President Joe Biden’s ill-conceived and terribly executed Afghanistan withdrawal has already cast a shadow on transatlantic security, reenergizing the dreams of some in Europe for an independent European Union (EU) defense capability. The renewed focus on strategic autonomy and increased efforts to foster European defense integration erodes the transatlantic link and undermines NATO.
Outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sounded the alarm. “We’ve been pushing for more European allies to do more on defense, but not as an alternative but as part of NATO,” he noted, adding “any attempt to establish parallel structures, to duplicate the command structure, will weaken our joint capability to work together because with scarce resources we need to prevent duplication,”
That, however, hasn’t stopped Josep Borrell, who has taken the role of chief proselytizer for an EU Army now that Jean-Claude Juncker is retired. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Borrell recently lamented, “Afghanistan has shown that the deficiency in our strategic autonomy comes with a price,” therefore “the only way forward is to combine our forces and to strengthen not only our capacity, but also our will to act.”
France which has long called for an independent EU defense force, has also renewed its push to attract new adherents and make this dangerous idea a reality. The recently announced security pact between Australia, the UK, and U.S. hasn’t gone down well in Paris, leading Elysée to double down on calls for EU Strategic Autonomy.
The Biden administration for its part is now in full “DO SOMETHING” mode. (It needs to find a quick distraction from Afghanistan is likely part of the reason the AUKUS was so diplomatically mishandled in the first place.) It now seems likely the Administration will throw the French a bone, at least rhetorically, by politely pretending Macron’s dreams on an EU defense force are anything but ludicrous.
The polite intonations have already begun. A joint statement on the call between President Biden and President Macron issued Wednesday noted, “The United States also recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense, that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.”
Seeking to smooth the choppy waters of Franco-American relations, the Biden administration may wittingly or unwittingly stumble into another crisis, one with very dangerous implications.
Make no mistake, throwing U.S. support behind EU defense initiatives would undermine NATO collective defense, speed up a process of transatlantic decoupling, and alienate many of our allies in eastern and central Europe, most of whom are dubious of EU defense.
Countries facing an existential threat on their eastern border are naturally wary of any moves that would sever ties with the U.S. and weaken NATO, leaving them beholden to a phantom EU Army when Putin comes knocking.
Under both Democrat and Republican presidents, the U.S. has made the argument that Europe needs to do more in terms of defense capabilities. This, however, must be done via the NATO umbrella rather than under the supranational purview of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels.
An independent EU military is, by its nature, incapable of complementarity with NATO. The reality— which Western adversaries clearly know, and most European nations admit in private—is that EU defense is a paper tiger that will not be rectified through defense integration. Rather, a robust U.S.-led NATO alliance is the only true guarantor of transatlantic security.
Need further proof? Consider that in November 2018, Vladimir Putin called the potential of an EU Army “a positive process,” saying that it would “strengthen the multipolar world.” Putin knows EU defense is a sideshow, a pet initiative of a few committed EU integrationists and American leftists that will weaken NATO and eventually push the U.S. back across the Atlantic.
The Afghanistan debacle and Australian submarine row has indeed sparked a new round of calls in some corners of Europe for capabilities to act independent of the U.S.
The EU, however, will never be able to provide the peace and stability that NATO—with feet firmly planted in both North America and Europe for the past 70 years—has delivered and will continue to deliver. While EU-led defense initiatives may be able to provide some defense improvements at the margins, the outsized costs include decisions that enervate NATO, exacerbate existing fractures within Europe, and severely stress the transatlantic link.
By giving any hope of U.S. support for an EU Army, the Biden administration is playing with fire. Congress and the administration would do well to pour cold water on the idea before it spreads.
Daniel Kochis is the senior policy analyst for European affairs in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.