Transcending Rhetoric: The Wisdom of European “Strategic Autonomy”

“Now we are opening a new era where we have to put ourselves in a situation to clearly prepare, endorse our European defense. But I want to insist on the fact that we need the strong cooperation of the US.” — French President Emmanuel Macron[i]

At the latest G-20 Summit, American President Biden and French President Macron continued to reconcile differences over a recent arms deal with Australia. They “reiterate[d] a shared commitment to adapt and modernize our transatlantic alliance and partnership in light of global trends.”[ii] But can the two countries agree on how to modernize their alliance? 

In order to do so, the national security establishment must come to terms with the new strategic environment and embrace France’s push for European independence.

For the past decade, France and some of its European partners advocated for “strategic autonomy.”[iii] In response, the national security establishment often blasts France for proud Gaullism and rejects the idea as a nationalistic platitude.[iv] However, America’s response shrouds anxieties about its role in a post-hegemonic world. Comfortable with its status as the “leader of the free world,” America clings to its post-war dominance of the West. As power shifts from a central hegemon to multiple poles, America refuses to adjust to the new strategic environment. But the power shift is not just organic, it is the result of America’s post-war project— Europe’s reconstruction and economic growth.[v] Now that its project succeeded, will America relinquish the fruits of its labor?

From Hegemonic to “Post-Dominant” World

The international system has shifted from hegemonic to post-dominant. The present post-dominant international system contains more competition for hard and soft power compared to the post-Cold War hegemonic international system – where it led the world as the sole superpower and faced limited competition.

Over the past two decades, America’s share of the world economy decreased from 30% to 24%.[vi] In fact, America and Europe have comparable economies in purchasing power standards – second and third to China.[vii] Although America maintains robust defense capabilities relative to other countries, the economic trends that underlie such capabilities portend future dilemmas: slower growth and higher public debt threaten to strain government coffers and increase the costs of defense spending.[viii]

In addition, recent economic and political trends such as rising wealth inequalities, domestic terrorism and disputes over election results have decreased the appeal of the American system. In turn, China has increased its foreign influence operations to compete for political power on the international stage.[ix]

In the post-dominant world, America faces more sustained opposition to its liberal international order – the system of international institutions built after World War II. America also struggles to maintain its traditional powers including international leadership, agenda-setting, economic leverage, and cultural appeal. As a result, America must recruit partners to maintain and share the burdens of the liberal international order and component institutions to advance its interests.

From American Reliance to Common Defense

America should retain strong transatlantic relationships—an incredible source of political power, but it should also adjust those relationships to better reflect the present world. President Trump sought to increase Europe’s investments in defense but prevent the continent’s strategic independence.[x] America cannot make such demands and expect compliance. Instead, America should encourage Europe to increase investments in its own defense, and support Europe as an independent actor on the world stage.

In other words, America should heed President Macron’s suggestions for Europe and embrace his push for “strategic autonomy.” First, America should advocate for the European Intervention Initiative to establish a capable multinational force for crisis mobilization.[xi] At present, America benefits from France’s counterterrorism campaigns in the Sahel.[xii] To conserve its resources and attention, America should support a more robust European force that can conduct similar operations on a larger scale. Second, America should promote France’s efforts to advance Europe’s defense-industrial base and integrate its defense capabilities. Although France maintains a first-rate defense-industrial base, competition with America sometimes undermines France’s efforts to provide interoperable capabilities to the rest of Europe.[xiii]

Although some— including Eastern European states— warn against strategic autonomy for fear of  weakening  NATO in the face of an increasing Russian threat, America can work with its NATO partners to communicate resolve to mutual defense and wean Europe from dependence on America’s defense.[xiv] In fact, the current administration seems to be leveraging its transatlantic expertise to support European ownership of its defense while also reassuring allies that it can deter threats.[xv]

However, the current administration might face opposition from an obstinate national security establishment. For the past three decades, top national security officials and experts have resisted Europe’s march to strategic autonomy.[xvi] Some warn that Europe cannot maintain sufficient defense capabilities to deter aggressive actors such as Russia. Others fear that a more independent Europe might weaken NATO and America’s power projection. Although the White House has signaled a shift in the traditional posture, many key figures have yet to indicate their support.

From American-Centric Leadership to a Joint Partnership

In a post-hegemonic world, the liberal international order faces more contention and doubt. America alone cannot sustain the institutions and norms that promote its interests: it no longer has the relative power advantage to do so. America must confront the present and shape a new world order—one of critical joint partnerships.

As Europe invests in its defense, America should support Europe to embrace greater global leadership. America should revise the international order to better reflect current power realities. In particular, America should encourage Europe to take charge in its areas of expertise including climate change, internet regulation, free trade and multilateralism.[xvii]

America’s success in Europe provides a blueprint for conducting policies with other regions of the world: supporting stable economic institutions and democratic political institutions through constructive engagement and assistance—without an overblown sense of righteousness or demands of gratitude. The current strategic environment offers numerous opportunities for adapting this proven approach.

America can no longer afford to monopolize international politics or refrain from helping rising stars such as Europe. Such a shift in transatlantic policies prevents America from overstretching its resources and commitments and fosters greater cooperation and success on transnational problems.


[i] “Transcript: President Macron on His Vision for Europe and the Future of Transatlantic Relations”, Atlantic Council, February 5, 2021.

[ii] Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Emmanuel Macron “United States-France Joint Statement,” The White House, October 29, 2021.

[iii] Ulrike Franke and Tara Varma, “Independence Play: Europe’s Pursuit of Strategic Autonomy,” European Council on Foreign Relations, July 18, 2019.

[iv] Shaun Donnelly, “Did the U.S. Betray France, Or Is Outrage Over a Submarine Deal Simply Sour Grapes?,” The Hill, October 18, 2021.

[v] Amy Garrett, “Helping Europe Help Itself: The Marshall Plan,” The Foreign Service Journal, American Foreign Service Association, February 2018.

[vi] Govind Bhutada, “The U.S. Share of the Global Economy Over Time,” Visual Capitalist, January 14, 2021.

[vii] “China, U.S. and E.U. Are the Largest Economies in the World,” Eurostat, May 19, 2020.

[viii] “The 2021 Long-Term Budget Outlook,” Congressional Budget Office, March 2021.

[ix] Michael Mazarr, et al.,“Understanding Influence in the Strategic Competition with China,” RAND Corporation, 2021.

[x] Steven Erlanger, “As Trump Exits, Rifts in Europe Widen Again,” The New York Times, December 1, 2020.

[xi] “European Intervention Initiative,” Ministry of Armed Forces (Government of France) June 22, 202.

[xii] “Pentagon Chief Tells French Counterpart U.S. Supports Sahel Mission,” Reuters, September 27, 2021.

[xiii] Christina Mackenzie, “Here’s what’s behind France’s 72% jump in weapons exports,” Defense News, March 10, 2020.

[xiv] Ulrike Franke and Tara Varma.

[xv] Greg O’Meara, “The Biden Administration and European Strategic Autonomy,” London School of Economics, March 26, 2021.

[xvi] Max Bergmann, James Lamond, and Siena Cicarelli, “The Case for E.U. Defense: A New Way Forward for Trans-Atlantic Security Relations,” Center for American Progress, June 1, 2021.

[xvii] Stefan Fröhlich, “Transatlantic Leadership in a Multipolar World: The EU Perspective,” European Foreign Affairs Review, Issue 3, 2016.

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