If you’ve paid attention to longstanding the debate around European “sovereignty” or “strategic autonomy,” you could be forgiven for being tired of the circular discussions. On both sides of the Atlantic, arguments about Europe further integrating its defense capabilities and taking more responsibility for its own security and its surrounding neighborhood quickly descend into an apocalyptic discussion about the possible disintegration of the transatlantic partnership. Because there is no agreed upon definition for either “sovereignty” or “autonomy,” the conversations never seem to result in any substantive conclusion.
Today, however, the United States and its European partners are at a critical juncture to move the conversation meaningfully forward. In October 2021, US President Biden dispatched National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to Brussels with a message: the transatlantic partners need to get past defining “strategic autonomy” and instead, focus on actual capabilities. He said the way forward is “to get practical and specific,” and “to talk about the what, the how, and the when. And then for the United States to be strongly supportive of that...”
In short: The United States is ready to support the Europeans in their quest for autonomy, and we’re allowing them to define it.
Back to Square One
When it comes to matters of European defense, the transatlantic partners have been in a rhetorical spiral for almost three decades—the United States says Europe doesn’t do enough and that it needs to be stronger on defense. Then, when Europe tries to answer that call, its efforts are met with a bevy of criticisms from Washington and we’re back to square one. As a result, Europe fails to get stronger, fails to more fully integrate, and the United States continues to complain. Instead, the US-European partners agree to focus everything through the lens of NATO and implement measurements like spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.
As the old Soviet adage goes: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Arbitrary measurements like the 2-percent target have allowed the US-European defense relationship to take on a similar tone: The Europeans pretend that they’re strengthening their own defense capabilities and the United States pretends to let them.
Since the early 1990s, there have been two pivotal moments that have laid the groundwork for how the United States approaches European defense integration. The first was in 1998—after then-French President Jacques Chirac and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair signed the St. Malo Declaration, which stated that the European Union should have the capability for “autonomous action backed up by credible military forces.” The United States was none too thrilled. Shortly thereafter, at NATO’s 50th anniversary summit, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave her famous “Three Ds” speech—stating that there should be no duplication, no discriminating against NATO members (Turkey in particular), and no actions that would decouple Europe from the US—effectively ending Europe’s quest for autonomy. Without US support, there was nowhere to go. Those three letters have been doctrine ever since.
A Real Opportunity with Biden
The second pivotal moment was in 2017. In December of that year, the European Union announced the creation of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which created a mechanism for 25 European countries to collaborate on projects such as an EU medical command, military mobility, and maritime surveillance, among others. The response from the United States was swift. High-level officials within the Trump administration blasted the EU and said that they didn’t want PESCO to “distract” the EU from NATO’s activities and requirements, nor did they want PESCO to eventually turn into a protectionist vehicle for EU defense. In layman’s terms: The US wants to make sure Europe will always be a major market to sell defense equipment.
Today, the transatlantic partners are in a third pivotal moment; what we do today will set the stage for decades. After the Afghanistan withdrawal took European allies by surprise, and the AUKUS debacle sent US-French relations into a tailspin, the time is ripe for Europe to make actual strides at integrating its defense capabilities. The United States must not only allow this to happen but should champion it and encourage the Europeans to push the envelope. The Europeans have a real opportunity with the Biden administration. Not only is there a simultaneously pro-EU and pro-NATO president in office, but messages from this administration indicate that there will be little pushback from the United States.
In this sense, it’s up to both sides of the Atlantic to take meaningful steps forward. So, in practical terms, what might this look like?
First, the consistent panic over not duplicating NATO efforts or undermining the alliance must stop. Leaders in the United States and Europe have made it perfectly clear that any European defense developments will be made in close coordination with NATO. And, as Max Bergmann, James Lamond, and Siena Cicarelli of the Center for American Progress aptly wrote, “such fanciful scenarios would not be the result of the EU developing a defense capacity but the result of a massive diplomatic breakdown.” This is exactly right—the idea that European defense capabilities will get so far down the line to render NATO’s existing structures obsolete or unnecessary is fanciful and unlikely. Instead, through the lens of deeper NATO-EU cooperation (something on the table for both organizations), the two sides should work on testing structures that have already been put in place—like the Berlin plus arrangement set up in 2003.
Second, strategic sovereignty needs to move beyond being a vision of French President Emmanuel Macron. In short: it needs to become a European project, not a French one. The only way that will happen is if the Germans get on board. Now, with a new government in place, and a specific focus on European integration, the time is ripe. Germany’s new government, led by Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, has said explicitly that they want to focus on “more Europe” and more sovereignty. That Franco-German engine everyone always talks about? Now’s the time for it to start revving. Even though Germany might not be able to get public support for increased defense spending, it can use this opportunity to be a more powerful voice for European integration.
No More Whiplash
And finally, the transatlantic partners must come to terms with the fact that not every country will agree on the same definition of “sovereignty” or “autonomy.” That’s OK and should be expected. However, we, as allies, need to work together to correct one major issue in this whole debate. Those who push back against strategic autonomy do so based on a faulty premise: That a more integrated and capable Europe will result in a less committed United States. On the contrary—it may not mean more troops, nor may it mean a permanent presence on Europe’s Eastern flank, but the United States will finally view Europe as an actual security player; an equal partner instead of the senior-junior partnership that has historically defined the relationship. This means that that US will be more apt to act as a backstop should it ever be necessary.
As for the US, the pushback on European efforts and the consistent haggling over what might happen decades down the line must stop. Our consistent whiplash has, in part, gotten us to where we are today: A Europe that is still woefully dependent on US security guarantees at a time when America’s focus is shifting to the Indo-Pacific region. This is neither in our interest, nor in Europe’s. The status quo cannot hold forever, and the United States shouldn’t expect it to. Right now, the tide is turning in Washington. Let’s let it turn.
Rachel Rizzo is a Senior Fellow at the Europe Center of the Atlantic Council.