The debate over ‘strategic autonomy’ shouldn’t be framed by how much US we want in Europe. What matters is how much the US wants to be in Europe.
Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. James Joye Townsend Jr. is an adjunct senior fellow in the CNAS Transatlantic Security Program and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy.y.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments to POLITICO on his way back from China recently prompted outrage across the transatlantic community. And the fiercest backlash came from Central and Eastern Europe.
The uproar was a symptom of nervousness. Most European governments fear doing any harm to the relationship with the United States, as its commitment to the defense of Europe has proved more vital than ever with the war in Ukraine. But there may be some delusion in thinking that this American commitment can be relied on indefinitely.
So, to make sure this relationship stays strong, there’s now an urgent need for “strategic reconciliation” among Europeans, which requires putting away toxic conceptual debates and accelerating efforts to build a stronger European defense — one that is not duplicative but in harmony with that of the U.S.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most Central and Eastern European countries are experiencing an “I told you so” moment. They had warned that the West was not being tough enough with Russia, that dependence on Russian hydrocarbons was a strategic mistake, and that dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin was tantamount to a blessing for his conduct. They were also proven right in saying that only the U.S. could effectively ride to the rescue.
These countries are therefore happy to now bury the concept of European “strategic autonomy,” which refers to the Continent’s capacity to act and decide for itself — that is, without asking for America’s permission. Because while they’ve accepted the concept on paper in official European Union documents, most of Central and Eastern Europe see it as risking a decoupling from the U.S.
This moment follows four years of French-championed efforts to shore up “European strategic autonomy,” when former U.S. President Donald Trump was in the White House, giving Europe a glimpse of what an inward-looking, transactional U.S. relationship with Europe could look like. Some Central and Eastern European governments were alarmed enough to hedge by putting some of their eggs in the fledgling EU security and defense basket. And the subsequent awkward fumbles involving Europe in the first year of President Joe Biden’s administration — such as the chaotic, poorly coordinated withdrawal from Kabul and the surprise AUKUS rollout in the Indo-Pacific — didn’t help things either. It took the war to change things.
So, which side of Europe now stands on the right side of history? Are we witnessing, as many profess, a shift in the intra-European balance of power away from “old Europe,” and the final curtain for strategic autonomy?
Crucially, this debate over strategic autonomy should not be framed by how much U.S. we want in Europe, as what matters, in the long run, is how much the U.S. want to be in Europe.
And the answer to this lies neither in Ukraine nor in Brussels, neither is it in Warsaw or in Paris — it is in Washington, and it is in states like Ohio and California. The next “I told you so” cycle will be determined by the next U.S. elections. And no matter who wins the presidency in 2024, both Democrats and Republicans want European nations to shoulder more of the military burden in Europe.
Framed this way, building a more autonomous European defense is urgent.
To be sure, there is broad acknowledgement on both sides of the Atlantic that Europe needs to be more proactive and spend more on defense. But, so far, in terms of policy, the answer from most EU capitals and transatlantic pundits is that the aim should be a “stronger European pillar within NATO.” And this is good — but this alone would fail to draw lessons from the Trump years, or from the ongoing war, that European dependence on the U.S. is an Achilles heel for Europe, as well as a liability for the U.S.
The current context makes this reality no different — if not worse. Europe’s reflex of hiding behind the U.S. was pushed to its climax with the drama over providing Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Unlocking Berlin’s decision cost the U.S. 31 M1 Abrams tanks. And while this episode has been presented as proof of U.S. decisiveness, it is, in fact, a blatant demonstration of the cost of European indecision.
Another striking example is procurement. As most European countries are allocating new resources to upgrade their militaries, an important share of the orders made so far are to the benefit of non-European providers, such as the U.S., Israel or South Korea. Some say this shows Europe’s industrial base is not ready, or competitive enough, for war time — but this is a snake biting its own tail. Europe will never be up to the level if it doesn’t feel the necessity, or believe in its ability, to build a robust defense-industrial base of their own.
Israel and South Korea are, in fact, two excellent examples of countries that have been historically dependent on U.S. security guarantees yet decided to invest seriously in their defense-industrial bases, turning them into net exporters — and it didn’t harm their relations with the U.S.
As emphasized by the reactions to Macron’s comments, though, strategic autonomy has proven too divisive an intellectual construct to serve as an appealing concept for the future. But what it envisions has the potential to serve both European and American interests, and there is an urgent need for “strategic reconciliation” among Europe’s East and West — whatever the label.
This is not an easy task.
For one, Europeans will remain captive to their histories and geographies. There are, however, ways to find common ground. Western European countries, starting with France, need to acknowledge the costs and difficulties of the road ahead if the bloc is to act autonomously, and that in the meantime, it is vital to preserve a narrative that incentivizes the U.S. to stay in Europe.
Conversely, Eastern Europe needs to acknowledge that the recent upsurge in U.S. involvement might be an epilogue. It cannot ignore that influential voices in Washington who may well have a role in a future U.S. administration are calling for a radical pivot from Europe to the Indo-Pacific. And it cannot ignore that these are not only the views of some isolated Republican fringe elements but have a bipartisan ring to them as well, as reflected in the U.S. National Defense Strategy, which places a primary focus on China as the “pacing challenge.”
Strategic reconciliation thus needs momentum. Timid initiatives to foster joint procurement and joint investments are encouraging, but they are not enough. If Europe is to become its own security provider, much more is needed, and at scale, and leadership will be crucial — not to decouple from the U.S. but to be stronger partners for the U.S., no matter what the future may hold