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Foreign Policy

Is Europe Trapped?

Jun 07, 2024
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

After the two world wars, the economically dominant United States solidified its position as the global hegemon. During the Cold War, despite France’s Gaullism and Germany’s Neue Ostpolitik, Europe largely followed the U.S. lead. After the Cold War, with the common enemy gone, Europe’s inclination to distance itself from the United States grew stronger.

The first significant moment occurred in 1999. Faced with the Kosovo crisis, Europe relied on NATO, led by the U.S., which prompted it to advance its common defense policy. The second key moment was in 2003. Discontent with the Bush administration’s unilateral decision to invade Iraq without UN approval ignited anti-American sentiment across Europe. The third critical moment was in 2017, when Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete” and supported the disintegration of the EU. These moments prompted Europe to seriously consider taking its fate into its own hands, but it didn’t pull out from under the U.S. security umbrella.

The fourth pivotal moment has come just now, with multiple factors pushing Europe to a critical juncture. First, the most severe conflict on Europe’s doorstep in decades has entered its third year. Second, the potential return of Trump in the upcoming U.S. election brings significant policy uncertainty. Third, following the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” and the Biden administration’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” Europe realizes that it must find its own way to engage in the most significant strategic adjustment since the Cold War.

In this context, Chinese strategists ask: Is Europe trapped between autonomy and dependence on the U.S.? Let’s examine how Europeans view this issue.

In recent years, Europeans have generally adopted three approaches in response to changes in the international order:

• First is nationalism. Many populist politicians advocate this path, but only Hungary has seen relative success.

• Second is Atlanticism, or continued reliance on the U.S. With Biden in office and the Russia-Ukraine conflict boiling, most European countries have chosen this path.

• Third is Europeanism, which promotes “strategic autonomy.” This concept gained traction following Brexit and Trump’s election, becoming mainstream in EU institutions by 2019. It is driven primarily by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Atlanticists in Europe have a vulnerability: If the U.S. no longer supports them, their policies lose their foundation. Given the possibility of Trump’s re-election, European Atlanticists are merging with the Europeanists, forming a representative view of building a European pillar within NATO.

On April 3, just ahead of NATO’s 75th anniversary, the foreign ministers of the Weimar Triangle (Germany, France and Poland) stated jointly: “The freedom and security of the coming years require a modern and strong transatlantic alliance. As Europeans, we are willing to do our part.”

In practice, the EU is accelerating a defensive buildup: the European Commission launched its first defense industrial strategy, France pushed for the issuance of common defense bonds and the commission considered appointing a defense commissioner.

Building a European pillar within NATO has several advantages. It reassures the U.S., unifies differing views within the EU and aligns with Europe’s actual capabilities. Rather than choosing between autonomy and dependence on the U.S., Europe appears to be navigating a middle path.

The United States and NATO will attempt to influence this process. The U.S. wants Europe to contribute more but does not want Europe to gain more control. At the beginning of the year, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to express concerns about potential overlaps with NATO activities, particularly if the EU starts setting ammunition standards.

Even after merging, Atlanticists and Europeanists continue to have different views on the international order. Some believe that small European states excel at rule-making and that Europe, which is built on the “four freedoms” — movement of goods, capital, services and people — has the best prospects in a liberal international order. Hence, Europe should focus on exercising soft power to restore the liberal international order through various alliances.

Others accept the gradual disintegration of the liberal international order and want the EU to use deterrent force and to actively participate in competition and even confrontation with different countries and blocs. The concepts of “Open Strategic Autonomy” and the “Geopolitical European Commission” reflect these two perspectives.

Ultimately, Europe’s navigation of this path will involve complex interplay between U.S. domestic politics, great power rivalry and changes in the international order.

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