Letting Europe Go Its Own Way

The Case for Strategic Autonomy

EU leaders at the launch of PESCO, December 2017 Yves Herman / Reuters

The Trump administration seems to believe that allies are meant to pay and obey. When it comes to Europe, this may pose a problem. During the Cold War, what was good for the United States was good for Western Europe. But in a multipolar world in which multiple powers are competing and cooperating with each other, this is not always the case. In June 2016, the EU adopted a new Global Strategy that formally called for strategic autonomy—the ability to pursue its own interests without being constrained by other states. This went mostly unnoticed in Washington, as many EU documents do, but after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, the divide between American and European priorities and interests has become more apparent. 

In December 2017, amid rising anxieties about the Trump administration’s commitment to European security, the EU launched Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which pools the defense efforts of 25 of the EU’s 28 member states. To the surprise of Brussels, however, the United States swiftly condemned the new initiative as a threat to NATO. This response elicited pushback from EU leaders, especially because it did not appear to be driven by genuine security concerns. If PESCO succeeds, it will improve, not damage, transatlantic security. When the members of the Atlantic alliance come together at the NATO summit in July, they should unite behind the need for a strong and autonomous EU.


Despite what its critics have claimed, PESCO is the answer to the long-standing American demand for more burden-sharing in NATO. This is true precisely because it is an EU, rather than a NATO, initiative. At this point, even if all European NATO allies honoured the pledge to spend two percent of their GDP on defense (as they have promised to do by 2024) they would still be dependent on the United States for the deployment of their forces. The main gap between the European and American arsenals has to do with strategic enablers—tools and resources such as intelligence

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