Rebalancing European and trans-Atlantic defense

Executive Summary

While Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has reinvigorated the Atlantic alliance, it has also deepened Europe’s strategic dependence on the United States. As North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies continue to help Ukraine beat back Russia’s assault, they must also address this important longer-term challenge of rebalancing trans-Atlantic defense. Doing so means squaring a triangle of issues: ensuring Europe’s capacity to defend itself against Russia and manage a range of additional crises, many along its southern periphery; addressing European aspirations for greater strategic autonomy; and maintaining confidence that the United States can adequately uphold its commitments in both the north Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific.1

Advancing greater European strategic responsibility starts by defining the concept in a way designed to strengthen the Atlantic alliance. It should focus on two military goals. First, European allies should build their conventional military capabilities to a level that would provide half of the forces and capabilities, including the strategic enablers, required for deterrence and collective defense against major-power aggression. Second, European allies should develop capabilities to conduct crisis management operations in Europe’s neighborhood without today’s heavy reliance on U.S. enablers such as strategic lift, refueling, and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).

Meeting these two goals would allow Europe to become the first responder to most crises in its neighborhood, acting through NATO, through the EU, or through ad hoc coalitions of the willing. It would permit the United States to shift some of its forces and strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific region without any significant reduction in the capabilities needed to deter Russia.

Russia’s war has exposed Europe’s dependencies

Vladimir Putin’s greatest achievement thus far in renewing his brutal and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine has been to reinvigorate the Atlantic alliance. North American-European unity has been remarkable, exemplified by harsh and complementary sanctions against Russia; efforts to wean Europe off its dangerous dependence on Russian energy; military, financial, and political support for Ukraine; and actions to strengthen NATO’s own defense.

A more corrosive effect of Putin’s war, however, has been to deepen even further Europe’s strategic dependence on the United States — a trend that had already become unsustainable even before the conflict began. As the alliance continues its most urgent task — helping Ukraine beat back Russia’s assault — it must address this important longer-term challenge of rebalancing trans-Atlantic defense.

A more corrosive effect of Putin’s war… has been to deepen even further Europe’s strategic dependence on the United States — a trend that had already become unsustainable even before the conflict began.

Doing so means squaring a triangle of issues: ensuring Europe’s capacity to defend itself against Russia and manage a range of additional crises, many along its southern periphery; addressing European aspirations for greater strategic autonomy; and maintaining confidence that the United States can adequately uphold its commitments in both the north Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific.

The autonomy muddle

The term “strategic autonomy,” popular in some European circles and anathema in others, stems originally from an earlier discourse within the French strategic community to describe France’s ambition to boost its military capabilities and reduce its dependencies so that it could act alone if necessary to protect French interests, beginning with crisis management operations in Africa and along Europe’s southern periphery. Of course, the European Union (EU) has been trying to develop its capacity for military action for some decades. Yet it was only in 2016 that the “strategic autonomy” term was lifted to the EU level, with the publication of the bloc’s Global Strategy. The document “nurtures the ambition of strategic autonomy for the European Union,” but does not define the notion’s content or its implications.2

In the years that followed, the term gained traction in some EU countries as concerns in Europe mounted about U.S. reliability as an ally under President Donald Trump, China’s rising technological and norm-setting challenges, and signs that the EU could be trampled as the American and Chinese elephants collided. Debate was further energized by signs of faltering European technological prowess, and especially by the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed European dependencies across a number of health-related sectors.

Over time, the term began to assume a far more expansive meaning. European concerns have spawned a raft of related phrases, such as “European sovereignty,” “economic sovereignty,” “health sovereignty,” “technological sovereignty,” “data sovereignty,” “cybersecurity sovereignty,” even “digital strategic autonomy.” The result, as one European observer noted, is a “muddle of words.”

European commentators and leaders cloud things further by interpreting these assorted phrases very differently, according to their diverse strategic cultures, threat perceptions, and calculations of self-interest.

Taken together, however, this jumble conveys a shared and deeply-felt anxiety among many Europeans that their grand experiment of integration is being imperiled by internal weaknesses and external forces. In all of its forms, the autonomy narrative is meant to generate EU-wide consensus behind ambitious and often-costly initiatives to bolster the bloc’s technological, industrial, and norm-setting capabilities in ways that their proponents believe can preserve European competitiveness, lower strategic dependencies, raise the EU’s ability to resist geopolitical or geoeconomic coercion, and give it more freedom to maneuver and shape its environment.

Until Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a theme central to the “strategic autonomy” narrative was that the EU needed to be able to act autonomously, without the United States. Since then, however, Europe has become more rather than less reliant on the United States. And while “strategic autonomy” remains popular in some European countries, it rankled opinion in others, especially given the increased urgency of deterring and defending against a revanchist Russia. Policymakers in Finland, Estonia, and the Netherlands, among others, prefer to talk about Europe’s strategic responsibility, which entails more substantial contributions to regional security, the readiness and ability to act together rather than alone, and downplays implicit tradeoffs between a strong Europe and a strong trans-Atlantic partnership.

U.S. perspectives

U.S. support for greater European defense efforts has always been conditional. Successive U.S. administrations have supported European moves to bolster their defense capabilities, provided that such efforts would strengthen, rather than weaken, the political cohesion of the Atlantic alliance. Those conditions were framed most prominently in 1998 by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Following a U.K.-France meeting at St. Malo, at which London and Paris declared that the EU “must have the capacity for autonomous action,” Secretary Albright penned a piece in the Financial Times stating that U.S. support for greater European efforts would be contingent on avoiding “three D’s:” discrimination against non-EU NATO members, decoupling of European and North American security, and duplication of NATO’s operational planning system or its command structure. “No duplication” was neither defined nor intended to mean that Europe should not develop certain capabilities that already existed in the alliance; indeed, much of the Clinton administration’s efforts at the time, such as the NATO Defense Capability Initiative, sought to prod the Europeans into developing precisely such capabilities. This distinction has been lost on analysts who have posited that the United States has opposed any European moves to improve their capacity to act.3

U.S. concerns have centered more on the danger of competition and duplication with NATO structures and planning processes, along with doubts about the capacity of European militaries to conduct even small-scale operations without U.S. support. While the United States has consistently pressed European allies for greater defense contributions, it has preferred that such efforts be undertaken to strengthen NATO, rather than to enhance independent efforts that it feared could drain attention away from common defense efforts. Competition between U.S. and European defense contractors has exacerbated tensions over these issues.

Nonetheless, there are signs that U.S. attitudes are changing. First is growing concern that Europe’s defense capacity has declined even further since the 1990s, despite serious security challenges.4 These concerns have focused not only on levels of spending, but on shortages of key enablers for military operations. Europeans have become reliant on the United States for critical capabilities that they lack. Those include air-to-air refueling, long-distance lift, suppression of enemy air defenses; and C4ISR.5 These dependencies were showcased during European military action in Libya in 2011, in ongoing missions in the Sahel, and during the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, when European countries were unable to evacuate their personnel without support from the United States.

Second, Americans are debating anew how and where they should realign the means and ends of U.S. foreign and security policies to address a world of more diffuse power. In this context, it is simply hard for the average U.S. citizen to understand why 330 million Americans should be paying the lion’s share of defense for 500 million Europeans. Donald Trump tapped into this sentiment, but the temptation to question trans-Atlantic defense spending imbalances is both broader and deeper than Trump.6

Third, the Indo-Pacific and European theaters are increasingly linked. U.S. and European ability to address traditional and unconventional threats is becoming intertwined with related challenges to their security interests posed by China. Chinese technological advances, for instance, pose direct security implications for NATO. Huawei’s emergence as a dominant 5G telecommunications infrastructure supplier for many countries gives Beijing access to key parts of emerging communications networks, generating choke points of vulnerability for allied nations. Within 15 years, 5G is likely to be replaced by dual-use 6G technologies with embedded artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled capabilities of military significance. China is likely to incorporate them into its military-civil fusion strategy, as it has with 5G. Beijing is seeking technological dominance in C4ISR, logistical and digital cyber systems, and AI. It is developing quantum technology with military applications in sensing, communications, and data processing. Chinese quantum computing breakthroughs could render alliance encryption systems vulnerable. Beijing has used China Telecom’s “points of presence” in North America and Europe to hijack data traffic through Chinese servers. While currently a regional military power, China will be able to project extra-regional power, including to the Atlantic, in the next decade.7

In addition, European and North Atlantic security can be impaired by dependencies created by Chinese investments in European infrastructure and technologies, including strategic ports, telecoms, power grids, defense-related supply chains, and extreme reliance on China for rare earths and other critical materials. Beijing has instrumentalized these dependencies in the past. China’s maritime claims, its space policies, and activities in the Arctic could threaten key principles of the global commons, including freedom of navigation and freedom of information. Moreover, China-Russia entente could change the risk calculus of either or both parties, possibly leading to reckless behavior that could imperil North American and European security.

These challenges require responses that go beyond antiquated and simplistic notions of a so-called “pivot” to Asia. The United States is both a Pacific and an Atlantic power, with commitments and interests in both theatres. It does not have the luxury of choice. Moreover, Europe’s own security interests are increasingly tied to security developments in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s military growth, its worrying military-technological advances, and its aggressive regional policies have made it America’s pacing factor in developing defense capabilities and policies. China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, and its threats to the integrity of Taiwan, present a real risk of conflict in the Indo-Pacific, including direct confrontation between China and the United States. In such a situation, critical sea lanes of communication, maritime shipping, and European commercial interactions with China, and with Asia more broadly, would be disrupted. The interests of various European allies in the Indo-Pacific would be at risk. Opportunities would also be created for Russia. U.S. forces might not be available to adequately reinforce European allies against a simultaneous Russian military challenge. The Europeans would need to quickly fill those gaps. They need to plan now how they would do so.

Rebalancing the trans-Atlantic partnership

Taken together, these developments underscore the need for Europe and the United States to find a new path forward. Europe’s long-standing aspiration to develop more effective ways to act militarily is now intersecting with the long-standing U.S. aspiration that Europeans shoulder more of the common burden. Stated simply, Europe has wanted autonomy without providing adequate defense resources, while the United States has wanted greater European defense contributions without diminishing NATO and U.S. political influence. Now it is time to unite these two debates and find a new balance for both.

Europe has wanted autonomy without providing adequate defense resources, while the United States has wanted greater European defense contributions without diminishing NATO and U.S. political influence. Now it is time to unite these two debates and find a new balance for both.

As Europe grapples with new and complex strategic realities, it can no longer afford its excessive reliance on the United States, either for collective defense or for crisis management and cooperative security missions beyond Europe’s borders. The U.S. will have to pay increasing attention to China and limit its involvement in the wider Middle East. The United States will therefore increasingly look to European allies to shoulder more of the common burden and encourage greater contributions to security by the European Union.8

Of course, European allies have already shouldered considerable burdens in the context of the war in Ukraine. They have been coping with the quickest and largest flow of displaced people in Europe since World War II. They have ramped up economic assistance to Ukraine, and are likely to take on the lion’s share of the eventual task of recovery and reconstruction. They are managing an historic effort to wean themselves off their dependence on Russian energy.

Many European allies have also stepped up their defense investments considerably in the wake of Russia’s renewed aggression, with Germany the most dramatic example in establishing a special 100 billion euro fund to upgrade its armed forces and finally committing to meet the 2%-of-GDP goal that allies set after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In the short term, much of these funds are needed to address immediate issues related to Ukraine or to simply replenish depleted European militaries. Longer-term, however, these pledges of enhanced spending must be tied to clear and ambitious goals.

Over the next decade, the trans-Atlantic partners must rebalance their relationship so that Europe assumes greater strategic responsibility, even as both parties work to reinforce the trans-Atlantic link. Setting the goal of a rebalanced partnership would move the United States and its European allies and partners beyond contentious arguments over burden-sharing and embrace Europe’s longstanding ambition to play a larger role in its own defense, while sidestepping semantic sideshows over the meaning of “strategic autonomy.”

Advancing greater European strategic responsibility starts by defining the concept in a way designed to strengthen the Atlantic alliance. It should focus on two military goals:

  • The first should be to enhance the European allies’ conventional military capabilities to a level that would provide half of the forces and capabilities, including the strategic enablers, required for deterrence and collective defense against major-power aggression. Should a conflict simultaneously break out with China in Asia and Russia in Europe, the United States may not be able to deploy adequate reinforcements to Europe. European allies need to be able to pick up the slack.
  • The second goal should be to develop European capabilities to conduct crisis management operations in Europe’s neighborhood without today’s heavy reliance on U.S. enablers such as strategic lift, refueling, and C4ISR. The EU’s goal in its Strategic Compass released in March of this year of developing the capacity to generate an “intervention force” of 5,000 individuals who could deploy beyond EU boundaries is a small yet useful start.

Meeting these two goals would allow Europe to become the first responder to most crises in its neighborhood, acting through NATO, through the EU, or through ad hoc coalitions of the willing. It would permit the United States to shift some of its forces and strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific region without any significant reduction in the capabilities needed to deter Russia.

Given Russia’s poor initial showing during its 2022 assault on Ukraine, some may believe that Russia is weaker than expected, that its strength will be sapped by the war, and that stronger European defense is therefore not needed. This would be a dangerous conclusion. Despite Moscow’s missteps, the Russian military will be able to reconstitute its losses quickly and learn from its mistakes. Russian military capabilities remain formidable, and Moscow has demonstrated repeatedly its intent not only to intervene militarily in other countries but to weaponize food, energy, digital, and other flows connecting it to various countries. Russia’s ongoing revanchist threat, and the more robust forward presence of allied forces being prepared for approval at NATO’s June 29-30 Madrid summit, will place increasing demands on all allies for high-readiness forces. This will add to the urgency of European allies assuming a greater share of the burden across the board — greater numbers of forces, higher readiness, and enhanced mobility, all with critical enablers.

Finally, one critical lesson emerging from the war is the importance of sustainability. A drawn-out conflict will drain and ultimately deplete Ukraine’s resources — unless it receives ongoing assistance. The United States is carrying the largest sustainability load when it comes to resupplying Ukraine. Strategic responsibility must include the ability not just to be ready and have the mobility to get to the fight, but to sustain it. Europe is weak here. Should the United States be caught in an Asian war, sustainability would be a critical issue for European forces, and is thus key to European strategic responsibility.

Making strategic responsibility real

To achieve these two strategic goals, NATO allies could agree within the NATO Defense Planning Process to a military level of ambition for European strategic responsibility. European allies and Canada could commit to investing sufficient resources to ensure that, by the end of the decade, they can meet 50% of NATO’s Minimum Capability Requirements. This would mean fully usable forces required to cover the whole spectrum of operations and missions, as well as the strategic enablers needed to conduct multiple large- and small-scale missions — if necessary, without U.S. support.

Meeting this standard will take time, given Europe’s current lack of enablers, its relatively low readiness rates, and its fragmented military industrial complex. Building European strategic responsibility will be a process, not a one-time event. At Madrid, alliance leaders will unveil NATO’s new Strategic Concept, its first in 12 years. The Strategic Concept should launch the process toward greater European strategic responsibility, reinforced by complementary efforts to implement the EU’s Strategic Compass.

Greater European strategic responsibility will require more, not less, trans-Atlantic consultation on political-military matters.

Greater European strategic responsibility will require more, not less, trans-Atlantic consultation on political-military matters. When Europe acquires the military capabilities needed to exercise real strategic responsibility, its political voice will be amplified. Diplomatic differences between the United States and Europe will still arise, but a dialogue among equals is more likely to overcome areas of disagreement. That said, new mechanisms for NATO-EU coordination will be needed.

Greater European strategic responsibility could clarify who would lead certain missions and what they need to do to succeed. European nations could become the first responders to future crises in Africa and the Middle East. They might take the lead for cooperative security missions such as training with NATO partners around the Black Sea or in the Western Balkans. The United States would continue to lead collective defense operations against a major adversary in Europe in combination with more robust European forces. To reassure allies that there would be no diminution in the U.S. commitment to deter Russia, the U.S. could move additional ground forces to Europe.

Institutional and command arrangements need to be refined to make it easier for the Europeans to conduct autonomous operations. The EU or individual European nations might lead smaller crisis response operations, modeled on French-led operations in the Sahel. Most larger operations would continue to be conducted by NATO, because its integrated military command structure has unique experience in doing so. Efforts could be animated by updating the so-called Berlin Plus command arrangements and the notion of “separable but not separate” forces and capabilities, so that NATO’s command structure could be used for EU-led operations with a European general in charge.

Greater strategic responsibility for Europe also requires improved defense industrial cooperation and efficiencies across Europe. The European Defense Agency (EDA), European Defense Fund (EDF), and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) have aimed to make Europe’s defense industry more efficient and effective. A trans-Atlantic understanding on European strategic responsibility could encourage streamlining of Europe’s defense industry without excluding U.S. technologies that could improve their output and ensure interoperability.

Strategic responsibility in an age of disruption

Europe and North America stand today at an historic inflection point, between a fading era of relative stability and a volatile, dangerous age of disruption that is global in nature and broad in scope. Challenges include, but go beyond, strategic competition with a revanchist Russia and a militarily powerful and technologically advanced China. They extend to emerging technologies that are changing the nature of competition and conflict and digital transformations that are upending the foundations of diplomacy and defense. The scale and complexity of critical economic, environmental, technological, and human flows, as well as the dependency of many societies on such flows, have increased dramatically. These risks require Europe and North America to reaffirm their mutual bonds, retool their institutions, and rebalance their partnership.

Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine and its efforts to upend Europe’s security order are the most vivid and dramatic evidence of this new era’s challenges. Until now, Putin’s pressures have united the Atlantic alliance. Unity could give way to discord, however, if Europeans don’t assume a stronger role in deterring/defending against Russia, with the capabilities to match, and if the United States continues to impede a European lead role in crisis management. It is time for the U.S. and Europe to shed their mutual ambivalence and work together to make strategic autonomy — defined as greater strategic responsibility — a win-win for both sides of the Atlantic.

About the Author: AKDSEO

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