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If former U.S. president Donald Trump was a wake-up call for Europeans that they need to take more responsibility for security and defense, Europe lost too much time in the past four years discussing abstract notions of strategic autonomy while making only piecemeal progress toward becoming a more capable security actor.1 With the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden recommitting the United States to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the challenge facing Europe could be the very opposite: how to avoid relapsing into complacency and lazy transatlanticism.

Instead, Europe must capitalize on Biden’s election to finally deliver on becoming a stronger security player in its own right and, in so doing, a stronger partner to Washington. That starts with the Europeans assuming greater responsibility for their Eastern and Southern neighborhoods and contributing more to addressing hybrid and cyber threats. The specter of a possible return of an America First U.S. foreign policy in 2025 or 2029 means that there is no time to waste.

Biden’s Expectations of Europe

Erik Brattberg
Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He is an expert on European politics and security and transatlantic relations.
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Even if Biden firmly recommits the United States to NATO, he will not walk back Trump’s demands for greater European defense spending. Biden has long called for NATO allies to do more, and he supports the goal of each member state spending the equivalent of 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense—an objective that was signed in 2014 while he was U.S. vice president.

The Biden administration will expect that its polite diplomacy will bear more fruit than Trump’s hostile, unilateral approach. European spending on development and humanitarian assistance will be more appreciated by the new Democratic administration. But Biden is aware that securing long-term support from American taxpayers for NATO depends on whether wealthy allies are willing to step up their game. What Washington ultimately wants in an age of great-power competition is more capable and mature allies, not ones that remain dependent.

Additionally, the Biden administration will want to see the Europeans not only spending more on defense but also delivering on military capabilities. Whereas the Trump White House dismissed new European Union (EU) defense initiatives, the more pro-European Biden administration is more likely to view a well-coordinated and well-executed European defense policy as contributing to a European pillar in NATO. But skepticism of the EU’s ability to deliver on defense and deep concerns over European protectionism and duplication of NATO will not easily go away. Biden will want the EU’s defense projects to focus more on operational capabilities that fill NATO gaps and on effective deployment capacities than on institutions and bureaucratic processes.

Finally, the trend of declining U.S. interest in patrolling Europe’s neighborhood will not change under Biden as the U.S. strategic shift toward the Indo-Pacific continues. Just like his predecessors, Trump and Barack Obama, Biden is skeptical of military disengagement from the Middle East and North Africa, and he has vowed to end so-called forever wars. That means that Europe must increasingly assume the lead responsibility for securing its Southern neighborhood.

A Higher European Level of Ambition

Biden’s election should not be an excuse for Europe to lower its security and defense ambitions. On the contrary, Europe must demonstrate it can be a serious partner. Accordingly, it should approach the Biden administration with concrete offers to this end from day one.

Offer a 2 Percent Plus Deal

Biden will still be president when NATO’s 2 percent defense spending pledge is due to be achieved in 2024. Even though it may not be the best metric, the symbolic value of allies delivering on the spending goal before the end of Biden’s term would be unmistakable and refute proponents of America First.

All European allies must therefore recommit to the goal at the first NATO meeting with Biden in Brussels later in 2021 and advance concrete plans for realizing it in time. Although this will prove challenging, especially given other budget pressures and competing priorities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there can be no excuse for falling short. Equally important is that European allies recommit to the goal of spending 20 percent of their defense budgets on new capabilities and research and development. The EU can contribute by stressing harder the binding commitments that most member states have made under permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), which allows willing and able EU countries to cooperate more deeply on particular defense projects.2

At the same time, European leaders should seek to convince the new U.S. administration that spending on military mobility and infrastructure should count toward the 2 percent goal. More generally, they should also encourage the Biden administration to shift the focus from burden sharing to responsibility sharing. That would take into account European contributions to resilience, peacekeeping and training missions, climate security and disaster management, and humanitarian assistance.

Deliver an EU Defense Success Story

New EU defense initiatives like PESCO and the European Defense Fund are significant developments but are unlikely to yield immediate results.3 The EU’s 2020 annual defense review shows that the union’s capability development continues to suffer from fragmentation and duplication.4

Rather than engaging in toxic theoretical debates over strategic autonomy, EU leaders would be much better off making sure EU initiatives deliver tangible outputs.5 To do so, leaders should ensure that projects are coherent and focused on filling critical EU and NATO capability shortfalls and reducing redundancies in Europe’s defense industrial base. The EU should devote particular attention to delivering, in a timely fashion, a project that would bring immediate value to transatlantic security—such as missile defense and unmanned aerial systems, military mobility, or hybrid and cyber capabilities.6 The union should also focus on harnessing emerging technologies with military applications, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Take the Lead in the South

A higher European level of ambition implies an ability to operate independently when needed in Europe’s neighborhood, particularly in the Sahel and North Africa, where the United States is unlikely to play an active role in the future given its other priorities. Europe should demonstrate its usefulness to the Biden team by assuming the lead responsibility for handling at least one major regional crisis—such as those in Iraq or Libya, or that in Mali, where France and other European countries are already deployed.

To this end, the EU should offer a clear division of labor and role specialization with the United States, whereby the EU assumes a greater share of operational risks in exchange for continued U.S. intelligence and military support. While the EU can put its Common Security and Defense Policy to greater use, the difficulties in reaching agreement among the twenty-seven member states mean that in reality, Europe should think more about smaller, flexible coalitions, such as the French-led European Intervention Initiative. The EU should also establish contact groups of willing and able capitals to serve as agents of joint action in the region.7

Here, the current Strategic Compass exercise, which is based on a common threat analysis, can be helpful in clarifying what instruments and capabilities the EU needs and in forging a stronger common strategic culture. But Europe may not have the luxury of waiting until this process is completed in 2022 to take action.

Contribute More to a Forward Presence on the Eastern Flank

While the presence of NATO and U.S. troops will remain essential for ensuring deterrence against Russia, the Biden administration would certainly welcome additional European defense resources deployed to Poland and the Baltics. This includes both military assets and additional investment in military mobility, resilience, hybrid and cyber defenses, and critical infrastructure protection, where the EU has unique capabilities.

Here, countries such as Germany should be forward leaning, including by considering troop deployments to contribute to the rotating U.S. presence in Poland or additional participation in exercises with the U.S. Army and Air Force. Beyond supporting NATO, the EU can do more on its own to project stability in its Eastern neighborhood by extending cybersecurity capacity building, security-sector reform assistance, and civil-military training and exercises to vulnerable Eastern Partnership countries, such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.8

Lock in a Security Partnership With the United Kingdom

Given the large size of the British military, Brexit undermines the EU’s military power and autonomy unless Brussels can find a meaningful way to effectively incorporate a British contribution into EU defense initiatives.9 Ensuring continued collaboration with the United Kingdom (UK) as part of a new UK-EU special partnership after Brexit is therefore essential.

However, given British skepticism of such an agreement with the EU, pursuing deeper defense cooperation in the E3 format, which brings together France, Germany, and the UK, will likely prove more productive.10 French President Emmanuel Macron’s intriguing idea of establishing a European Security Council could also be worth considering—as long as it does not detract from NATO or undermine EU cohesion.11

Double Down on EU-NATO Cooperation

The EU-NATO relationship has significantly deepened in recent years, but there is still much to do. Besides fully implementing existing arrangements and a list of seventy-four action items, the EU and NATO need to strengthen their political consultation at the highest levels and ensure more institutionalized interaction and coordination.12 The EU and NATO should also pursue new forms of cooperation on a broader agenda that goes beyond defense and embraces areas such as emerging technologies, counter-disinformation, climate security, supply chain management, critical infrastructure protection, and China.

Offer Biden a New EU-U.S. Defense Partnership

The lack of a formal arrangement for discussing bilateral cooperation between Brussels and Washington makes little sense given the EU’s burgeoning defense role. The EU should propose to the Biden administration a new EU-U.S. security and defense dialogue. Extending a long-overdue administrative arrangement with the European Defense Agency to allow the United States to participate in the agency’s projects could be a useful step to help convince skeptics in Washington about this idea.

Moreover, the EU should invite the United States to take part in one or two existing PESCO projects, such as military mobility, that meet both EU and NATO capability goals and can be prioritized with immediate funding and additional resources. In this regard, the October 2020 agreement to allow third countries to participate in PESCO is welcome news and must be put to use right away. The European Commission may also want to approach the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency about teaming up with the new European Defense Fund on co-financed R&D for joint EU-U.S. defense projects.13

Beyond Autonomy Versus Transatlanticism

The renewed debate over strategic autonomy versus transatlantic security—as seen in the November 2020 disagreement between Macron and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer—is mostly counterproductive.14 At worst, too much emphasis on unrealistic notions of autonomy risks fueling unnecessary divisions, including in Europe itself, by obscuring what everyone can agree on: a stronger and more capable Europe is commensurate with a vibrant and healthy transatlantic security partnership. It is time to move on from this debate and focus on building a stronger European pillar in NATO.

However, even if Biden adopts a more relaxed attitude to EU defense cooperation, the United States will remain skeptical of the EU’s ability to deliver until it sees real, tangible progress. If Europe wants to be respected as a stronger partner, it should therefore focus on achieving practical results that would make Washington more comfortable with a greater level of European autonomy.

Whereas it was convenient to dismiss Trump’s antics, Europeans cannot afford to sit and wait Biden out. As one of the most pro-European U.S. presidents in modern times, Biden could offer Europe a chance to get its house in order on security and defense. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should seize this moment to forge a new transatlantic balance, in which Europe finally takes more responsibility for its own security in return for a continued U.S. transatlantic commitment.

Notes

1 Erik Brattberg and Tomáš Valášek, “EU Defense Cooperation: Progress Amid Transatlantic Concerns,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 21, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/11/21/eu-defense-cooperation-progress-amid-transatlantic-concerns-pub-80381.

2 “Ambitious and More Binding Common Commitments,” European Defense Agency, https://www.eda.europa.eu/what-we-do/our-current-priorities/permanent-structured-cooperation-(PESCO)/ambitious-and-more-binding-common-commitments.

3 “Council Conclusions on the PESCO Strategic Review 2020,” Council of the European Union, November 20, 2020, https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-13188-2020-INIT/en/pdf.

4 Alexandra Brzozowski, “EU Lacks Defence Capabilities to Meet ‘Strategic Autonomy’ Goals,” Euractiv, November 23, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/defence-and-security/news/eu-lacks-defence-capabilities-to-meet-strategic-autonomy-goals/.

5 “The Imminent Biden Presidency Reawakens Europe’s Defence Debate,” Economist, November 28, 2020, https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/11/28/the-imminent-biden-presidency-reawakens-europes-defence-debate.

6 Brzozowski, “EU Lacks Defence Capabilities.”

7 Charles Thépaut, “A New West in the Middle East: Toward a Humbler, More Effective Model of Transatlantic Cooperation,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, policy note 88, October 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/PolicyNote88Thepautv3.pdf.

8 Gustav Gressel, “Promoting European Strategic Sovereignty in the Eastern Neighbourhood,” European Council on Foreign Relations, December 1, 2020, https://ecfr.eu/publication/promoting-european-strategic-sovereignty-in-the-eastern-neighbourhood/.

9 Andrew Chuter, “UK to Boost Defense Budget by $21.9 Billion. Here’s Who Benefits—and Loses Out,” DefenseNews, November 19, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2020/11/19/uk-to-boost-defense-budget-by-219-billion-heres-who-benefits-and-loses-out/.

10 Anna Wieslander, “How France, Germany, and the UK Can Build a European Pillar of NATO,” Atlantic Council, November 23, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/commentary/article/how-france-germany-and-the-uk-can-build-a-european-pillar-of-nato/.

11 David Whineray, “The Pros and Cons of a European Security Council,” Carnegie Europe, January 23, 2020, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/80869.

12 “NATO 2030: United for a New Era,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, November 25, 2020, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2020/12/pdf/201201-Reflection-Group-Final-Report-Uni.pdf.

13 Hans Binnendijk and Jim Townsend, “A Compromise Is Needed on Trans-Atlantic Defense Cooperation,” DefenseNews, October 16, 2019, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2019/10/16/a-compromise-is-needed-on-trans-atlantic-defense-cooperation/.

14 Claudia Major and Christian Mölling, “Less Talk, More Action,” Internationale Politik Quarterly, December 2, 2020, https://ip-quarterly.com/en/less-talk-more-action?_ga=2.125933197.1215863495.1606740601-1287319988.1600689815.