U.S. Congress. Psychology certainly plays into it: On all sides, the analysis seems to magically yield the preferred result.

Answering the Key Question

In light of these divergent assessments, it is no wonder there is no consensus on the conclusions to draw for European defense and the need for a plan B. The main reason why Macron’s wake-up call is unlikely to work is indeed that the key question remains unanswered: What will be the United States’ future engagement in European security? With America being the independent variable for a majority of European capitals — and European defense cooperation the dependent one – Paris ultimately lacks influence on their positions. A European debate based on what France wants (and its subsequent rejection by the Atlanticist camp) will lead nowhere. All Paris can do is find partners for projects even Atlanticist capitals consider nice-to-haves (and that do no harm to NATO), such as the French European Intervention Initiative. At the end of the day, this is the reality of European defense cooperation as of 2020. Macron’s offer to start a strategic dialogue on the role of nuclear deterrence in European security — made during his long-expected speech on nuclear deterrence on February 7 — is unlikely to fundamentally change any of this. Europe’s key defense problems cannot be solved by nuclear means. Europe’s main defense challenge is conventional, boiling down to the question “What if the tripwire in the Baltics fails?”

Ultimately, only the answer to the question of future U.S. engagement in European security can provide the necessary impetus for European defense cooperation to really become an alternative to NATO — and provide most Europeans with a reason to strive for that objective. Absent a unified European analysis, nobody but Washington can provide that answer — either together with the Europeans or through unilateral acts and faits accomplis.

In an ideal world, Europeans would therefore engage in a constructive dialogue with Washington on the United States’ future engagement in European security. As Ronja Kempin and I have argued earlier in these pages, it is in America’s interest to have a Europe with strategic autonomy. A stronger European defense would lead to better burden-sharing, thereby strengthening the transatlantic link rather than weakening it, as its detractors would have it. This would in essence mean leaving the zero-sum logic that more Europe means less NATO behind. Unfortunately, this again seems to be the predominant view in Washington, most recently expressed in an official letter sent to the European Union.

Yet if the United States wants capable European partners in a 21st century that will be characterized by multipolarity and great-power competition, it must change its mind on Europe’s strategic autonomy. Attaining that autonomy is of course a matter for the Europeans, which requires European leadership. Germany has a key role to play in that respect. Yet the fear of alienating Washington many Europeans hold constitutes the major roadblock in attaining that objective, or even starting to think about operationalizing it. Answering the question that is, implicitly or explicitly, underlying the entire European defense debate is perhaps the greatest service the United States can do their European allies in the multipolar — and potentially post-Atlantic — era.



Dr. Barbara Kunz is a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. She specializes in European and transatlantic security, with a special focus on Franco-German cooperation and the Nordics.

Image: The Kremlin