In this post, Greg O’Meara examines the US policy toward European security and defence integration. He argues that this integration, and calls for ‘European strategic autonomy,’ are better understood as a response to American demands for greater European contributions to international security rather than intractable fractures in the Atlantic Alliance.
In the lead up to the US election last November, the debate over European strategic autonomy flared up once again, as prominent European leaders voiced their views on what a change in power in Washington would mean for the European Union. In an opinion piece in Politico, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Kannebauer trampled on Europeanist pretensions declaring that, “[i]llusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider.” French President Emmanuel Macron, was quick to retort that this was not the position of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and affirmed that “on the contrary, the changeover of Administration in America is an opportunity… to continue to build our independence for ourselves, as the United States does for itself”.
This is in fact a fairly facile debate and both references to the US were likely intended more for domestic consumption than as statements of coherent strategic thinking. Notwithstanding some nuances, both Kramp-Kannebauer and Macron were broadly arguing for the same policy in their statements: increasing Europe’s capacity in the realm of defence to take on greater responsibility for security in its neighbourhood. Most tiringly of all, the entire brouhaha could have been avoided with a glance at the history of European defence integration. In particular, the account of the abortive 1954 European Defence Community (EDC) illustrates that European defence integration is better viewed as a response to US demands for a greater European contribution to international security than as a fracture in the transatlantic alliance.
The impetus for the EDC was born of the US demand for West Germany to rearm and contribute to the defence of Western Europe from the USSR. In the late 1940s, as the Cold War intensified, the US and USSR emerged as antagonistic superpowers with military forces spread across the globe. In Washington, this new order gave rise to the strategy of containment, first laid out in the Truman doctrine, which aimed to prevent the spread of communism by confronting communist regimes across the globe. Before long, however, the measure of the commitment they had made began to dawn on American policymakers. Containment implied the forward defence of Europe and Asia by US troops from the Soviets, who now possessed the atomic bomb. Even for America at the height of its powers, this was a daunting undertaking.
It was events in Asia that truly brought this realisation home for Washington. The fall of China to communism sparked the fear of a “domino effect”, which then reached fever pitch when the Communist regime in the north of the partitioned Korean peninsula swept south invading its southern, US-allied counterpart. American military planners asked themselves how they could expect to simultaneously guarantee the security of Western Europe and Eastern Asia from Communist expansion. The USSR had 45 divisions (to NATO’s 14) lined up along the newly christened “Iron Curtain”, apparently ready to overrun Western Europe at a moment’s notice. It seemed as though a Soviet invasion of the Western bloc was imminent.
In this context, the Eisenhower administration, elected in 1952, was adamant: West Germany had to be rearmed and contribute to the defence of Europe. This provoked immediate concern across Europe as governments feared that a new army could act as a rallying point for the remnants of German nationalism. At this juncture, Jean Monnet, a visionary of the European project, stepped in with an innovative proposal to meet the US demand for German rearmament while allaying the European fear of a resurgent German nationalism. He proposed the creation of a European army that would bring together troops from the members of the newly established European Coal and Steel Community under a single (French) command. This army would consist of around 40 divisions, of which 12 would come from West Germany. Thus the transatlantic alliance could benefit from the resources of West Germany in their defence against the USSR, while limiting the potential risk of resurgent German militarism in Europe. Despite his later claims otherwise, Monnet also hoped this could jumpstart his dream for a federal Europe.
Monnet, employing his significant network among American officials, and the French government then engaged in an intense lobbying campaign to win support for this radical solution. They successfully won over a critical mass of the Eisenhower administration, including Eisenhower himself, to the idea that a European army, and the political unity it would engender, was the best way to secure Europe in the future. Washington then became the greatest champion of the initiative in Europe, concentrating their diplomacy on convincing the British to support it and the Europeans to participate in it. Both were eventually convinced to accept the contentious initiative, essentially based on the American threat to reduce their defence commitments and financial support to Europe. The collapse of the EDC would, warned US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, result in an “agonising reappraisal” of the US engagement in European security. Though some have doubted if this was a credible threat, it had the desired effect on the Europeans who agreed to the initiative in 1952. After all this, the EDC was eventually brought down by the French themselves when a 1953 legislative election returned an increased Gaullist contingent who voted against the treaty in the name of global independence of action for France. In the end, Britain was able to persuade the US and Europeans to support the Western European Union, a less federal defence alliance, benefiting from a less menacing USSR after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
This historical episode is a striking reminder that the notion of a common European defence was conceived in part as a vehicle to preserve US commitment to the forward defence of Europe. This contrasts with the persistent trope that EU defence initiatives stand in opposition to US security guarantees. Rather, they could more accurately be seen as European responses to US demands for a greater contribution to the upkeep of European and international security. While some obsess over European perceptions of the US security guarantee, it is in observing the structural demands placed on the US alliance system in upholding international security that we gain better insight into the prospects for European defence integration. The historical record would suggest that the arrival of the Biden administration in the White House will only reinforce momentum towards European strategic autonomy.
Once again the US finds itself overstretched, questioning whether it can meet its global security obligations and face an aggressive strategic competitor in Asia. Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, himself well connected in French circles, need to shift emphasis and resources towards East Asia. With this in mind, it is clear that developments in Europe’s Eastern and Southern neighbourhoods are simply no longer US national security priorities. Instead Europe will likely be asked to pick up the slack. Importantly, as with the EDC previously, a more supportive US administration could actually reassure fearful European states that they are not signing on to a US retreat from Europe, but a justifiable rebalancing of the European security architecture.