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Sep 29, 2022

Reordering Transatlantic Security

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made some of the traditional transatlantic security discussions obsolete. It could lead to a new order for security cooperation between the United States and Europe.

An Airforce C-130 airplane drops military artillery equipment during Saber Junction excercise in Hohenfels, Germany, September 8, 2022. More than 4,400 participants from the US and NATO Allies and partners in Europe will participate in Saber Junction 22 at the U.S. Army's Hohenfels training area Aug. 29 - Sept. 20, 2022.
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine is reordering transatlantic security. European governments have increased their defense budgets and are implementing new initiatives to counter the Russian threat. The United States has strengthened its presence to the European theater and reaffirmed its commitment to NATO security guarantees. Between transatlantic allies, previous internal divisions have become less relevant and deadlocked debates have been unlocked.

Notably, the war has changed the terms of three debates that have defined transatlantic strategic discussions in recent years. Traditional dividing lines between Europeanists and Atlanticists are being redrawn, a new division of labor between NATO and the European Union is developing, and the power balance between allies is shifting. Six months after the beginning of Russia’s criminal attack on Ukraine, a new order for transatlantic security cooperation is emerging. 

Europeanists vs. Atlanticists

The war in Ukraine has cracked open the age-old debate between Europeanists and Atlanticists in Europe, which had in recent years focused on the controversial idea of a strategically autonomous EU. Sometimes caricatured as a binary opposition between a US-led transatlantic security order and the emergence of the EU as a geopolitical great power, the debate has become more complex and nuanced as a result of the invasion. This is a positive development for the future of the US-Europe defense partnership, stemming from a new strategic context that has simultaneously strengthened transatlantic cooperation and forced Europe to take on more responsibility.

Defying years of discussion of an imminent US withdrawal from Europe, the United States responded to Russia’s actions by demonstrating its commitment to European security. Both before and after February 24, the Biden administration has filled a gap that no European country or institution could plug. The US has taken the lead in providing significant intelligence to allies, coordinating transatlantic policy responses, and delivering economic and military to Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has also added nuance to US plans to refocus NATO activities on China. The NATO summit in Madrid this June, which was initially pitched to be about “China, Cyber, Climate,” instead focused firmly on the Russian threat. This suits Europeans who are skeptical of militarily confronting China. And while Washington’s defense policy will continue to prioritize the challenges posed by China, in Madrid the alliance made long-term troop commitments that are meant to effectively deter Russia for years to come.

The recent US commitments to Europe have so far been supported by the US Congress with a strong level of bipartisanship. In May, the Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act which provided an additional $40 billion in aid to Ukraine was approved with 368 vs. 57 votes at the House of Representatives and 82 vs. 11 votes at the Senate. With the US midterm elections approaching this might not remain so. And the commitments do not change the centrality of the Indo-Pacific in US foreign and defense policy. But they are a sign that the US-China competition and the future of US security guarantees in Europe are not viewed as a zero-sum game.

China and Russia are increasingly seen as one comprehensive challenge in the US, requiring double containment, or as the questionable adage goes “walking while chewing gum.” The US remains indispensable when it comes to addressing the Russian threat in Europe, but Europe, too, is indispensable with regard to containing China’s global ambitions. The deepening of strategic cooperation between “the dragon” and “the bear” adds to the likelihood that the US will continue to be a willing contributor to European security. The more relevant question is whether the US has the political, economic, technological, and military bandwidth to sustain its investments while keeping up with China’s competition.

At least the US under the Biden administration has become more open to working with the EU as an interlocutor on European security. The way that both sides have been coordinating sanctions regimes is the most obvious illustration, but the looming challenge of funding the reconstruction of Ukraine will also make US-EU cooperation even more central, especially since the EU has granted the status of candidate country to Ukraine. The reconstruction effort, which will require enormous financial resources from global partners, could be led by the European Commission with US backing, either within the framework of the “RebuildUkraine” plan or other mechanisms. These potential avenues for US-EU cooperation build on the existing trend of enhanced strategic dialogues that started before the Russian invasion and addressed issues such as China, defense, trade, digital and technological norms as well as climate change. While the future of these dialogues remains highly vulnerable to the volatility of US politics, the financial incentives and institutional practice behind them may just withstand a possible change of administration in Washington.

The prospective integration of Finland and Sweden into NATO has further eroded the division between Europeanists and Atlanticists. Now that only four EU member states will not be part of the Alliance (Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, and Malta), the collective defense of the EU is almost entirely covered by Article 5. This weakens the case for the EU’s own divisive mutual solidarity and collective defense ambitions. It also provides new arguments for those in favor of a European pillar within NATO as a way to deepen coordination between the two organizations.

Another symbol of the burgeoning peace deal between Europeanists and Atlanticists is the current French engagement in NATO. Putting aside French President Emmanuel Macron’s comment about a “braindead” alliance of 2019, since February France has become a NATO framework nation in Romania, deploying 500 troops in the country as part of the NATO Response Force—while reasserting that European defense cooperation should be a pillar of NATO and not a substitute.  At the national level, President Macron has called for a “wartime economy” in order to meet the challenges of high-intensity warfare. Less than a year after the AUKUS crisis, French-US and French-Australian relations have also improved and a more positive strategic dialogue on the Indo-Pacific now appears to be within reach. The restart of an Australia-France-India trilateral meeting is a step in the right direction. These developments could help overcome unhelpful tensions both at the European and transatlantic level. 

A New Division of Labor Between NATO and the EU

As the divide between Europeanists and Atlanticists is diminished, the division of labor between the EU and NATO is being redrawn. Previous models that divvied up the provision of transatlantic security along geographic lines—territorial defense in the east and crisis management in the south—have always been flawed. They cannot withstand the current reordering of transatlantic security. For one, separating the two theaters is no longer appropriate. The Russian threat is clearly present in both the east and the south of Europe. And the second-order effects of the war in Ukraine are being felt in the south through famine, political instability, and mass migration. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 had already put the alliance on a path back to its core task of territorial defense. Faced with historically meager results and the US commitment to end its forever wars, military intervention fatigue spread among allies. NATO’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan put another nail in the coffin of the alliance’s crisis management ambitions. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has now firmly refocused NATO toward the East.

At the same time, a passing of the crisis management torch between NATO and the EU also looks unlikely. The French withdrawal from Mali and Macron’s “rethink” of military strategy in Africa has led other EU governments to critically review their own deployments. The EU is not in a place where it can credibly fill the role of security provider in Europe’s southern neighborhood given the military scale and complexity of the challenges. The EU’s most recent strategic defense document, the 2022 Strategic Compass tried to lay the foundations for a stronger EU military intervention capacity. But ideas such as an EU rapid reaction force with the ability to swiftly deploy 5,000 troops in a crisis are unlikely to succeed. Too many obstacles—among them Europe’s lack of capabilities, readiness, and a common strategic outlook—stand in the way of credible EU-led crisis management. Difficulty reaching consensus to deploy as a union will inevitably drive member states that want to intervene militarily into coalitions of the willing, using national headquarters.

Instead, since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the EU’s defense efforts have taken on a different direction. The EU is zeroing in on its role as a capability provider and defense industrial power rather than as an operational defense power. The European Peace Facility, for instance, is an example of the EU contributing to Ukraine’s defense in its capacity as a coordinating hub. Another example is the European Commission’s effort to push member states to engage in more joint defense procurement. After years of uncoordinated European defense cuts, the commission is now seeking to avoid uncoordinated defense spending, prevent further duplication and fragmentation, and stop member states from spending all the new defense money on capabilities procured outside of Europe.

Supporting joint EU defense procurement is arguably the logical next step to supporting joint defense R&D, which the commission already does through the European Fund. But when the Fund was created, member states were skeptical about further expanding the commission’s competences and worried about duplicating NATO capability planning efforts. Today, NATO’s clear military leadership role in Ukraine, however, may well appease those who have jealously guarded the alliance’s lead over defense policy in Europe. This clarification could open up an opportunity to align the EU’s defense capability initiatives with NATO’s own defense planning processes and free the way for a new, functional division of labor between the two organizations, one which allows both to play to their strengths: two organizations with geopolitical reach;  NATO a military alliance, the EU a defense, industrial, and geo-economic power.

A Shifting Balance of Power in Europe

Internal European politics have also changed over the past six months. A new balance of power is emerging, which notably affects the centrality of the French-German engine. The idea that Paris and Berlin could still, with the support of the European Commission, be the main drivers of European reforms and ambitions was crucial to President Macron and his government during his first term and underpinned many assumptions of the new German government’s coalition agreement. The difficulties faced by Paris and Berlin at the bilateral level—especially with regard to joint defense industrial projects such as the planned new European fighter jet (FCAS)—had already weakened such a narrative. In the longer-term, the idea of a Franco-German engine simply no longer reflects the reality of the European strategic debate, and a more nuanced understanding of European leadership should emerge.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 vindicated those in Europe who had accurately assessed the nature of President Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions. The Central and Eastern European policy elites who had long pushed against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, energy dependency, and diplomatic engagement with Putin now feel that they have been proven right. This sentiment has effectively damaged the legitimacy of Paris and Berlin as strategic leaders and elevated the clout of Central, Eastern, and Northern countries. To many, French and German policy since the invasion has been either too weak or too confusing, which adds to these criticisms. In parallel, the US and UK have undoubtedly gained in political influence in the region as they undoubtedly provide a more substantial and assertive support to Ukraine and the allies of the Eastern flanks. 

The geopolitical heart of the European continent has significantly moved to the east and the north because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war has put other European defense and security issues on the backburner and therefore given more influence to Central and Eastern European partners, as well as to Nordic and Baltic states. Geography makes these countries frontline allies in the conflict with Russia. Their early and significant increases in defense spending and the current support of the US further imbues them with credibility. From an organizational standpoint, the NATO enlargement to Sweden and Finland, along with the Danish referendum to end the opt-out on the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), is further driving the two organizations to the north and the east. And the EU’s political and bureaucratic resources will be spent on the Ukrainian and Moldovan candidacies in the coming years, consolidating these trends in the long run.

Although it is still difficult to identify all the institutional consequences of the war, Ukraine’s accession will likely require changes in the functioning of the EU. It is unlikely that all EU member states will accept the demographic and institutional balance of power that would stem from the integration of Ukraine. This will therefore require a more flexible and differentiated definition of European integration, which should be accompanied by reforms to increase the EU’s efficiency. European leaders should pursue a multi-speed Europe built around different policy areas of integration, which allows third countries to plug into security and defense initiatives. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently reiterated his support for such a model.

Several member states have already expressed their opposition to these reforms—they worry that they will once again empower France and Germany to the detriment of smaller member states. But the new forms of European cooperation that will emerge will certainly give more leeway to ad-hocism, and not necessarily be centered around the French-German partnership. Regardless of how the war in Ukraine evolves, transatlantic security cooperation as we know it will not be powered solely by the Franco-German engine. 

The loss of French and German influence should not be read, however, as the rise of Eastern Europe against Western Europe. In practice, European allies take different positions that do not always adhere to such a divide. When, for instance, Italy’s outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi claimed on May 31 that Italy was the only major EU member state that supported granting Ukraine the status of candidate for accession to the EU, Rome could easily be seen as teaming up with Central European and Baltic states against Paris and Berlin. Yet at the same time, Italy presented a peace plan around the neutral status of Ukraine and the almost complete autonomy of Crimea and Donbass, which would place it in direct opposition with the positions of Warsaw and Vilnius. Within NATO as well, the East-West divide is not a pertinent analytical grid either. While London and Washington may have been closer to some Central European and Baltic states on the issue of support provided to Ukraine, the so-called “Euro Quad”—which includes the US, France, Germany, and the UK—remains an influential grouping of allies with a deep level of policy coordination,   

Emerging Order for Transatlantic Security Cooperation

The last six months have seen a process of evolution and re-organization that could lead to a clarification of the terms of transatlantic security—and eventually to a new order for transatlantic security cooperation, based on flexibility and pragmatism with a functional division of labor between NATO and the EU.  Manifested in ever-changing alliances forged to meet each new security challenge, three conditions are necessary—though probably not sufficient—for it to materialize.

First, a credible new order would require European allies to effectively turn the new spending into security, and US policy makers to take the long view on European investment choices. While fresh money for defense is necessary, it unfortunately does not automatically translate into a higher European capacity to act. Spending needs to be coordinated to prioritize European and transatlantic security of supply over national preferences. Defense production cycles are long, but if European governments modernize and fill in the gaps in their militaries through off-the-shelf purchases only, the European defense industry will atrophy. The German decision in the early days of the war to buy F-35s from the US raised some red flags in Brussels. But since the US is aiming to increase its own military sales, it may well not be thrilled with more “buy European” initiatives.

Second, there is  the question of sustainability. By promising to finally spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, Germany might have hoped to change the transatlantic conversation about European laggards and leave behind its role as the black sheep of burden sharing. But the credibility and reliability of Berlin’s promise has taken a toll after the German government indicated that its defense budget might fall again after the initial Ukraine-related hike. Beyond Germany, persistent inflation and the growing costs of the war for European economy could force many allies’ governments to review their defense commitments in the near future. 

Third, and perhaps most importantly, a successful reorganization of transatlantic security cooperation would require allies to preserve political and strategic cohesion. Overwhelming transatlantic unity was prevalent in the early weeks and months of the war. But in view of the looming winter of discontent, unity is fragile and could crumble as Europe is hit with a recession, an energy crisis, and war fatigue. What is more, tensions over the response to the China-Taiwan crisis could prove particularly damaging in the short term. The signals coming from the French government and German businesses make China hawks in Washington feel uneasy. Notably, publics on both side of the Atlantic remain skeptical on the issue. While President Biden recently affirmed that the US military would defend Taiwan in case of the Chinese attack, recent Transatlantic Trends data show that neither the European nor the American public is ready to arm Taiwan or send troops. Between 30 and 40 percent of Europeans would join other countries in imposing sanctions on China (only 25 percent of Americans chose that option), while 15 percent of Americans, 14 percent of the French and 10 percent of the Germans would support taking no action at all.

New divisive narratives are already forming, such as for instance a division of transatlantic partners into two hermetic blocs of “appeasers” and “hawks.” This binary reading of transatlantic attitudes is counterproductive in more ways than one. It misrepresents and often exaggerates actual policy differences, risks fostering a race to the most provocative declarations as a form of virtue-signaling, and prioritizes quality over quantity when measuring the political, economic, and military support to Ukraine. Ongoing tensions between France and the United Kingdom are similarly unhelpful. Political and defense cooperation between Paris and London is paramount to the future security of the European continent, yet the bilateral relationship remains poisoned by the post-Brexit tensions and the legacy of AUKUS. Shared long-term strategic interests should eventually drive the two countries to reengage substantially, but there is no time to waste and the current situation is no time for a feud between allies.

The war in Ukraine has overturned many of the traditional and often unhelpful narratives that have for years shaped European and transatlantic defense cooperation. But a shared purpose still matters. Tensions between allies might well be alleviated by the emergence of a unifying strategic narrative that sustains transatlantic unity. The “Democracies vs. Autocracies” doctrine offered up by the Biden administration, however, is uncomfortable to many European leaders, not least as it is perceived as a deeply Western-centric view of the world. The first months of the invasion have illustrated the need to engage with global partners beyond Europe and North America to counter Russian military actions. Defending national sovereignty as a pillar of the European security order and transatlantic security cooperation should be at the core of a new unifying narrative for transatlantic partners. Recent G7 statements have emphasized this dimension of the war, but the allies need to further elaborate in the months to come.

Putin’s despicable attack on Ukraine has refocused a previously often inward-looking and frivolous transatlantic security debate. Taking stock of recent changes shows that a new order for transatlantic security cooperation is emerging. It offers a promising path forward, guided by flexibility, pragmatism, and functionality. But success is not guaranteed. Allies must invest in their armed forces, and in the sustainability and cohesion of their efforts and avoid getting bogged down in new petty divisions.

Sophia Besch is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Martin Quencez is the deputy director of the German Marshall Funds’ Paris office and is a research fellow in the GMF’s Defense and Security Program.