Donald J. Biden? How Europe’s Indignation Reveals as Much About Us as About America
21 September 2021
Common festivities cancelled, French ambassadors recalled from Washington and Canberra, and an EU-Australia trade deal on ice: France’s righteous wrath is understandable, but only partly justified. Moreover, coming on the heels of the Transatlantic spat over the Afghanistan withdrawal, this latest crisis among allies not only reconfirms the urgent question many Europeans asked themselves after the last US election: What if the Republicans return to power in 2024? It actually produces an even more urgent question: How Trumpist is Joe Biden? And is this the final wake-up call for the EU’s strategic autonomy?
The art of (cancelling) the deal
The submarine deal was fraught with problems from its beginning in 2016. That refers not only to the predictable delays and cost blowouts on the side of the French contractor, Naval Group, but also to changing strategic requirements in the Indo-Pacific, and above all, the French inability to come to grips with the propulsion system – on top of data hacks on their side. The problem (and the ineptitude in Washington) was that the announcement of the cancellation came together with the formation of AUKUS, the Australia-UK-US cooperation agreement on sharing state-of-the-art military technology (including on submarines, replacing the French contract) and strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific – vis-à-vis an increasingly aggressive China, of course. (By the way, to call this a military alliance is a bit of an exaggeration. NATO is an alliance; this here is a cooperation agreement with geopolitical implications). The fact that France, like other European allies of the US, had not known about this agreement in the making in past months, was the real ‘stab in the back’, to use French Foreign Minister Le Drian’s words. To unnecessarily alienate an ally with ambitions and presence in the Indo-Pacific is indeed counterproductive, especially if the priority of priorities for the US, and one of the last remaining bipartisan points of consensus along the Potomac, is countering the rising Chinese influence.
When US strategic disinterest meets with European strategic ineptitude
The picture would, however, be incomplete without the Biden administration’s frustration, actually a bipartisan exasperation, with European allies who keep postulating their ‘strategic autonomy’ from the US while still bringing very little to the table in terms of real military capabilities. A strategic autonomy that so far mainly manifests itself in pushing projects such as Nord Stream 2 and telling the world that Europe refuses to ‘take sides’ in the ‘Cold War 2.0’ between the US and China. And to underscore this, the EU concluded an investment deal with China without even consulting with the US, despite Washington’s very kind request to do so before signing. This is happening in a situation in which the Biden administration clearly and repeatedly said that the overriding conflict of the future is the one between liberal democracy and a new authoritarianism, whose cheerleader is now the Chinese Communist Party. American strategic disinterest in Europe meets with European strategic impotence and irresponsibility: Two mutually reinforcing trends. And a toxic combination for the West, and for democrats worldwide.
Breaking the vicious circle
Ending the Transatlantic vicious circle begins with European strategic responsibility, not autonomy. The latter is not on the cards, full stop. To spell it out: Even if we had an ‘entry force’ and several battlegroups combat-ready for interventions in emergencies like the one in Kabul, or contingencies in the neighbourhood (which is a worthy goal), there is no way such a Europe without the US could defend itself, or deter an aggressive authoritarian power such as Russia on all levels, from hybrid to conventional, to tactical nuclear and strategic nuclear. Rather than strategic autonomy, which is anathema to Eastern flank countries in EU and NATO, strategic responsibility should be our ambition. And that means spending more on defence, developing intervention capacities in the EU’s neighbourhood, strengthening the European pillar in NATO, and ceasing to ostentatiously sit on the fence between China and the US. Instead, while recognising that EU and US approaches to China will never be identical, we need to seek common ground and identify areas of strategic consensus, for example on supply chains, export of key technologies, a common pushback against Beijing’s abuse of our open markets, its political blackmail and human rights violations, as well as a concerted effort to support democratic governments and movements across the world. Some willingness to compromise with the US on trade and technology would also help.
If the EU is to demonstrate real added value to the US as allies, two nations in particular have to grow up on this side of the Pond: France needs to let go of delusions of grandeur, and Germany needs to get real about contributing to Europe’s security with more hard power – which is always necessary for soft power to work.
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