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Making Sense of Europe’s Strategic Cacophony

The EU wants to be a grown-up player on the world stage. Knowing exactly what that entails is the harder bit.
(By Melinda Nagy / Shutterstock)

As geopolitical tropes go, likening the world to a “family of nations” sounds quainter these days than ever. Yet the present stage in transatlantic relations is perhaps best analogized to a family’s life cycle—particularly, to that bittersweet climax when young adults leave the family nest.

That the Cold War’s end didn’t trigger Europe’s emancipation from America’s security blanket is a testament to the lure of free riding, one that keeps souring transatlantic trust to this day. Even as the U.S.’ key objectives seemed complete then—rebuilding a prosperous and internally cooperative Europe free of the Soviet threat—the continent’s aggregate levels of defense spending had made little progress well into the late 2000s. This was despite (and perhaps perversely incentivized by) America’s Mid-Eastern quagmires, Obama’s Asian pivot, and a growingly isolationist public–all of which made largesse towards the Europeans costlier every year. As of Trump’s last month in office, barely 5 of the E.U.’s 27 member states meet the annual 2%-of-GDP commitment to defense spending they’ve pledged as NATO signatories, whilst the alliance’s Russian flank—the continent’s main security threat—relies primarily on U.S. troops. The average defense budget across the bloc is a meagre 1.1%.

Shortly into Trump’s administration, Emmanuel Macron—France’s “think-tanker-in-chief” per POLITICO—launched what’s lately become a pan-European debate on the continent’s future posture by coining “strategic autonomy,” a formula arguably dusted off from classified French defense files from the 1990s. With its scope now enlarged to Europe, the concept in some way channels France’s longtime maximalist view of its own sovereignty, one that caused America’s aversion at the time of its chief promoter, Charles de Gaulle. Macron’s Euro-Gaullism shouldn’t be concerning to Americans per se if it achieves the kind of enhanced military preparedness that has long been a key demand of the U.S. Back to our metaphor, young adults save their parents money and headspace by moving out, and the latter’s future obligations as the grandkids’ caretakers are more than offset by being taken care of themselves in old age. These realms operate under different premises, but just like in family life, geopolitics can know complementarities. The investment pillar of “strategic autonomy,” for instance, has pleased China hawks on both sides of the Atlantic by emulating CFIUS’ model for screening investments on national security grounds. Leaving Europe to patrol its North African and Eastern Mediterranean neighborhoods, such as with the French-Turkish spat over Greece’s territorial waters this summer, has been another American satisfaction with “strategic autonomy.”

Except that the world in 2020 seems less a family than ever—and to the extent the U.S.-E.U. relationship remains defined by geostrategic kinship—the kind of emancipation that “strategic autonomy” is meant to deliver remains ill-defined beyond routine bromides about better “burden-sharing” on defense. The incoming administration can’t be blamed for sitting out what sounds like the latest iteration of an old European refrain, and while it awaits to translate Biden’s rhetoric into concrete action, the debate has mostly run amongst Europeans themselves. It reached a fever pitch with the recent trading of intellectual barbs between Macron—who in mid-November stepped up his routine dabbling in grand strategy with a large feature interview—and Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karenbauer (“AKK”). They didn’t stop there. Whilst E.U. dignitaries sagely wait on the sidelines, an army of predominantly French think-tank scholars and officials have moved to flesh out Macron’s framework, inviting a flurry of critiques from predominantly German colleagues and contradictors. To further blur the lines, each side is picking strawmen arguments and framing the face-off in a way that makes its own case. Macron’s allies have used “European sovereignty” interchangeably with “autonomy” whilst surmising that the other side would gladly make the E.U. an American protectorate, or worse, the geopolitical plaything of the next hegemon to be. Meanwhile, AKK has labeled her case as “atlanticist”—claiming a monopoly on E.U.-U.S. dialogue is a German national sport—which allows her to lump on her camp Baltic and Central European nations who welcome the label but resent Germany’s chronic under-spending even more than the French.

As if the love-hate relationship that’s formed the E.U.’s core power axis wasn’t on full enough display, Germany and France seem to be talking past one another. Their nominal agreement on redoubling the defense beef-up of the last four years fades the further one ventures into the implications of “strategic autonomy” on trade, telecoms equipment, or industrial policy. Their varying interpretations in these areas are particularly concerning, for whatever the median between them comes to be, it is unlikely to jibe with America’s views—even those of Joe Biden. Though this whole conversation has evolved out of Trump’s lambasting, “strategic autonomy” has acquired a life of its own beyond defense, with its proponents hailing it as a response to any and all strategic challenges. The reshaping of the world order by the U.S.-China rivalry, their thinking goes, is the louder wake-up call for Europe to shake itself out of dependence on US patronage. To do what, exactly, is the question on everyone’s mind. Whether the ambition is becoming a more valuable asset to a transatlantic alliance challenged by China’s rise—or whether Europe should wait both sides out by carving itself a middle-ground role–is left unanswered. The notion’s proponents seem concerned with means over ends, their whole aim being to signal a new willingness to graduate from strategic lethargy while leaving the final endgame unclear. In the most charitable rephrasing, “strategic autonomy” is about making the E.U. willing and able to wield power commensurate with its market size, geostrategic potential, and willingness to advance ideals and interests of its own, defined independently, with or without partners of its own choosing. “Strategic autonomy” for Europe sounds awfully like an empty shell that one could fill with any number of overarching purposes—because that’s exactly what it is.

This lack of clarity is perhaps what Biden’s team is matching with a vagueness of its own. Its main intentions signalled thus far range from boilerplate—restoring pre-Trump levels of transatlantic trust—to the same thing, upped by a notch, making up for the dysfunction of the past four years by widening the scope of “burden-sharing.” This verbal tactic was deployed to me in a recent conversation with Anthony Gardner, Obama’s last ambassador in Brussels and among the staunchest Europhiles ever in that role, for whom defense is only one part of the “burden” to be shared. When factoring in the climate and arms control, he argued, the U.S. on the whole comes out as the real free rider. Yet beyond highlighting these as areas where further cooperation beckons—notably by re-joining the Paris accord and the JCPOA—just what a more balanced relationship should look like in areas like digital regulation or taxation is often left unclear by U.S. diplomats. Again, signals have remained symbolic, such as playing up Tony Blinken’s equally limpid Europhilic credentials. In another recent chat, Daniel Fried—another Beltway Europhile, formerly ambassador in Warsaw—spoke to me of the incoming administration as the “most pro-European since George H. W. Bush.” Granted, storming the Normandy beaches in 1944 has a way of shaping the mind, but Blinken is half-Parisian, speaks languages and knows Europe perhaps better than his own country.

The E.U., on its part, is caught between “strategic autonomy” boosters and US officials unsure of what to expect, making Nixon’s pet peeve of not knowing whom in Europe to dial as prescient as ever. The bloc has chosen to act as a translator of sorts between the two, however, by having its diplomatic corps work on a slightly more detailed set of pointers last month. And although the European External Action Service (EEAS) has taken to using “strategic autonomy” explicitly and its chief, Josep Borrell, has officially endorsed the notion, the paper failed to lay out how the bloc would act in the aforesaid areas of contention. As others keep filling in the notional vacuums, Biden’s wait-and-see approach may turn into Reagan’s trust-but-verify. “We both have adjustments to make,” Fried told me. “After all, we can’t go back to an imagined transatlantic utopia.” And yet on defense, Germany—NATO’s delinquent state par excellence—faces steeper costs than ever for simply reverting back to all-talk-no-action–this time in the EU too, when not domestically. Not only is Merkel’s lame duck cabinet Germany’s most hawkish ever, her party faces a primary next year. Whomever ends up succeeding her as CDU chief will have campaigned on continued progress and will likely belabor the point in opposition were he to lose in the general race to a coalition of the more dovish SPD—which has worked to slow it down as part of the current Große Koalition—and the anti-militaristic Greens.

Even then, through what channels the beefed-up budgets will flow remains as contentious as ever. France is a staunch proponent of EU-wide defense cooperation—PESCO and EDF are the programs’ acronyms—for spurring economies of scale, knowledge-sharing, and avoiding redundancies. It complains of American double standards when the US at once insists on higher aggregate spending whilst rebuking said programs for leaving out US contractors in favor of local champions. On this score, even a leaner stance from Biden’s team will find an ally in Germany, where officials have labeled “strategic autonomy” as “protectionist”—nothing short of an insult in E.U.-speak.If the term sounds far-fetched (no country’s defense procurement is fully open to the best bidder) and more suited to trade and industrial policy, it’s because Germany’s qualms with Macron’s plan extend to those areas too, with other officials having used the even more taboo calumny of “autarchy.” This is ironic, for those with the larger cause to contest E.U. state aid are smaller economies who see their champions routinely disfavored vis-à-vis French and German giants, a qualm voiced recently by former Italian PM Enrico Letta. Perhaps the German laissez-faire critique of strategic autonomy concerns China specifically, about which Macron has talked a big game of reshoring pharmaceutical supply chains in the wake of Covid-19. Not only would Germany’s large drug-makers resent being cut off from cheap Asians suppliers: German corporate interests writ large are notorious for appeasing Beijing in the interest of securing market entry into China, where Germany is the EU’s largest trading partner.

It is in these thornier economic matters—of which 5G is merely the tip of the iceberg—where “strategic autonomy” seems on a collision course with America’s outlook in a post-Covid world, whatever comes out of this cacophonic crossfire. Any talk of economic autonomy understood as propping up local champions at the expense of both China and the U.S. is bound to ruffle feathers in Congress and across the executive branch, which have long seen the E.U. labor towards exactly that goal with the sly pretext, primarily in tech, of protecting privacy and competition. If “strategic autonomy” is merely a beefed-up redux of what’s already at work, then launching this whole confusing debate likens the E.U. not to a young adult on its way to emancipation, but to a rebellious teen unable to cogently verbalize his urges. This is not to say the E.U. couldn’t go from being a free-riding ally to provide for to a thorn in the side of the transatlantic alliance, but either way, some clarity would help.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo