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Support European Strategic Autonomy

The U.S. could minimize the risks of overstretch and cultivate limited resources without compromising on core strategic objectives.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and E.U. High Representative Josep Borrell recently released a joint statement that addressed the debate regarding pan-European efforts to pursue independent and self-sufficient military capabilities, otherwise known as “strategic autonomy.” The two officials effectively reaffirmed NATO’s primacy by agreeing on the need for Europe “to develop coherent, complementary, and interoperable capabilities” that mutually reinforce the “key strategic partnership” between NATO and the E.U. By voicing Washington’s traditional resistance to a NATO alternative, the Biden administration seems intent on maintaining U.S. military dominance in Europe. Additionally, given its deep internal divisions, it is unlikely that the E.U. will have the political support needed to override Washington’s veto and chart its own course.

Yet, it would actually be in the U.S.’s interests to support and promote more independent and self-sufficient European partners capable of taking full ownership of their collective security without American support. Promoting European strategic autonomy is a relatively easy way for the U.S. to minimize the risks associated with overstretch and husband increasingly limited resources without compromising on core strategic objectives. Policy revisions that shift most of the burden for regional security to Europeans, specifically by making NATO a European-led alliance, will militarily strengthen a friendly global power center, help alleviate tensions with Russia, and allow for resources previously allocated to EUCOM to be re-deployed for more pressing priorities, such as in East Asia.

Given the dramatic changes in the threat environment since the end of the Cold War, maintaining tens of thousands of troops on dozens of bases across Europe today does little to advance core U.S. interests. The most important priority for the U.S. is to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon—a single power capable of economically and militarily dominating both Europe and the broader landmass of Eurasia—that could then present a peer challenge its economic, political, and military position in the international system.

Fortunately, today, major European countries are more than capable of balancing Russian power. Economically, Europe is a powerhouse. The combined GDP of the E.U. and U.K. totals almost $18 trillion. Individually, the economies of Germany, the U.K., France, and Italy are, respectively, the fourth, fifth, seventh, and eighth largest in the world. By comparison, Russia’s economy ranks eleventh at just under $1.5 trillion.

The 28 countries that make up NATO-Europe also maintain nearly 1.5 million active-duty forces compared to Russia’s 900,000. While Russia holds 2 million forces in reserve (NATO-Europe has a reserve force of 847,500), Europe’s population size gives it a much larger manpower pool to draw from. Finally, though Russia retains a large nuclear deterrent rivaled only by the U.S., the U.K and France each have more than 200 strategic nuclear weapons that can be delivered by sea and air. Far from being, in the words of German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, “a helpless child,” Europe is in a strong position to utilize its latent economic and military power to defend itself against a potent but strategically limited Russia.

Leaders of major European countries, especially France and Italy, are increasingly cognizant of the need to reduce their dependency on Washington to allow for, as Italian defense minister Lorenzo Guerini described, greater “autonomy of intervention in areas of interest.” In December 2017, the E.U. approved the creation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a framework for voluntary cooperation among E.U. and other partner countries to “invest, plan, develop and operate defence capabilities” through joint projects meant to enhance European interoperability. Similarly, to enforce the U.N. arms embargo on Libya, the E.U. Foreign Affairs Council authorized the use of European naval and air assets for operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI in March 2020.

Yet, so far, these initiatives have only produced marginal improvements in European defense capabilities and key frictions within the bloc make it unlikely that the E.U. will evolve into a regional security alternative anytime soon. For example, since its inception four years ago, none of PESCO’s 46 joint projects have been completed. Instead, just eight are in the “execution” phase while the rest remain stuck in conceptual development. Since these joint projects are supported by voluntary national financing, 20 lack funding altogether. Mirroring other intra-E.U. disputes over migration, legal, and fiscal policy, these shortcomings reflect the inevitable unwillingness of national governments to delegate defense policy to a supranational organization. Moreover, Eastern European leaders routinely voice concerns that promoting an alternative to NATO will damage relations with the U.S. while, in Western Europe, Russia is simply not viewed as an existential threat.

However, the U.S. can circumvent the limitations of the E.U. and encourage Europeans to develop independent and self-sufficient defense capabilities by making NATO a European-led alliance. Accordingly, a geopolitically emboldened, strategically autonomous NATO-Europe would have two key features. First, major European countries would make greater political and financial commitments to invest more in their hard power capabilities. A strategically autonomous Europe should be able to defend itself against regional adversaries, such as Russia, without a significant U.S. forward presence. In 2018, NATO members agreed to meet the “Four Thirties” benchmark, meaning that the alliance should have 30 air squadrons, 30 warships, and 30 combat battalions available to fight within 30 days on behalf of any member state. While this is an alliance-wide initiative, a strategically autonomous Europe would meet these benchmarks without U.S. contributions.

Second, European members of NATO would lead the alliance’s defense planning. Traditionally, the office of the supreme allied commander has been held by an American. To give European militaries greater influence and control over defense planning, all offices within Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, including the supreme and deputy supreme allied commander, would be held by Europeans. The same would apply to the joint force, maritime, air, and land commands. By the U.S. ceding control over key leadership positions and responsibilities within the alliance, the center of gravity within NATO will shift to focus more on the security interests of the vast majority of its members rather than the obsolete and overstretched strategic prerogatives of the U.S.

In conjunction with these revisions, American policymakers would significantly reduce the U.S. forward presence in Europe by withdrawing in-theater air, land, and sea assets, closing or handing over bases to host nations, defunding subsidies like the European Defense Initiative, foreswearing future NATO enlargement, and allowing European military officers to always hold the key command posts within the alliance. While doing so, the U.S. should make it clear, in both public and private, that it supports European efforts to develop greater hard power capabilities and pursue a more independent foreign policy reflective of this new European-led arrangement.

Although Washington cannot decide how Europeans handle their affairs or pursue their interests, incentivizing more European defense investments in lieu of a substantial U.S. forward presence means that nervous Eastern Europeans will have more capable allies with a greater interest in deterring potential Russian aggression. The integrity of Article Five will be strengthened as Europeans assume most of the risks and costs for maintaining their collective security rather than buck-passing to an overstretched U.S.

Crucially, the potential benefits associated with supporting and promoting European strategic autonomy are significant for the U.S. First, it will militarily strengthen a friendly global power center. Putting the onus on major European countries to develop their hard power capabilities increases the chances that notorious “free-riders” like Germany—whose readiness is concerningly shallow—will be incentivized to change their behavior. Whether that pressure comes from domestic forces, other European NATO members, or external threats, the most powerful country in Europe will be unable to pass the buck to regional allies (such as France and the U.K.) with greater resource constraints. More importantly though, as the U.S. shifts more of its focus and resources to East Asia, a militarily strengthened Europe can assume ownership of the security of the North Atlantic region without a significant U.S. forward presence.

Second, by reducing its forward presence and making NATO a European-led alliance, the U.S. can alleviate tensions with Russia. In Moscow, NATO is seen as vehicle for containment since it allows for the presence of U.S. forces, bases, and missile defense systems in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Foremost among Russian grievances is the issue of NATO enlargement and the rotational deployments of U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. By downgrading its role within the alliance, ending its forward deployments on NATO’s eastern flank, and foreswearing further enlargement (particularly to include Ukraine and Georgia), the U.S. will demonstrate that its policies are not aimed at containment and that it is open to meaningful engagement and compromise with Russia. Diplomacy in a climate of reduced geopolitical tensions stands a better chance at managing differences and helping the two powers work together on key issues related to nuclear arms control, counterterrorism, and emerging technologies.

Finally, promoting European strategic autonomy will allow the U.S. to redistribute its military resources for use in more important regions, such as East Asia. According to MIT’s Barry Posen, the U.S. could save as much as $80 billion annually by withdrawing army, navy, and air force assets deployed in the European theater. The European Deterrence Initiative, a fund that is duplicative of NATO and used to finance EUCOM activities related to military infrastructure, multinational training exercises, force deployments, and partner security assistance, would save an additional $4.5 billion. Though these numbers do not represent the full cost of permanently stationing U.S. forces in Europe, incentivizing and encouraging European strategic autonomy would allow policymakers to redeploy these funds for more pressing foreign policy needs. More specifically, saving costs on land forces in Europe will allow for greater investments in naval and air assets which, as the U.S. prioritizes long-term competition with China, are vital for projecting power throughout island-laden East Asia.

To be sure, a strategically autonomous Europe will be even less willing than it already is to align its policies with the U.S. on certain issues. Assertiveness is a necessary, and desired, component of strategic autonomy and stronger European NATO partners will rightly perceive a bigger role for themselves in shaping cooperative policies with the U.S. Yet, even with tens of thousands of troops spread out across dozens of bases, major European countries routinely resist U.S. pressure in order to pursue their interests. In July 2021, the Biden administration was forced to waive sanctions and allow the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany despite well-known U.S. opposition to the project. Similarly, in December 2020, France and Germany concluded negotiations with China over a trade investment agreement on behalf of the E.U. Though the deal was suspended after a sanctions dispute with Beijing, years of U.S. diplomatic pressure failed to prevent major European allies from adopting a tougher approach to trade with China.

However, these differences should not distract from the significant benefits the U.S. could potentially reap by supporting and promoting European strategic autonomy. While not guaranteed, it is likely that the European response will involve greater investments in defense capabilities related to platform acquisition, interoperability, and logistical infrastructure. Though these changes are largely contingent on the perceived threats to their security, should a hegemonic challenger emerge, major European countries are in a strong position—and will have strong incentives—to translate their latent power into hard power capabilities.

The U.S-led post-war reconstruction of Europe is one of the great success stories of U.S. foreign policy. Therefore, instead of thwarting or discouraging the development of independent and self-sufficient European defense capabilities, the U.S. should view major European allies’ desire to take ownership of their security as an opportunity to downsize an outdated and unnecessarily robust force posture in arguably the safest region in the world. It is long past time for U.S. policymakers to re-assess their strategic priorities and shift most of the burden for Europe’s security to wealthy and capable partners on the Continent.

Matthew Mai is a research assistant at Defense Priorities.