On the eve of NATO’s Madrid Summit, one fact of European security has become increasingly clear: NATO is the only feasible guarantor of the security of European states and, thus, the European Union’s (EU) objective of achieving strategic autonomy is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon.
In the early days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would have been reasonable to expect the war would provide the necessary impetus for the European Union to finally achieve strategic autonomy. Unity develops in response to a common threat and Russia’s attack demonstrated its aggressive intentions. Moreover, the Russian threat was such a shock that it seemed to cause a “sea change” in defense policy for many European governments. The Biden administration had already rightfully signaled that it would welcome greater European responsibility for defense and security, as it would allow the United States to focus more on the greater threat posed by China. In a further positive development, the EU published a “Strategic Compass,” outlining its plans for improved defense and security cooperation, only a month after the Russo-Ukrainian War began.
In the months since, however, it has become clear that European strategic autonomy is unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon: the war has increased the stakes and made apparent the risk involved in forming an alternative to NATO, major EU members France and Germany have acted in ways that cast doubt on their ability to lead, and Sweden and Finland’s NATO application demonstrates that the backing of the United States is the only real guarantee against Russian aggression.
While European autonomy in defense and security has long been a goal, President Donald Trump’s criticism of NATO and expressed desire to withdraw from the alliance, led many European policymakers to search for alternatives to the Atlantic alliance. What do advocates of strategic autonomy mean by the term? In a November 2019 interview with The Economist Emmanuel Macron declared NATO’s “brain death” and said “Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability,” later claiming that “Europe has the capacity to defend itself.” Within a week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Macron proclaimed that “Europe must invest more in order to decrease its dependence on other continents and to be able to decide for itself. In other words, it must become a power that is both more independent and more sovereign.” So, strategic autonomy, in the view of its leading proponent, would mean an EU that is capable of defending its members without assistance from the United States.
Russia’s attack on February 24, 2022, demonstrated aggressive intentions fundamentally greater than anything it has done since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine suggested to Europeans that a Russian attack on an EU or NATO member, while not likely, is no longer unthinkable. Given this new reality, the stakes of choosing the right security architecture are higher than they have been for decades. If European countries bet on an unknown and untested EU for their defense, they would risk attack, territorial loss, and even subjugation. Finally, while the early weeks of the war demonstrated Russian military incompetence, experts warn that Russia has learned from mistakes, retains destructive military capabilities, and will likely use its oil and gas sales to rebuild its war machine.
France and Germany—the EU’s top two economies, largest military spenders, and loudest advocates for strategic autonomy—have acted in ways that have made strategic autonomy less likely. First, many European leaders—especially those bordering Russia—view French and German calls for Ukraine to make compromises with Russia with great concern. From the perspective of those countries most concerned with the Russian threat, the appeal to a diplomatic solution could mean they are forced to give up territory for the sake of the greater good. When asked recently about German mediation attempts, an Eastern European diplomat said “[w]e don’t need German protection; history proved it to be on the wrong side of history.” Second, there is a well-documented gap between the military capacity of EU member states and what they would need to be truly autonomous in defense. Despite initial indications to the contrary, it now seems increasingly unlikely that Germany will engage in a significant change in its defense spending and strategic culture, which will thwart the move towards European strategic autonomy. Aside from the contribution Germany—as the EU’s wealthiest member—will not make toward enhanced European defense capacity, its inaction will signal to other Europeans that are still not bothered by the Russian threat that it is fine to return to the pre-war levels of defense spending. Finally, there is the issue of France’s nuclear arsenal. The United States has extended its nuclear deterrent to cover NATO members, whereas France’s nuclear arsenal defends its territory and vital interests, not the EU or NATO.
The recent decision by the governments of Sweden and Finland to apply for NATO membership is the death knell for EU strategic autonomy. Both countries are EU members, so both should—in theory—be protected by the Lisbon Treaty’s Article 42 defense clause. Moreover, both countries understand that the act of applying to NATO would draw Russia’s ire and potential coercive measures to keep them out of the alliance and impose costs on them. They also knew that there would be at least a few months between when they applied for membership and when they received the full protection of NATO’s Article V mutual defense clause (Turkey’s objections have extended that timeline). As such, if they believed that EU strategic autonomy could provide them with sufficient protection from Russia in the near to medium term, it would have been rational to continue to remain outside of NATO. But Sweden and Finland have chosen otherwise. A May 2022 Swedish Foreign Affairs report stated: “It is clear that there is a lack of political will among EU Member States to develop collective defence within the EU.” While NATO certainly faces challenges, Sweden and Finland’s applications suggest the alliance provides a better security blanket against a Russian attack than the EU.
What if Donald Trump or a Trump-aligned, NATO-critical Republican wins the 2024 U.S. presidential election? Wouldn’t that outcome force Europeans to return to strategic autonomy? First, given the American public’s bipartisan concern with the threat posed by Russia since its attack on Ukraine, it would not be politically expedient for a Republican nominee to emphasize criticisms of NATO in the way that Trump did previously. Second, while Trump’s rhetorical criticisms of NATO were fierce, his administration’s policies toward the alliance were quite favorable. Finally, the Russo-Ukrainian War is likely to lead more NATO states to meet the 2 percent of gross domestic product defense spending goal, lessening one of Trump’s most salient criticisms of the alliance.
Given the death of EU strategic autonomy—and the United States’ continued interest in European security—NATO will remain the critical security mechanism for Europe. The United States will have to remain engaged in Europe, even as it focuses more on Asia, though it should be able to use the residual threat from Moscow to leverage greater European contributions to their own defense.
Jason W. Davidson is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.