It has become common lore in European capitals that the Trump Administration’s purported “transactionalism” when dealing with NATO allies has all but upended America’s relations with Europe, while the President’s “tweet diplomacy” and the alleged determination by the United States to “disengage” from our commitments has made it ever-harder for Europe to continue to rely on America for its security. As a senior European politician recently said while explaining why his country needs to think in terms of “strategic autonomy” and European defense: “Europe’s trust in the United States is gone.”
Setting aside the untidy fact that the United States has not been “leaving Europe” but is, in fact, increasing its military presence on the Continent, I am ever more convinced that the core issues shaping Transatlantic relations are not personalities, rhetoric, or what is posted on social media, but rather differences on threat assessment and policy. Although the U.S.-European relationship went through its share of trials and tribulations during the Cold War, at bottom there always existed the assumption that, when confronted with the existential threat emanating from the Soviet Union, we needed to hang together, lest we hang apart.
Furthermore, the Trump Administration’s calls on Europe to reverse the de facto disarmament of the past two decades is no different in substance than what a number of previous administrations have tried to accomplish. The appeals by Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2017 echoed those made by former Secretaries Ash Carter and Robert Gates. And all of it is of a piece with Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s recent calls for Europe to do more to counter China and Russia. During the past decade in particular, as state-on-state competition has re-emerged as the reigning paradigm of international relations going forward, Europe has been implored in ever-more-urgent tones by its U.S. allies to abandon its Panglossian view concerning the inevitable triumph of the multilateral rules-based international order, or at least to allow for the possibility that our militaries should be ready for a worst case scenario should another major conflict threaten us all. Yes, there is broad agreement today on both sides of the Atlantic that Putin’s Russia seeks to revise the existing order in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, even if we diverge on the best way to go about addressing Moscow’s disruptive strategy. But Russia is not the biggest problem. Unlike prior periods of “Transatlantic troubles” during the Cold War and its aftermath, Washington and a number of key European capitals differ in their assessment of the urgency of the threat posed by the People’s Republic of China.
European leaders seem not to have fully recognized that Beijing is engaged in a massive geostrategic project to reconfigure Eurasia, build a blue ocean-going navy, establish bases at critical pressure points in Africa, Europe, and, presumably, the High North, and harvest technology across the Continent. The uncertainty of how precisely to respond to China has made many in Europe less attuned to the danger posed by the fact that the Continent itself is a target for Chinese commercial expansion and could also be disaggregated and subjected to military domination down the line.
What makes the current moment in European history so dangerous is that much of what French President Emmanuel Macron has recently outlined under the rubric of “strategic autonomy” amounts to loosening Europe’s security and defense bonds with the United States. It appears to be little more than yet another expression of the perennial French aspiration to have Paris lead a “militarily sovereign Europe.” Above all, it is unrealistic even in the medium term. President Macron’s claim that “Europe has the capacity to defend itself” and “European countries have strong armies, in particular France” strains credulity. The past three decades have seen de facto demilitarization across the Continent, with defense spending imploding and military capabilities atrophying to the point that many of the forces that remain are non-deployable: Stocks have eroded, and the logistical infrastructure has fallen into disrepair. Even if the collective European will could somehow be mustered to change things—a big if, given how much spending would be required, and what kind of hits to social programs would need to offset the military ramp-up—the change would take some time.
Even more troublingly, the current French push for “sovereignty” has been coupled with Macron’s call to re-open a “strategic dialogue” with Russia, thus undercutting one of the areas of general Transatlantic strategic consensus. Europe’s neighborhood policy cannot be managed by “third parties who do not share the same interests,” Macron mused. Presumably the “third party” is the United States. No thought seems to have been spared by the French President for the concerns of frontline countries on the EU’s eastern flank. And yes, Macron’s grande idée on Russia—seen as fanciful by many specialists—is to attempt to woo Moscow into the European fold, and away from Beijing’s embrace. But instead of recognizing in the same breath that China poses an overwhelming threat to the West, Macron calculates that by bringing Russia on board, he is strengthening Europe to play a balancing role against the United States and China.
It’s important to remember that none of this is the product of the ambition of a single man, nor was the French vision hatched overnight. The French-led European Intervention Initiative (EI2) of 2017, introduced by President Macron in a Sorbonne speech scarcely eight months after Donald Trump was sworn in as America’s 45th President, called for Europe’s “strategic autonomy” in security and defense and the creation of a “real European army.” Macron’s initiative was formally launched in June 2018, when the Defense Ministers of France, Germany, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and the UK signed a letter of intent to establish cooperation outside existing structures such as NATO. Finland joined the coalition in November 2018 and Norway and Sweden in September 2019. Although on the face of it the EI2 is the usual declaratory document full of anodyne statements about the need to develop capabilities to deploy forces on joint military operations, civilian evacuation, and disaster relief operations within the NATO context, its goal is to establish a “shared strategic culture.”
In fairness, what makes Europe particularly vulnerable to the French siren song of “strategic autonomy” is the fact that its political scene is arguably more fractured today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition is only as strong as its weakest link, the Social Democrats, with continued uncertainty about the next election results. In Italy, following the government collapse last summer, Giuseppe Conte’s second coalition—this time of the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party—seems shaky following the landslide victory in the central Italian region of Umbria by the populist League led by Matteo Salvini. The next and perhaps final test for the current Conte government may come as soon as January during the scheduled regional election in the critical Emilia-Romagna region in northeastern Italy. Meanwhile, the Spanish government is struggling to keep its head above water as the country remains riven by the Catalan separatist movement, with protest demonstrations in Barcelona in the last week of October drawing 350,000 people. But while the current moment may present an opportunity for President Macron (who will not have to face an election until 2022) to assert France’s leadership on foreign and defense policy, such a move risks undermining the security of the rest of the Continent.
The future of NATO and the security of the West are at risk today more than at any time since the end of the Cold War. This is not due to the alleged transactionalism of the U.S. Administration or President Trump’s prolific tweeting, but because the Transatlantic community has yet to fully agree on how to respond to China’s existential geostrategic challenge. If Europe continues to waffle on the nature of the existential threat posed by Beijing’s Eurasian strategy and allows France to chart its course on security and defense, it may end up with the worst possible outcome: marginal EU expeditionary capabilities, a gradually hollowed-out NATO, and ultimately a worse outcome for all involved. Let’s hope common sense prevails.