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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 and surveillance, transport, and precision-guided munitions, which allow countries to project military force safely and swiftly. These strategic enablers are so expensive that no individual European state can afford them without compromising its basic war-fighting capabilities. Pooling defense efforts is the only way to overcome this problem. NATO doesn’t have a mechanism for doing this, but with PESCO, the EU now does. And because PESCO is an EU initiative, it will receive money from the EU budget. This marks the first time that the union has funded defense research and capability projects.
The primary U.S. objection to PESCO is that it will negatively affect U.S. defense exports to Europe. This is true: one of PESCO’s objectives is to preserve the autonomy of Europe’s defense industries. But if Washington truly wants the Europeans to step up, it cannot expect them to simply spend more money on American military equipment. For example, the EU wants to maintain the capacity to build drones, but if it doesn’t create a framework that pushes for big collaborative projects, that sort of defense industrial capacity could disappear. France and Germany, which initiated PESCO, also announced their intention to work together to build a sixth-generation European combat aircraft. Ultimately, the aim is that European countries will contract European companies to construct a single kind of combat aircraft or battle tank instead of a multitude of competing models. If they don't manage this, European companies will soon produce nothing at all. The market has become too small to afford producing three different European combat aircraft (as is the case today).
At the same time, there is a strong push to integrate military formations between countries. For example, the Dutch army in some areas now relies on German equipment or support units. The Belgian and French land forces are embarking on a similar project. If armies can work together on issues such as maintenance, logistics, and training, countries will save money, which they can then invest in other military projects.
PESCO is still in its early stages, but if it is successful it will become the umbrella under which Europeans work to meet NATO targets and achieve European strategic autonomy. The United States should welcome this development because it will allow the Europeans to generate and move forces more quickly for NATO’s collective defense arrangements. In due course, it should also enable European countries to deal with issues on their periphery that do not meet NATO’s threshold for intervention. (They are already doing this in Mali.) If PESCO succeeds, Europe would no longer require as much U.S. support to guarantee its security. This would leave Washington free to focus on its own priorities.
But the potential impact of PESCO goes far beyond the military domain. The ability to more credibly project power would bolster EU foreign policy overall. In particular, it would strengthen the EU’s hand in pushing back against U.S. policies that go directly against European interests, and, indeed, against U.S. interests as well. Consider Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. The EU overall, and France, Germany and the United Kingdom specifically, has already made it clear that Europe will not follow Washington’s lead in backing out of the deal. But it should take this a step farther and push back against the broader U.S. effort to support Saudi Arabia in its competition with Iran. The EU knows that forging a compromise between Riyadh and Tehran is better than choosing sides. (It articulated this principle in the Global Strategy.) At the moment, however, the EU doesn’t have an operational Middle East strategy of its own. The EU could also provide a necessary counterpart to current U.S. policy on issues such as the rise of China, relations with Russia, the global trade system, and climate change.
Strategic autonomy is not just about enhancing military capabilities; Europe must also adopt clear foreign policy objectives. And the more independence and influence the EU gains, the more it can help the United States avoid foreign policy decisions that increase the risk of conflict, harm the global economy, and ultimately prove detrimental for everybody.