An expert's point of view on a current event.

What Is Europe’s ‘Once-in-a-Generation’ Offer to America?

The EU vows to seize the opportunity posed by the new U.S. administration—but muddled strategy still stands in the way.

By , a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and an adjunct professor at Sciences Po.
European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen gives a statement on the New Pact for Migration and Asylum at the European Commission in Brussels, on September 23, 2020.
European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen gives a statement on the New Pact for Migration and Asylum at the European Commission in Brussels, on September 23, 2020.
European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen gives a statement on the New Pact for Migration and Asylum at the European Commission in Brussels, on September 23, 2020. STEPHANIE LECOCQ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A former European Union official—apparently in good faith and with genuine intentions—once told me one of my articles about European foreign policy did not have enough “buzzwords” and proceeded to list various terms and phrases to sprinkle throughout my text. I politely declined the edits. But the comment was emblematic of a general emphasis in European policy circles on formulating a catchy headline, alongside perhaps some flashy visuals, as a way of drawing attention but not stimulating constructive debate. Improving Europe’s so-called strategic culture has ironically itself become more of a slogan than a practical aim.

To the extent that Europe is openly debating any foreign-policy issue at present, it is the transatlantic relationship. It has been bracing to see French President Emmanuel Macron and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer offer their opposing views. The EU, for its part, has rejected the “false debates” between transatlanticists and Europeanists—which have pitched the two paths as mutually exclusive—as a cul-de-sac, and instead argued strength reinforces strength on both sides of the Atlantic.

This week, the EU’s national leaders will meet to decide the strategy to offer toward its transatlantic partner. They will do so against the background of recommendations issued last week by the European Commission and the European External Action Service for policy proposals spanning the whole gamut of transatlantic issues, such as pandemics, climate change, trade, technology, security, and defense. Gesturing to what could be the most transatlanticist U.S. administration in decades with the election of Joe Biden to the presidency, the EU stressed the need to seize this “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

The Biden team will find in Europe real partners beset by conflicting trends: greater ambition but fewer resources, visions of autonomy combined with the reality of interdependence, in search of strategy but with disjointed tactics, with good intentions but discordant outcomes. The main challenge for both sides will be to translate high-level strategic agreement into concrete policies that can deliver tangible results in the short term and over time.

At a quick glance, debates in Brussels and around Europe sometimes seem a bit like what they may have been in Washington in the late 1940s, when George Kennan and Paul Nitze designed strategies of containment and cold war and George Marshall and Dean Acheson shaped the liberal order. At a deeper level, however, fundamental questions and big ideas in Europe have had few concrete policy implications.

Concepts such as “strategic autonomy,” a European defense union, and European sovereignty have become common parlance among European decision-makers to signify Europe’s ambition to act as a global actor and shape the world order. But sometimes such concepts obfuscate rather than clarify strategic choices. In the words of Acheson, each idea is “clearer than truth,” capturing the core essence but also easily misunderstood without the full context and background understanding. Each is essential to pragmatic cooperation and can be used by European leaders to pursue visionary steps without illusions and with a deep sense of realism. But what is most striking is that there is often little substance behind the concepts. Typically, a phrase seems to be chosen as a slogan looking for strategy—only later to be defined or, more frequently, left undefined and contested.

For instance, countless hours and pages have been spent over the past four years over the notion of strategic autonomy—without much progress. First introduced by the EU Global Strategy in 2016, the concept was left undefined but at least constrained as an “appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy.” Greater insight can be gleaned from the 2017 French Strategic Review, which outlines as objectives, paradoxically, strategic autonomy for both France and Europe. It defines France’s strategic autonomy as “its capability to decide and act alone to defend its interests.”  For Europe, however, strategic autonomy “requires the development of a common strategic culture” and can be autonomous from the EU itself; as an example, the French white paper provides the European Intervention Initiative, a French-led coalition of willing EU and non-EU states, that is separate from the EU institutions.

In French doctrine, the concept of strategic autonomy dates back to the presidency of Charles de Gaulle: In the aftermath of the 1956 Suez Crisis—when then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower told Britain and France to call off their intervention in Egypt—de Gaulle determined that France should always preserve its freedom of maneuver, backed by its own nuclear arsenal and independence from NATO’s military structures. “Nuclear deterrence” guarantees France its “freedom of decision and action.” Yet, the EU, with multilateralism at the core of its decision-making, clearly cannot seek the same unilateral freedom of maneuver. And in any event, it is not for the French defense white book to define the EU’s strategic autonomy. Strikingly, neither the German, Spanish, nor Polish strategies—all of which postdate the EU Global Strategy—include the concept at the national or EU level. Moreover, the debate over strategic autonomy has not been advanced by substituting other slogans, such as “strategic sovereignty” or “cooperative autonomy.”

Likewise, the European defense union has been bedeviled by similar conceptual confusion. One former EU official tried to explain to me several times that NATO is about collective defense and the EU about common defense—but could not expound on the substantive distinction beyond this semantic difference. Much greater effort has gone into describing what the defense union is not—does not duplicate NATO, does not envision an EU army, does not transfer defense responsibility to the EU level—rather than what it is. This gap is particularly surprising, given that there is no shortage of models, including the unratified 1952 treaty establishing the European Defense Community; this version, however, would compete with NATO.

The underlying purposes of the defense union have also been unclear: whether to increase capabilities (the German-led view), to serve operations (the French-led view), or generate savings. Efficiency gains became a particularly attractive argument, but rested on widely divergent estimates: between 25 billion and 100 billion euros, or between 10 and 40 percent of Europe’s collective defense budgets. This analysis was based solely on an outdated seven-year old report from the European Parliament, which itself was highly circumspect in the accuracy of its prediction.  By the time the information filtered into speeches by senior officials, the lower end of the range would be dropped in favor of the more ambitious estimate of 100 billion euros ($121 billion). And thus paradoxically, the main strategic logic for a European defense union appeared to be to cut spending by 40 percent, at a time when many of the same countries had committed (at NATO’s summit in 2014) to a 40 percent increase. The main focus of the debate has been on streamlining weapons systems and avoiding duplication, whereas the priority should be on whether various types of defense spending are tied to overall operational objectives: Military missions can be accomplished with different guns, tanks, and planes as much as with one standardized system.

Finally, European sovereignty was highlighted by former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2018 State of the European Union speech.  He argued that the “geopolitical situation makes this Europe’s hour: The time for European sovereignty has come.” He further stated that “European sovereignty is born of member states’ national sovereignty and does not replace it. Sharing sovereignty—when and where needed—makes each of our nation-states stronger.” Likewise, Macron has called for European sovereignty to guarantee Europe’s “ability to exist in today’s world to defend our values and interests.” The Élysée has organized disparate lines of policy across security, defense, economics, migration, social affairs, technology, culture, and education under the framework of European sovereignty. And France and Germany enshrined it as a legal concept in the Treaty of Aachen signed in January 2019. However, its repeated use has not clarified basic questions such as who the European sovereign is and what the concept’s scope is in relation to national sovereignty. Perhaps even worse than the lack of answers to such questions is that such fundamental issues never get raised nor fully analyzed.

The gravest problem with contemporary European debate is not necessarily the lack of content behind particular ideas, but rather the absence of contestation around competing visions. Sometimes the fault lies with the lack of seriousness on the part of the participants, as they launch various slogans or buzzwords to see what will stick. The ephemeral media market, driven by the latest tweet or headline, also does not facilitate considered debate. But the main reason is paradoxically due to consensus decision-making within the EU.

Unlike the United States, with its unitary presidency, the EU has a complex collection of foreign-policy actors: heads of state and government in the European Council, foreign and defense ministers in the Council of the EU, the College of Commissioners, and potentially the European Parliament. Even if the institution is just the European Council or the Commission, the number of decision-makers is already nearly 30. Over the five-year term of members of the Commission and Parliament, European Council members change frequently, with several national elections each year adding further complexity to the policymaking process. Thus, the challenge is not to present clear choices, with arguments in favor and against, for a particular decision-maker to resolve, but rather to identify a potential center of gravity that can serve as consensus.

Structurally, this drive for consensus clouds real choices and competing analyses to the extent that individual decision-makers or their advisors dampen their own viewpoints and instead tend toward the lowest common denominator as a default position. What is the point of sharpening arguments and positions if ultimately they will become diluted anyway?

Avoidance of internal conflict is corrosive for decision-making not only because it can lead to groupthink, but more importantly because it numbs the underlying intellectual analysis and sometimes prevents individuals from developing their own considered judgments and opinions. The objective of each position is not to persuade, but rather to prevent disagreement. Everyone speaks the same terms, nodding in approval, but no one shares the same meaning. Language is sanitized and thereby made empty. Slogans abound but strategy, which relies on choices, priorities, and objectives, is missing. These internal dynamics within the EU’s institutions, in turn, affect public debate, which similarly rehearses consensus arguments and echoes catchphrases. No wonder the former EU official advised me to pepper my paper with trendy buzzwords.

Thus, Biden’s team will quickly need to move beyond merely similar statements with European partners to common action: whether on COVID-19, climate change, economic recovery, the rise of China and resurgence of Russia, or more broadly the contest between authoritarianism and liberal democracy. And European counterparts, in turn, will need to refocus their efforts on resources rather than rhetoric.

Appearing before a joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2018, French Macron argued: “If we do not act with urgency as a global community.… We would then inevitably and severely undermine the liberal order we built after World War II. Other powers, with a stronger strategy and ambition, will then fill the void we would leave empty.”

Macron at times alternated between the necessity of Europe or the wider West in defending the liberal order. In front of Congress, he emphasized “the friendship between our two countries, which has contributed to forging this Western world based on democracy, the freedom of individuals, and enabled us to build the international order that we know.” In other speeches, however, he distinguished European civilization and notions of freedom from U.S. norms. In outlining what’s been referred to as the Macron Doctrine, he also equated the United States with Russia and China—just another great power against which Europe should balance in a 19th-century fashion without distinguishing ally from adversary, friend from foe. Nonetheless, he has been consistent on the centrality of Enlightenment values in guiding his strategic thinking, and his oscillations in rhetoric toward the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump perhaps merely reflected an initial open hand in search of a like-minded partner and subsequent frustration and disappointment in this endeavor.

One bold symbolic move to launch this new era of transatlantic cooperation would be for Europe to award Biden the Charlemagne Prize for work done in the service of European unification. Just as the Nobel Prize committee was visionary in recognizing former U.S. President Barack Obama’s promise of peace, the Charlemagne committee can help Europe and the United States seize this unique strategic opportunity to make the promise of transatlantic partnership a reality. For Europe, the road to success in foreign policy—whether confronting Beijing, Moscow, COVID-19, or the Islamic State—leads through synergy with the United States, and vice versa.

Bart M. J. Szewczyk is a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, an adjunct professor at Sciences Po, a former member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, a former advisor on refugee policy to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the author of Europe’s Grand Strategy: Navigating a New World Order. Twitter: @bartszewczyk

More from Foreign Policy

Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.
Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.

Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America

The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.

Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.
Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense

If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War

Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.

An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.
An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.

How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests

And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.