Four years ago, the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron called on Europe to build “the ability to act independently” on security issues so that the continent would be less dependent on the United States and be able to decide to act without US support.
Most European leaders mocked Macron’s idea as far-fetched. “Illusions of European strategic autonomy must end,” said Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister.
But in the wake of the US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, her position has changed. It is time to make “the European Union a strategic player to be reckoned with”, she announced last week in a comment to the Atlantic Council, a think tank in New York.
She is not alone in thinking about the future of the transatlantic security arrangement.
Europe’s opinion pages have been full of columns from politicians and security advisers advocating for the continent to become more independent militarily and less dependent on Washington. European leaders have dismissed President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as urgent, complaining that Washington did not consult enough with NATO allies.
Armin Laschet, a challenger to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor, said last month: “We are facing an epoch-making change.”
Even traditional pro-American British politicians such as Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister and a key partner of the United States in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, question the United States’ credibility as a defense partner.
On Monday, he said Britain should strengthen its defense partnership with Europe to combat threats. In the United States, there is “now an overwhelming political constraint on military intervention”, which represents a serious challenge for Britain and NATO, he said in a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that accelerated the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.
However, there is little agreement in Europe on what strategic autonomy should mean and what Europe should do with it. The 27 EU member states have repeatedly been affected by foreign policy, from relations with Russia to whether China is an opponent or competitor.
Central European leaders are particularly nervous about loosening all defense ties with Washington and are still convinced that they can trust Western Europeans in a confrontation with Russia.
And skeptics question whether Europe is really prepared to spend what it takes to become a serious independent strategic player, especially as they struggle with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
On average, European Union countries spend around 1.2% of their GDP on defense. Russia spends 4.3 percent while the United States spends 3.4 percent.
But in a new debate in the House of Commons, Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker and chairman of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said the lesson he learned from the Afghanistan withdrawal was the need to help revive Britain’s European NATO partners and “make sure that we are not dependent on a single ally, on the decision of a single leader, but that we can work together. “
However, Lawrence Freedman, the influential emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, suspects that the talk of European strategic autonomy is a tricky reaction to what Armin Laschet has described as the “biggest NATO debacle” since the founding of the alliance.
“It is always tempting but usually unwise to draw major geopolitical conclusions from specific events, however dramatic and disturbing,” he said in a comment to The Times of London this week.
The United States’ nuclear strategic alliances in Europe and even Asia have faced many setbacks and disputes in the past, he said.
“These alliances have been built for decades and remain in place. They have survived past disagreements and are unlikely to be set aside because the Biden administration abused the eventual withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan,” he added. “The autopsy following the withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to conclude that no fundamental political changes are necessary,” he added.
European interventions with no or little military support from the United States have not gone well. In July, Macron announced that France’s anti-jihadist intervention in the volatile Sahel region, which involves more than 5,000 troops and was launched by his predecessor in office, will end next year.
The French leader has for years tried to persuade European allies to help bear more of the burden of fighting terrorism in the Sahel, but to no avail. The United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden provided helicopter functions for air mobility, but little else from other European countries apart from some symbolic deployments emerged.
In an almost echo of Biden’s reasons for withdrawing from Afghanistan, Macron said: “We cannot secure certain areas because some states simply refuse to take on their tasks. Otherwise, it is an endless task.” He added that the “long-term presence” of French troops “cannot be a substitute” for nation states dealing with their own affairs.
Some diplomats suggest that the current increase in talk of strategic autonomy will diminish when the shock of withdrawal disappears. They suggest that much of the criticism should be seen as a shifting activity, a way of dealing with antagonistic calls. “They feel bad about leaving [Afghanistan] but they are also relieved to be out of an eternal war that they know could not be won “, suggested a European envoy in Brussels to the VOA. He asked not to be identified for this story.
Other diplomats believe that transatlantic security bonds will remain tight, but it will take some time for recovery from what they acknowledge was an immovable withdrawal.
It will take quite some time for the West as a whole – for it is a Western failure, a Western catastrophe, this is not just Britain and the United States – to recover from all this, to restore our reputation, “Kim Darroch, formerly British Ambassador to the United States and the European Union, told the BBC last month.
However, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says the withdrawal has offered “an opportunity for us to discuss the EU as a geopolitical player”, he said. “But this will require unity, in small things and big things,” he told reporters in Brussels this week.
Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash agrees. In an interview on Tuesday, he told TV channel Euronews: “President Joe Biden has made the case for what all Europeans are talking about, namely strategic autonomy and European sovereignty.”
Ash, a proponent of European strategic autonomy, regretted, however, that European powers missed the opportunity to show what they could do. “There were 2,500 American troops stabilizing Afghanistan. France and Britain alone have 10,000 troops and a rapid reaction force. Why did we not have a European conversation about what we could have done about it?”