Table of Contents

Introduction

A person can be a citizen of the United States or of the European Union (EU)—and of one of the union’s member states, of course. But a person cannot be a citizen of NATO. This simple fact is symbolic of a basic truth about the transatlantic security architecture that, consciously or not, is often overlooked: the United States and the EU are the two main political actors in the alliance. They operate at the level of grand strategy; they have the capacity to set objectives and apply instruments in all dimensions of power––political, economic, and military.

Whether or not a successful transatlantic alliance will continue to exist into the next decades depends, in the first instance, on whether the United States and the EU continue to share a broad outlook on the world. If they do, the transatlantic partners can optimize the functioning of their security architecture in light of the main strategic orientations on which Washington and Brussels agree. If they do not, the question of whether NATO and the EU will implement all seventy-four points of cooperation in their 2016 and 2018 joint declarations will be mostly irrelevant.1 An EU-U.S. strategic dialogue is therefore crucial.

Issues at Stake

Who Does Strategy?

In many instances, the EU does not use its capacity to act strategically, because its member states are too divided. But that sad fact does not detract from the centrality of EU-U.S. relations, because individual European states cannot step in. They are sovereign states but mostly lack the means for autonomous action on the global stage. Moreover, in many key areas of grand strategy, EU member states have pooled their sovereignty and can make meaningful decisions only through the supranational EU. For the EU, with its single market, single currency (for most members), and one external border, there can be only single decisions vis-à-vis third parties on trade and investment relations, sanctions, migration regimes, and the status of the political relationship.

Sven Biscop
Sven Biscop is the director of the Europe in the World program at the Egmont–Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels and a professor at Ghent University.

If, for example, the EU had no position on Russia and Ukraine, it would be very difficult for the United States to bring Europe’s political and economic power to bear to support its own strategy, and a comprehensive approach would be well-nigh impossible. The United States could still mobilize the military power of individual European states, because in this dimension, the EU—just like NATO—operates on an intergovernmental basis. This is especially true if the absence of a European consensus is the result of inertia. But if European states actively oppose each other, they will be as divided when they meet at NATO as when they meet in the EU. In such cases, short of a scenario that invokes the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause and its obligation to render assistance, the United States may find that it can recruit only a portion of European allies and partners for any NATO military action. That was the case in the 2011 air campaign in Libya. Some states may even veto the use of NATO structures, leaving only a coalition of the willing as a viable option, as happened in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The United States and the EU therefore have a strong interest in permanent and structured cooperation on grand strategy. Yet, counterintuitively, no forum for such cooperation exists. Of course, the allies plan for collective defense in the military sense, and NATO standardization and the integrated military command structure are at the heart of the alliance’s capacity to act on Article 5. But when and where do Europeans and Americans systematically discuss, and make decisions on, the political, economic, and military aspects of strategic problems in an integrated manner?

Aside from the participation of high-level EU representatives in NATO summits, in permanent bodies, such as the North Atlantic Council, the United States discusses only with individual European countries. In such forums, at least one nation always blocks discussion of the EU dimension of the issue at hand. Conversely, someone always vetoes discussion of supposed NATO issues in any EU meeting. And there, the United States is not, and cannot be, present. Meanwhile, direct EU-U.S. strategic dialogue is intermittent at best and often nonexistent.

EU-U.S. Strategic Divergence

The absence of a true EU-U.S. strategic dialogue risks becoming increasingly problematic, because strategies have been diverging since the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama introduced a pivot to Asia. This was a fundamental reorientation of U.S. grand strategy in response to a structural change in the global balance of power. The United States identified China as a systemic competitor, and that competition will first and foremost play out in Asia. Russia, despite having a lot of nuisance power, ranks second to the Chinese challenge in U.S. thinking.

For the first time since World War II, Europe is no longer the primary theater for U.S. strategy. That does not render NATO irrelevant. But arguably, the United States is coming to see Europe in a more instrumental way: Washington has a much better chance of coming out on top in a strategic competition with Beijing if it has Europe on its side.

For European allies and partners, however, deterring Russia remains NATO’s primary role, and U.S. involvement in Europe’s defense remains essential for that purpose. Many European governments have realized that they have been too naive about China and should prevent Beijing—and other powers—from gaining undue influence in Europe. The EU has already taken initial measures in this area, notably by creating an investment-screening mechanism that allows willing member states to limit foreign ownership of critical infrastructure.

But Europe’s overall view of China, for now, is more nuanced than that of the United States: for the EU, China is simultaneously a cooperation partner, a negotiating partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival. Whether this strategy continues depends on how China behaves in the future, but the EU is unlikely to follow the same confrontational approach as the United States.2

The combative style of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has dramatized this divergence on China, while differences on Syria, Iran, and trade have further blurred EU-U.S. relations. The shift in U.S. strategic focus toward China enjoys bipartisan support in Washington, however. A future president may act less confrontationally toward the European allies but will likely continue to pressure them into adopting a harder line against China.

The Americans and Europeans cannot manage this divergence simply by putting China on the NATO agenda. If the United States pushes hard enough, the Europeans will accept it, as they did at the alliance’s seventieth anniversary meeting in Washington in April 2019, but they will only pay lip service to it afterward. In the end, this EU-U.S. divergence requires an EU-U.S. strategic dialogue.

Recommendations

EU-U.S. Strategic Dialogue

The precondition for a useful strategic dialogue is sound strategy making on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, the National Security Council (NSC) can underpin the rational formulation of strategy—if the national security adviser and the president are so inclined.

In the EU, decisionmaking is more dispersed, as is the institutional capacity for strategic thinking. During the 2014–2019 sitting of the European Parliament, the European Political Strategy Center had the ear of the president of the European Commission for its out-of-the-box thinking, but it is at one remove from foreign policy and defense. In the European External Action Service, the EU’s foreign policy arm, strategic policy planning plays a role to support the high representative, the union’s foreign policy chief. Strategic reflection also takes place in the EU Military Staff, but it is not directly linked to political decisionmaking on the use of military power by the member states in the Council of Ministers. The European Parliament has its own research services but plays no direct part in the executive.

Given the EU’s institutional setup, the president of the commission, on the one hand, and the Council of Ministers and the high representative, on the other, both need a strategy service. But they could be significantly strengthened and create joint task forces to deal with challenges such as the rise of China that have an external and an internal dimension. The transatlantic partners could then establish a substantial permanent dialogue between these EU services and the NSC. NATO’s Policy Planning Unit could participate on issues with political and military aspects. Such a dialogue could underpin more regular EU-U.S. political consultation at the highest level.

The strategic dialogue between political leaders need not be institutionalized—that would probably just result in sclerosis. But if leaders on both sides of the Atlantic are serious about being allies, they need to develop the habit of consulting each other whenever they envisage decisions with a major mutual impact. The format and means of such consultation can vary according to the case at hand but must include the EU as an organization in addition to the individual European states. Having a substantial strategic conversation will not in itself make divergences go away, but it will make them easier to manage.

Obviously, a strategic dialogue makes sense only if it leads to decisions. For now, the EU lacks the agility that strategic action requires, because on foreign policy and defense, the union operates on an intergovernmental basis and makes all decisions by unanimity. It only takes one member state that prioritizes its bilateral relations with an external power to weaken or block any EU position. Governments may be more reluctant to break consensus in NATO on the military dimension of strategy, but they can easily hamper other crucial dimensions in which only the EU can take the lead. Not only the EU but also NATO and the United States therefore have an interest in strengthening the agility of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy by introducing decisionmaking by majority.

NATO-EU Cooperation

The more EU and U.S. strategies converge and complement each other, the more the pair can act together. In some dimensions of strategy, however, NATO and NATO-EU cooperation will remain the main vehicles for implementation.

One such area lies in the hybrid part of collective defense. A central question is how to deter attempts to subvert allies’ sovereignty, such as stealing data, spreading fake news, corrupting officials, supporting nondemocratic parties, and engaging in economic blackmail. Deterrence and defense, including retaliation, can take different forms and may occur in a completely different domain from that of the act that they seek to punish. It is entirely possible that an offending act targets military systems at NATO, while the response falls under the EU’s purview. This clearly demands much closer NATO-EU coordination than currently exists. Such close cooperation presumes a broader EU-U.S. strategic consensus on the political, economic, and military approach—for example, toward Russia, which is perceived as the main source of hybrid threats today.

The EU is also playing a growing role in developing military capabilities. In many areas of modern warfare, such as air reconnaissance or air-to-air refueling, individual European countries have become too small to make meaningful contributions. The union’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) mechanism should therefore become the one-stop shop where EU member states—all of which except Cyprus are either NATO allies or partners—cooperate on jointly developing or acquiring new capabilities for NATO, the EU, and themselves. The commission’s planned European Defense Fund will be a core instrument to steer defense investment.

Taboos must be broken, however. NATO should accept that the most promising way for the European allies and partners to meet NATO targets is by using EU instruments. Consequently, when it comes to capabilities such as strategic enablers, it would make sense for NATO to set a collective target for the allies and partners that make up the EU and leave it up to them to decide how to generate the capability.

Meanwhile, the EU should accept that the point of PESCO is not to raise forces for the mostly low-intensity operations that have so far been undertaken through the EU but to address the shortcomings in European armed forces in their entirety. This requires that EU member states aspire to produce a comprehensive and consistent force package that fulfills NATO, EU, and national levels of ambition. While capability development should ideally take place through the EU, this does not preclude the choice of command for any specific operation. The circumstances of a given crisis will dictate how Europeans act: through NATO (with or without their North American allies), the EU, the United Nations, or an ad hoc coalition.

An alliance that has endured for seventy years is more likely to endure a few decades more than to suddenly fall apart. But will NATO survive because of inertia or out of conviction? That conviction must be actively constructed, for there is a serious risk of ever-growing strategic divergence between the two sides of the Atlantic. The consolidation of the EU as a strategic actor is a prerequisite for an effective transatlantic security architecture. There is, alas, no guarantee that the EU will be entirely successful in creating a more agile foreign policy and integrating the defense efforts of its members.

But the choice is not between EU and national strategies. The real choice is between the EU being a strategic actor and an effective U.S. ally, on the one hand, and not being an actor at all and ending up as a mere hanger-on of the United States, on the other. That is a choice that only the Europeans can make.

Notes

1 “Joint Declaration,” NATO, July 8, 2016, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133163.htm; “Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation,” NATO, July 10, 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_156626.htm.

2 Sven Biscop, European Strategy in the 21st Century: New Future for Old Power (London: Routledge, 2019).