What perspectives for the European Defense Policy?

What perspectives for the European Defense Policy?

As we get closer to the presidential elections, one of the questions to consider relates to the future of transatlantic relations. What will happen with the uneasy relations we have witnessed between the US and EU over the last few years? What about the future of the EU and European countries within NATO? Will the US presidential elections significantly influence the outcome of this issue? To understand this better, the OCC sat down with Dr. Jolyon Howorth, a Jean Monnet Professor ad personam and Professor Emeritus of European Politics at the University of Bath (UK). Before, Dr. Howorth was also Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School (2018-19) and Visiting Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Yale (2002 to 2018).

Professor Howorth, as an observer and specialist of the EU-EU relations, how do you assess the evolution of transatlantic relations since Donald Trump became President of the United States?

Transatlantic relations have been fraught ever since the end of the Cold War. After forty years of relative stability under American leadership (1949-1989), the EU-US partnership has, for thirty years, been in search of a new balance. President George H.W. Bush sought actively to prevent the Europeans from moving towards autonomy. President Clinton, while establishing close personal relations with European leaders, especially Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair, was essentially a globalist, with a focus on trade. The George W. Bush administration was the first actively to seek to sharpen divisions between those Europeans who supported his revisionist approach to the global status quo and those who opposed him. Barack Obama was less invested in European affairs than his predecessors, sought to prioritize relations with Asia, and hoped – in vain – that the EU could handle regional crises in the neighborhood without significant US involvement. Throughout these four very different presidencies, Europeans sought to find a pathway towards greater self-reliance, but generally came up short. Ongoing grievances over burden sharing in NATO accompanied wild oscillations in US attitudes towards the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) – from outright opposition to positive encouragement and back again. Divergent trade interests were showcased by the high-profile mutual recourse to the arbitration of the WTO in the case of Boeing and Airbus.  However, throughout the period 1989 to 2016, both sides insisted that they nevertheless shared ultimate values and objectives.

The presidency of Donald Trump has called into question the very bases of the transatlantic relationship, especially the notion of shared interests and values. His transactional approach on economics, trade, security and many other issues has exasperated European leaders, pushing most of them to declare that Europe must re-examine its dependency on the US and actively seek strategic autonomy. While they have not been much more successful than in the past in finding a viable pathway towards that objective, the very fact that they have increasingly been forced to question some of the underlying assumptions behind the transatlantic relationship bears witness to the crisis into which that relationship has been plunged. European strategies for coping with Trump have varied significantly. Some member states and individual leaders have sought to bandwagon with the US president bilaterally. Some have adopted a wishful-thinking approach, hoping that they can wait out his time in the White House before reconnecting with a more “normal” transatlantic relationship. Others have come to believe that nothing can ever be the same and that Europe must make every effort to forge its own historical path.

It is my belief that a second Trump term will fundamentally snap the fragile strands of the current relationship. Even if (as increasingly seems likely) Joe Biden is elected president in November 2020, there can be no return to the status quo ante. Trump has, in his trademark crude and blundering way, brought to the surface of the transatlantic relationship underlying tensions that can no longer be shrugged off with fine speeches about shared values. In the almost two and a half centuries since the American Revolution, relations between the two sides of the Atlantic have undergone several distinct historical periods. The longest (1776-1945) saw the US fight bitter wars with all of Europe’s major powers (except France). The Cold War involved a quasi-artificial assertion of shared interests and values between Western Europe and the US. Since 1989, relations have entered a new period of turbulence during which both sides have aspired to finding a new form of partnership in an increasingly multipolar world. Donald Trump has made much clearer both the nature of that challenge and the stakes involved. The US has moved on. The EU has moved on. The world has changed in fundamental ways. Nothing can be the same again. The post-Trump period will force the two sides to take lucid stock of the interests and values they truly share and those they do not.

What are the concrete outcomes of the current situation for NATO and its future?

NATO has been in a constant state of self-discovery since the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It has undergone several different “New Strategic Concepts”: first, a shift from collective defense to collective security, embracing a new role as a regional crisis manager; second, the aspiration to become an “out of area” and indeed a global player; this led to all three significant actions undertaken by the Alliance (in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya), none of which can be considered to have been a success; and finally a return to square one with a new focus on the containment of Russia within the European space.

Donald Trump has consistently sought to call into question the relevance and/or legitimacy of the Alliance. Usually, this has revolved around the issue of burden sharing, but the critique has also spread to the appropriateness or even validity of the Article 5 guarantee. The Alliance has also been thrown into confusion by the actions of Turkey, both in Northern Syria/Kurdistan and in the Eastern Mediterranean. In both cases, situations have arisen in which the interests of different member states of the Alliance have entered into a state of objective contradiction. President Macron’s observation that the Alliance is “brain dead” merely states in a forthright manner the obvious: NATO currently has no clear political or strategic objective that reflects the interests of all its member states. That is why the Secretary General, in March 2020, established a group of ten experts to reflect on the political way forward.

I see three possible futures for the Alliance. The first, in the event of a Trump re-election, might see an attempt on the President’s part, to withdraw the US from the Alliance. This might garner some support from the growing school of thought in the US that argues for “restraint”. But it would involve a major political battle with Congress where a large bipartisan majority continues to see a US-led NATO as being fundamentally in the US interest. The second would see an attempt to return to “business as usual” under Joe Biden. However, this is where the bipartisan majority would disagree internally. On the one hand, there are the traditional Atlanticists, for whom NATO is essentially about maintaining the balance of power in Europe. On the other hand, there are the disciples of “deep engagement”, for whom NATO can serve as an instrument of US global primacy. Those two positions could prove irreconcilable. The third future of NATO is sketched out in my response to the next question. Whichever course is adopted, the future will remain full of major obstacles and challenges.

Europeans haven’t sorted out whether they would still have to build an army of their own – a European army – or keep relying on NATO and on their national capacities. What would you rather they do here?

Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, NATO has had to contend with the rise of CSDP, whose underlying rationale has always been that the EU needs a political and military capacity that can be mobilized if and when NATO (meaning the US) does not wish to be involved. CSDP has therefore been almost universally perceived as a project that stands in contradiction to NATO, as existing and developing outside of NATO – albeit in some (as yet unidentified) form of cooperation with the Alliance. The quest for “strategic autonomy”, which often morphs into demands for a “European army” seems to imply that the EU’s self-reliance will come about through ever deeper member state cooperation within CSDP and differentiation from NATO. Paradoxically, the more European leaders speak out in favor of this development, the more, at the same time, they insist that it must be done in close cooperation with NATO. This European schizophrenia (we want autonomy but we don’t want to break with the Alliance) is reflected back across the Atlantic (we want the Europeans to step up to the plate and take responsibility for their neighborhood, but we don’t want to relinquish US leadership).

My proposal is that both Europeans and Americans should explore the possibilities of a third future for NATO. This scenario is predicated on the assumption that the US can be brought to believe that it is in American interests for the EU to become a capable, competent political and military power in its own hinterland and that it should be assisted (rather than hindered) in that objective. If that assumption is correct, and if the EU member states are, for their part, serious about wanting to stand up and be counted geo-strategically, then a possible way forward is for CSDP progressively to merge into NATO, which would, over time, be “Europeanised” in the sense that European commanders and European resources would progressively assume a greater part of responsibility and leadership within the Alliance. It would involve a kind of apprenticeship in leadership, via the Alliance rather than in opposition to it. This scenario would be vigorously resisted by those, both in Europe and in the US, who believe that the latter should indefinitely assume responsibility for the defense and security of the former and that any change in that relationship is fraught with great danger. But for those, on both sides of the pond, seeking a way out of the present impasse, and who believe that a greater degree of balance in the transatlantic relationship is necessary, desirable and achievable, it offers a potential way forward.

History alone will tell. It is likely that, over the next decade, under a Biden presidency and beyond, NATO will struggle to return to the status quo ante, but fail, ultimately, both to identify that status and to find any viable pathway back to it. The third scenario will continue to present itself as a potentiality. It might finally come about in time for the 100th anniversary of NATO in 2049. The “European army” might emerge via NATO rather than in opposition to it.

Do you think that the growing perception of the presence of a “Russian threat” could foster the building of an autonomous stronger European Defense Policy?

Russia has been a major (and difficult) actor in the European geostrategic theatre since Peter the Great brought that huge country into the Concert of European powers three hundred years ago. Geography dictates that this will continue to be the case. Whereas, in previous centuries, Russia could be induced to form an alliance with one or several European powers against another (the Franco-Russian alliance of the late nineteenth century being the classic case), since the realization of European unity in the form of the European Union, such a prospect is excluded.

But the prospect of military conflict between Russia and the EU is also highly unlikely. Russia has learned from the experience of the Cold War that military occupation and territorial incorporation are unlikely to be sustainable. If Russia defines its vital interest as being to divide and destabilize the EU, it can achieve that goal by far simpler (and even subtler) means than invasion and conquest.  The EU can, must and will counter these malevolent intentions by all means at its disposal. However, it is unlikely that the single issue of a potential Russian threat will be sufficient to foster the building of a viable EU defense capacity. The obstacles to that endeavor stem overwhelmingly from internal EU deficiencies and from mixed trans-Atlantic messages. Moreover, the differences in perception of Russian intentions between the various member states of the EU pose a further challenge to the achievement of the necessary degree of unity of purpose.

It is a truism to say that the EU urgently needs to craft a viable collective strategy towards Russia – and one that Russia can engage with as the basis for a lasting relationship. The two major entities in the Northern Eurasian region have many interests that are compatible or can be rendered compatible: the stabilization of the geopolitical space between them (Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia and the Caucasus); a sensible arrangement for the supply and purchase of oil and gas; counter-terrorism; counter-proliferation; relations with China; attitudes towards many challenges in the Middle East; the diversification of Russian industrial, commercial and financial assets; cultural exchanges and tourism. The list is long. Above all, there is an urgent need on both sides to de-escalate the current trend towards mutual recriminations and hostility. The development of a “European army” explicitly designed to contain Russia militarily would not be the best way of seeking to reach a sensible partnership with the EU’s vast and permanent neighbor.

What do we need for the EU to become a geopolitical actor?

First, a radically new and different politico-institutional framework for decision-shaping and decision-taking, including, almost certainly, some kind of European Security Council and more effective diplomatic outreach beyond the multiple diplomacies of the member states. If a true federal state is beyond reach, then a focus on central leadership and efficiency would be a minimal requirement. This would require, at the same time, a vastly improved level of public consent and support.

Second, far greater embrace of the basic tenets of Realpolitik. The best way to start would be to jettison the narrative around what political scientists and politicians have dubbed “normative power Europe”. Other great actors on the world stage are unimpressed by the EU’s assertions that it offers some universal model of normative virtue. The EU was established in order to eschew power politics. It is time to reconnect with some basic realities of that approach. This will include the establishment of a functional military capacity. However, that instrument should be clearly conceived and presented as just one of the many instruments at the service of the Union. The EU should have no desire or aspiration to emerge as a traditional military superpower.

Third, a clearly articulated “grand strategy” that identifies what it is the EU believes it is capable of achieving in both the Southern and the Eastern neighborhoods with the means currently available or those planned. This would involve meaningful synergies between security policy, economic policy and development policy.

Fourth, a belief in itself and an end to the fiction according to which the EU must for ever more look across the Atlantic for guidance and protection.


To quote this article, please use the following reference: B. Mikaïl, Holyon Howorth (2020), “What perspectives for the European Defense Policy?”. https://crisesobservatory.es/what-perspectives-for-the-european-defense-policy/


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