The pursuit of EU strategic autonomy in defence by examining EU-US relations


In terms of international security affairs, the EU acts as a soft power, lacking the command power and defence capabilities of great powers such as the US and Russia. Accordingly, the EU has a different foreign policy and security strategy from the great powers, resulting in a significant reliance on the US for its defence.

by Nazanin Asbaghipour

Due to a shift in the international security environment from the familiar post-Cold War era to a new and different strategic situation which is marked by renewed great power competition and challenges to the U.S.-led world order, the EU has developed a system of thinking emphasizing strategic autonomy, allowing it to meet its own defence needs, as evident from its Global Strategy (2016).

Accordingly, a more credible European defence system and having autonomy in deciding on the implementation of defence-related issues was also highlighted in the definition of European strategic autonomy by the European Parliament research service (2020).

Particularly, the EU-US relations in recent decades has significantly influenced the EU’s orientation towards pursuing EU strategic autonomy.

Accordingly, ever since the Obama administration, the focus of American interests has shifted more towards trade relations with Asia rather than Europe. Also, former President Trump’s unilateralist “America First” policy, as well as extreme polarization of foreign and security policies in the US has raised questions about the future of transatlantic relations.

Thus, the uncertainty about whether the EU will eventually not be sufficiently supported by the US in the defence dimension, has made the EU more aware than ever of the importance of pursuing EU strategic autonomy in defence. Accordingly, the EU views EU strategic autonomy as a means of overcoming its security concerns.

Another aspect of EU-US relations in the pursuit of EU strategic autonomy can also be seen through EU-NATO relations as the US holds a dominant position within NATO’s structure. Consequently, debates in support or opposition (believers or disbelievers) to EU strategic autonomy have been raised among EU member states, experts, and policymakers. Generally, the believers in EU strategic autonomy view it as a way of strengthening European defence. In that sense, they believe that a stronger European defence paves the way for the EU to contribute more to NATO which will lead to greater transatlantic burden-sharing. Additionally, it reduces dependence on external actors and makes the EU less vulnerable to external threats, while the disbelievers in EU strategic autonomy are convinced that a separate European defence effort would weaken NATO. Thus, from the disbelievers’ perspective, EU strategic autonomy has a negative counter-effect on matters of EU defence. Further, the implication of the various views among EU member states on seeking strategic autonomy in defence has led to a dilemma within the EU for the inability to decide on this issue, since decision-making based on the structure of the EU requires consensus among the member states. So, what the EU faces is an inability to decide whether to pursue its strategic autonomy.

Furthermore, President Biden’s contribution to EU strategic autonomy with his message of “America is back” is actually a significant shift in US strategic policy to return to the EU-US relationship that existed before Trump took office, in which America leads the world and Europe plays a supportive role beside the US. Accordingly, the US is interested in seeing Europe strengthening its defence, but not to the extent such that it no longer follows America’s lead. Also, a joint statement (2021) by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Joseph Borrell outlines US foreign policy and defence toward the EU as a strategic partner with a focus on EU defence initiatives to enhance Europe’s contribution to transatlantic security and provide concrete prospects for EU-US cooperation.

As a result, by strengthening the defence capabilities of the EU, one of the ways to achieve EU strategic autonomy in defence can effectively be to increase both EU and US cooperation, which can be parallel with NATO. This leads to a stronger, more reliable, and more mature transatlantic relationship, as stated by Charles Michel, the European Council President in 2021. Finally and most importantly, what is indispensable in any case is that the EU strategic autonomy in defence requires that decision-makers stop talking and start doing.


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