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European strategic autonomy: Going it alone?

11 Oct 2018 - 11:27
Source: US Embassy France/Wikimedia Commons

This blog is an abbreviated version of a Policy Brief by the same title published in August 2018.

Security and defence policy in the EU has long been surrounded by a sense of disillusionment and a lack of energy. But in the past few years wake-up call after wake-up call have breathed new life into the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). In response to rising threat levels, mounting pressure by the United States and increasing doubts about the U.S. commitment, the EU has revitalised its defence cooperation. But if Europeans thought that their initiatives would be met with nothing but applause in Washington, they should have thought twice. The revitalisation of EU security and defence saw the simultaneous resurgence of concerns about its effects on the transatlantic bond, on defence industrial protectionism and cooperation within NATO.

St. Malo revisited?

From the outset Europe’s ambition for strategic autonomy was viewed with suspicion from across the Atlantic. When the ambition was first voiced at St. Malo twenty years ago, the then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned against ‘the 3 Ds’: the decoupling of European decision-making from Alliance decision-making; the duplication by European security and defence efforts of efforts undertaken within NATO; and EU discrimination against European NATO members that were not part of the EU. The recent revival of the EU defence project has seen a – albeit less pronounced – return of these concerns. This ‘3 D-redux’ is particularly prevalent among a group of US policymakers and experts who, over the years, have remained sceptical about European defence efforts as they fear that these might undermine the transatlantic bond. In addition to these ‘doubters’, roughly three other sets of responses can be discerned in the US debate on European strategic autonomy:

  • The ‘devotees’, who believe that a stronger European defence will benefit the US and NATO as it will lead to greater transatlantic burden-sharing. 
  • The ‘disbelievers’, who believe that the CSDP will remain a paper tiger and are convinced that a separate European defence effort will undermine NATO. 
  • The ‘decouplers’, who are in favour of ending US military engagements in Europe and terminating US membership of NATO. 

While transatlantic relations have weathered many storms, it is difficult to overlook the fact that since the end of the Cold War the structural foundations of strong security cooperation have been affected

Europe going it alone

Over the years the notion of strategic autonomy has received the characteristics of a mantra: many documents repeat its necessity, nobody really specifies what it means and it has thereby gained an almost symbolic status. Leaving all kinds of ambiguity is of course not a new phenomenon for processes related to European integration. It serves a purpose to leave a concept somewhat vague, as it relieves the Member States of the obligation to address the differences of opinion on the matter. Only France has provided a clear-cut definition of what it means by strategic autonomy: the ability to decide and to act freely in an interdependent world. Other member states have been less explicit, emphasizing different dimensions of strategic autonomy depending on their policy needs. However, to follow through on achieving strategic autonomy in all aspects, operational, industrial, political and even nuclear, would have far-reaching consequences that are rarely considered. 

Full strategic autonomy in a scenario where Europe was forced ‘to go it alone’ with the United States suddenly withdrawing from NATO seems unlikely. But a scenario in which NATO gradually erodes from the inside, with the United States and Europe drifting apart, is no longer unthinkable. What would this mean for European security? In a worst case scenario, in which Europe is left to its own devices, some analysts believe that it would take European countries up to ten to 15 years before they would be able to reach the level of conventional military capabilities that they would need to compensate for American contributions. To rectify these shortfalls all EU member states would have to invest heavily, within a short time span, and collectively. An immense task, leaving aside the faltering readiness levels and lack of absorption capacity of European armed forces. 

Although central to the French concept of strategic autonomy, the nuclear part of European strategic autonomy remains something of a taboo. Discussing it might set off the exact circumstances that nobody in European NATO wants: a debate in the US about the rationality of risking Chicago for a European city, chipping away at the credibility of Western nuclear deterrence. Europeans therefore stick to the option of relying on a solid transatlantic security relationship and the US nuclear umbrella. It would however be naïve to believe that the transatlantic relationship will never change and that nuclear weapons will be banned anytime soon. Irrespective of who resides in the White House, a strategically mature Europe should start thinking of a credible ‘Eurodeterrent’ that does not solely rely on the assumption that the US will come to its defence. However politically sensitive it may be, extending the French nuclear umbrella to Europe could be a viable option. 

Conclusion: the strategic autonomy dilemma

While a degree of constructive ambiguity on strategic autonomy might be beneficial for keeping all on board for a more capable European defence, this ambiguity is not received very well across the Atlantic and has to be better clarified, even to those U.S. constituencies that support a stronger CSDP. It is perhaps also not very strategic for Europe to strive for full autonomy. Having a powerful ally like the United States in your corner is strategically almost always the better choice. It is however exactly this lack of choice that drives the current quest for strategic autonomy. Europeans are faced with a dilemma: they cannot afford to be in limbo about the commitment of the United States to their security, but they also cannot afford to fully take care of their own security (yet). Keeping the US as engaged as possible in European security, while at the same time strengthening the European capacity to defend itself, is the task at hand.