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European Defense: Rhetoric vs. Reality

In the last few weeks, the seemingly ceaseless debate about strategic autonomy has reignited in Europe, as the continent considers the degree to which its future defense should continue to depend on the United States. This latest round of controversy has centered around public statements by two of Europe’s most prominent national leaders: French President Emmanuel Macron and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

The inciting incident came on November 2, as Kramp-Karrenbauer affirmed the continuing importance of the U.S. for Europe’s security in an op-ed for Politico. Asserting that “illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end,” she threw cold water on the idea that Europeans should seek to take full responsibility for their own defense.

On November 16, however, Macron sharply criticized this view in a widely covered interview with Le grand continent, labeling it a “historical misinterpretation.” Following up on previous warnings about Europe’s dependence on the U.S. and a ‘brain-dead’ NATO, he repeated his call for European sovereignty over its defense. This sparked a reaction on November 21 by Kramp-Karrenbauer, who doubled down on her conviction that “the idea of strategic autonomy for Europe goes too far.”

Understandably, this tense public Franco-German exchange has caused many European commentators to weigh in. While some have played up the apparent disagreement between Macron and Kramp-Karrenbauer, others have argued that their visions are in reality more aligned than it might seem. Ulrike Franke from the European Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, calls it a “false debate”, emphasizing that France and Germany share “the desire to construct greater European capabilities.”

Yet from across the Atlantic, this entire discussion often seems like an exercise in futility. One could expend boundless energy attempting to decipher the similarities and differences in these visions of the future, but at the end of the day, the reality of the present is clear – Europe remains far from able to defend itself.

For evidence, look no further than the recently released first edition of the European Union’s Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD). This comprehensive assessment of Europe’s defense landscape reveals an alarming disconnect between the bloc’s stated ambitions to increase its military power and its actual progress toward that goal. In all three major areas outlined in the report — defense spending, defense planning, and defense cooperation – the authors conclude that Member States have failed to take sufficient action. As a result, fragmentation continues to plague European defense, “putting EU strategic autonomy at risk.”

Such a sobering evaluation casts doubt on Macron’s claim that the bloc “has built European defense capabilities.” While it is true that new initiatives such as the European Defence Fund (EDF) and Permanent Structured Cooperation initially seemed to indicate a real commitment to doing more, they have so far failed to live up to their promise. The CARD specifically notes that these programs “have yet to produce a significant and positive impact on the European defense landscape.” This assessment should not be surprising given the clear de-prioritization of defense among European leaders, illustrated for instance by the July 2020 decision to reduce the EDF’s budget by 39% compared to its original proposal.

In one sense, then, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s position seems more grounded in reality than Macron’s. She is correct that Europe cannot hope to reassume the full burden of its own security in the short- or medium- term. Even if Macron does not himself believe this, his over-optimistic take on the current state of European defense is misleading and unproductive.

On the other hand, the French president is right to suggest that “the United States will only respect us as allies if we are earnest, and if we are sovereign with respect to our defense.” As the United States increasingly shifts its attention to Asia going forward, it will eventually wish for a Europe that fulfills his vision of strategic autonomy. Kramp-Karrenbauer misunderstands the long-run necessity of striving for a fully balanced and equal transatlantic defense partnership.

Moving forward, two things are clear. First, instead of engaging in endless rounds of rhetorical squabbling about strategic autonomy, European leaders would be better served by putting their heads down and doing the hard work of creating real defense capabilities. Second, if they do decide to outline their visions for the future, there should be an appropriate distinction between near-term realities and long-term aspirations. Following these guidelines would go a long way towards avoiding the unnecessary tensions that hinder Europe’s collective progress on defense.

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Nick Lokker

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