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Scholz and Macron Have a Perilous Ambition for Europe

The idea of “European strategic autonomy” just won’t go away.

By , a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and an adjunct professor at Sciences Po.
Scholz and Macron in Berlin
Scholz and Macron in Berlin
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate, illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, in Berlin on May 9. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Russia’s war in Ukraine, Europe’s military weakness, and the United States’ outsized role in the Western response have led many officials and observers to conclude that now is finally the time to ensure Europe can defend itself—and become an autonomous strategic actor. Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz joined the chorus calling for a “stronger, more sovereign, geopolitical European Union.” Claiming that Washington’s focus has shifted to competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, he concluded that “Europe is our future.”

In theory, the logic of European strategic autonomy is attractive. After all, the European Union has almost 450 million people, a GDP of $18 trillion, and more $200 billion in defense spending by its member countries. In practice, however, the idea has a fatal flaw: It would make Europe weaker and less secure by pushing away the United States without increasing European power. Instead, EU countries should continue to bet on the United States and the trans-Atlantic bond. The West is their future, as the Kremlin’s war and the surprisingly forceful response from a joint West have shown.

Superficially, it may be bewildering why a wealthy and powerful continent such as Europe needs the United States for its security and defense. And viewed from Washington, why should it serve U.S. interests to keep providing such protection? The key to this conundrum—and the answer to both sides—is leverage.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, Europe’s military weakness, and the United States’ outsized role in the Western response have led many officials and observers to conclude that now is finally the time to ensure Europe can defend itself—and become an autonomous strategic actor. Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz joined the chorus calling for a “stronger, more sovereign, geopolitical European Union.” Claiming that Washington’s focus has shifted to competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, he concluded that “Europe is our future.”

In theory, the logic of European strategic autonomy is attractive. After all, the European Union has almost 450 million people, a GDP of $18 trillion, and more $200 billion in defense spending by its member countries. In practice, however, the idea has a fatal flaw: It would make Europe weaker and less secure by pushing away the United States without increasing European power. Instead, EU countries should continue to bet on the United States and the trans-Atlantic bond. The West is their future, as the Kremlin’s war and the surprisingly forceful response from a joint West have shown.

Superficially, it may be bewildering why a wealthy and powerful continent such as Europe needs the United States for its security and defense. And viewed from Washington, why should it serve U.S. interests to keep providing such protection? The key to this conundrum—and the answer to both sides—is leverage.

For all of its size and economic power, the EU and its 27 member states lack the scale, speed, and sophistication of U.S. firepower. Despite their promises to Washington and one another to shore up their militaries, the Europeans would be unable to replicate U.S. capabilities, unify their forces under a single command, or reach agreement on existential security questions for a very long time. Where European states have fought over the past three decades—Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, and Libya—the U.S. role has been decisive. In Ukraine, the United States provides the vast majority of military aid—more than $10 billion compared to a mere $2.5 billion from the EU. Washington also provides more than 10,000 troops to bolster NATO’s eastern flank, compared to Berlin’s 1,500 and Paris’s 1,000. This division of labor, where Europe’s share seldom exceeds 20 percent, has been remarkably stable since the end of the Cold War.

The military division of labor, where Europe’s share seldom exceeds 20 percent, has been remarkably stable since the end of the Cold War.

Europe could do more but remains unwilling: Take France, which recently withdrew around 5,000 troops from Mali and the Sahel that it could deploy to eastern NATO members. It remains the secret of strategic autonomy proponents like French President Emmanuel Macron why a European-level force or a European caucus within NATO would generate any more troops than individual countries already do or do not send. The same argument applies for military aid: Germany, France, and Italy combined have pledged less to Ukraine than Poland on its own, even though their collective GDP is almost 14 times larger.

To achieve genuine strategic autonomy, Europe would need to replace the U.S. nuclear umbrella—that, too, is no easy feat. Autonomy proponents point to France’s nuclear arsenal, which could, in theory, be extended to other EU countries and even expanded to counter Russia’s. But would France be willing to trade Paris for Poznan, Poland, in a potential nuclear standoff?

Similar questions hold for just about every other important security decision, where the Europeans simply lack the experience of deciding on and waging wars. Who would control an EU army? Would Germany—let alone France—agree to be blocked by Hungary (if war needs a unanimous decision among EU members) or be outvoted (if a majority suffices)? Which country’s electorates would tolerate their government passing decisions literally over the life and death of thousands of citizens to EU institutions? For all its imperfections, collective security through NATO and the West remains the best answer to these questions.

For the United States, providing a security umbrella in Europe gives it a special role in shaping policy on the continent and an ability to mobilize allies for joint action it would otherwise lack. That includes, most importantly, the Indo-Pacific. If anything, it has become clearer since Russia’s war that the two theaters are related, whether by Beijing’s declaration of a “limitless” partnership with Moscow this year or the parallels between Russia’s revisionism over Ukraine and China’s over Taiwan. And the United States will need European support if it wants to constrain China’s economy, suggesting there’s a grand strategic bargain to be had.

But what if former U.S. President Donald Trump or someone like him returns to the White House? Won’t Europe be left to fend for itself? For all its rampaging bluster, the Trump administration still placed great stock on the West. And similar questions could just as easily be asked about France’s Marine Le Pen or other European populists with pro-Russian, anti-Western leanings. That’s why a flexible military alliance like NATO, which can easily form changing coalitions among its 30 members, is much more effective than a centralized EU military could ever be.

The United States and Europe also benefit from the checks and balances arising from their mutual dependence. U.S. foreign policy has tended to falter when it was in strong disagreement with European allies; the wars in Vietnam and Iraq come to mind. European policy, too, is more successful when coordinated with Washington. For instance, EU policy on Ukraine, including Russia sanctions, would surely be less effective without close trans-Atlantic coordination, including on intelligence, diplomacy, and energy supplies.

Rather than warping reality to match geopolitical illusions—like proponents of European autonomy have been wont to do—intellectual frameworks should adjust to underlying facts. And the collective West might add a dose of visionary thinking as well. Instead of pursuing separate ways, Europe and the United States should revisit former U.S. diplomat George Kennan’s proposal for a trans-Atlantic community “so intimate as to bring about a substantial degree of currency and customs union, plus relative freedom of migration of individuals.” If joining the dollar to the euro remains a pipe dream for now, Kennan’s breadth of vision, complementing the trans-Atlantic military alliance, needs to become more commonplace within the West again if it is to be able to prevail over its common challenges, whether they be Russia or China.

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

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