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Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, Europeans have struggled to come to terms with his confrontational style and policies. From Trump’s tariffs to his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris agreement to calling the EU a “foe,” no U.S. president since World War II has appeared so distant, even hostile, to European interests. Early on, many European leaders attempted to cultivate a good relationship with Trump, hoping that a personal connection could help calm the increasingly turbulent waters of the transatlantic alliance. Some, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, succeeded, while others, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May, fared less well.
In recent months, however, the tone coming from European capitals has changed. In August, in a rather undiplomatic op-ed, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed doubts that his country could just “sit this presidency out” and called for “a sovereign, strong Europe” in response to Trump’s hostility. Macron echoed this sentiment in his annual speech to ambassadors: “I do not honestly think today that China or the United States thinks Europe is a power with strategic autonomy comparable to their own. I do not believe it.” Invoking former U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s foreign-policy legacy, Macron warned his diplomatic corps not to see Trump as a fluke and to think through Europe’s own strategic priorities as the United States becomes increasingly untethered from its allies across the pond. Europeans are right to eschew nostalgia when it comes to the transatlantic relationship: it took a figure as direct and undiplomatic as Trump to wake Europeans up to this new normal. Devising European strategic autonomy is now the new name of the game, but what does it actually mean for a European continent long used to following the United States’ lead?
The United States’ pivot away from Europe did not start with Trump. The end of the Cold War made Europe less central to U.S. national security interests, as shown by the 75 percent decrease in U.S. troop presence in Europe since then.
The ongoing tensions in transatlantic relations are first and foremost about a power imbalance. Americans are frustrated at Europe’s lack of defense investments and do not see the continent as a reliable ally; Europeans resent American unilateralism and disregard for their policy concerns. This isn’t new. With the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States became the sole superpower and was no longer hindered by concerns of provoking its old enemy. It was also increasingly willing to take unilateral actions, which Europeans were expected to accept. Under President Bill Clinton, the United States led the NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia, ignoring Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s objections. U.S. President George W. Bush ignored European protests when he chose not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Although France (alongside Germany) led the opposition to the Iraq war at the UN Security Council, even threatening to use its veto, Washington moved forward. And the centerpiece of U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in his first term was a strategic pivot to Asia, which inevitably meant a move away from Europe as the core of U.S. economic and strategic interests.
Reaffirming his view of imbalance in the U.S.-European relationship, Obama, frustrated with France and the United Kingdom’s absence from the post-conflict political reconstruction of Libya, famously called Europeans “free riders” in his outgoing interview with The Atlantic. Robert Gates, his first defense secretary, held the same view. As he put it, there will be “dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources ... to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Trump’s “America first” foreign policy is following this pattern of U.S. untethering from Europe. Through policies such as the successful use of extraterritorial sanctions to force European businesses into submission when it comes to Iran and Russia, Trump reveals Europe’s weaknesses, and, to be blunt, its hypocrisies. And, on a critical international crisis such as Syria, which has far more direct consequences for European security than that of the United States, Europeans have mostly responded by pleading for the United States to get involved.
Trump’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Europe is thus the continuation of a trend, which began when the Cold War ended, just without the diplomatic niceties.
The European model of foreign policy is rooted in the ideal of multilateralism and peaceful cooperation, embodied in the EU’s aspiration of an “ever closer union.” Despite setbacks, the European project, which brought 70 years of unprecedented peace to a war-torn continent, has been a success. But it would not have been possible without the U.S. military umbrella and NATO, which, among other things, allowed Europeans to invest in their economies rather than in their militaries. This underlying dependency on U.S. power enabled Europe to become what it is today—an economically robust and politically integrated continent—but it has also left Europeans unprepared for a world of great power competition.
As Europeans begin to ponder the reality of strategic autonomy, they should heed the advice of Macron and Maas—there is no going back to the comforts of dependency after Trump. Strategic autonomy means, first and foremost, a vision for Europe as an actor on the world stage capable of defending itself at home and pursuing its objectives abroad. Although the current imbalances in U.S. and European security and defense spending make such a Europe difficult to imagine, it should nonetheless be the guiding principle for long-term European stability.
In the short term, strategic autonomy means urgently shoring up European military capacities and capabilities. The NATO commitment to spend two percent of GDP on defense should be the minimum benchmark. A broader rethinking of European capabilities, capacities, and readiness is already taking place with the framework of the EU-launched Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which will better pool resources for acquisition and R&D, the creation of the European Defense Fund, and Macron’s proposed European Intervention Initiative, which aims to create a common European strategic culture through joint planning and exchange of troops. These initiatives go in the right direction and will compensate for Europe’s shortcomings today, but it will hardly suffice if the United States decides to stand by during a major security crisis on the European periphery: the priority should be to increase Europe-wide spending on defense and capacity building, regardless of the form it takes. These efforts would and should complement NATO. Europeans should also be more engaged in addressing conflicts on their periphery by matching U.S. military support for Ukraine to deter Russia and intervening in Syria with or without the United States.
Strategic autonomy should, however, not solely be based on defense and security. As the United States’ expansive use of extraterritorial sanctions has shown, Europeans are vulnerable to U.S. weaponization of its economic power. Inevitably, the economic imbalance will mean a reckoning by EU leaders with the role of the euro in the global economy. Taken as a whole, the EU is one of the world’s largest economies, accounting for 22 percent of world GDP. Yet the euro represents a much smaller share of global currency reserves and international trade than the dollar, a sign that investors still don’t trust the long-term future of the eurozone after years of crises and ad hoc responses to address the zone’s shortcomings. Germany, as the economic powerhouse of the eurozone, should work together with France and the European Commission to take concrete steps to ensure the sustainability and competitiveness of the monetary zone.
Such a broad effort on economic and defense strategy will likely span generations. And it will mean overcoming the divisions between Europe’s integrationists and nationalists. But what the European project sorely needs today is a vision for its future, which is no longer as clear cut as an “ever closer union.” Strategic autonomy could be the vision that rallies both integrationists such as Macron and more conservative figures such as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz without giving in to the illiberalism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. If the integrationists can make the case that the EU can shield its citizens against an unstable geopolitical environment through investments in security, border control, and effective trade policies, it will undermine the agenda of illiberal forces.
U.S. leaders should not be wary of Europe going it alone. A more autonomous Europe will cause some headaches for future U.S. policymakers, but European strategic autonomy will benefit Washington as well. First, politically: the lopsided defense relationship has fueled resentment among U.S. policymakers and voters who wonder why rich European countries have to rely on the United States to fight wars closer to European shores than American ones. More important, as the United States shifts resources toward competition with Russia and China, a more autonomous Europe could contribute to global security and economic balancing, from the fight against terrorism to containing the rise of China.
Chinese foreign direct investment in Europe is nine times larger than in the United States. Some European capitals are concerned that Chinese investments, especially in central and eastern Europe and along the Mediterranean, give China too much political influence. Greece, for example, where China has invested heavily in ports, recently blocked an EU statement on China’s human rights abuses at the United Nations.
Europe should work with the United States to balance against China by curbing Chinese attempts to leverage economic investments into political influence in Europe. The European Commission already has a set of tools and regulations—including requiring that mergers and acquisitions of a certain size and nature be subject to commission approval—that it uses to ensure transparency and competition in the energy sector to curb Russian influence. It could use the same toolkit to curb Chinese influence. Some countries, such as France and Germany, have started to take such steps, while the EU commission under Juncker has adopted a foreign investment screening procedure to ensure investments don’t threaten strategic infrastructure, technology, or media independence. Europe should also aggressively pursue Chinese trade violations and theft of intellectual property, and phase out Chinese products used in defense and security operations.
A Europe whole, free, and at peace means a Europe able to fend for itself on the world stage.
U.S. policymakers, meanwhile, should help steer Europe in the right direction to ensure that Europeans remain part of the U.S. global agenda. The tumultuous relationship that three U.S. presidents—John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon—had with French President Charles de Gaulle could serve as inspiration. The leader of the French Resistance in World War II was a complicated ally. He withdrew from NATO’s military command in 1966, prompting the organization’s headquarters to move from Paris to the suburbs of Brussels, and openly criticized U.S. Vietnam policy. Yet de Gaulle never wavered in his support for Washington during the Cuban missile crisis, famously claiming he didn’t need to see the evidence of Soviet missiles that the U.S. ambassador was offering. France’s acquisition of the nuclear deterrent, first tested in 1960, which initially troubled U.S. policymakers who feared it would mark the decoupling the Alliance, was eventually seen as an addition to the continent’s deterrence. De Gaulle’s autonomous foreign policy, such as his recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1966, opened the door to future U.S. initiatives. As a former French foreign minister put it: France was, to the United States, a “friend, an ally, but not aligned.”
There is no alternative to an autonomous Europe. A Europe whole, free, and at peace means a Europe able to fend for itself on the world stage. A weaker and divided Europe will not weather the coming storm of geopolitical competition if it is too reliant on a United States preoccupied elsewhere and less engaged with European concerns. Greater European autonomy will inevitably transform the transatlantic alliance. There will, no doubt, be differences and disagreements, but it is a small price to pay for ensuring European presence on the world stage and Western balancing against China.
To prevent a perverse version of European autonomy in which Europe pivots toward Russia with the false hope of replacing the U.S. security umbrella, Washington will have to support and encourage European autonomy in the right direction. After all, European strategic autonomy is not about building a counterweight to U.S. military power. It’s about Europe investing in its own security and the security of the transatlantic alliance. And Europe will have to overcome its internal divisions while managing the political challenges of growing populism and working with the United States to counter common threats—no easy task, to be sure. Despite differences, leaders on both sides should be confident. In the face of a rising China, resurgent Russia and increasing security threats, there is much more binding the liberal democracies of the United States and Europe than dividing them.