The future of strategic autonomy

If you follow European politics and haven’t yet come across “strategic autonomy”, you’re not following closely enough


The phrase was coined by Emmanuel Macron and despite some EU leaders’ mistrust of France’s Napoleonic approach to the Union, it has undeniably caught on. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative Josep Borrell have both wielded it in recent speeches.

So, what is “strategic autonomy”? In the latest episode of Uncommon Decency, Benjamin Haddad (the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center director and a former advisor to Macron) defined it as the EU’s ability to defend its interests and values — on its own if necessary. 

The Sino-American great power competition has precipitated a switch in the US’s focus from its transatlantic neighbours over to Asia. This means, Haddad argues, that the EU has an unparalleled opportunity to build capacities of its own and define its interests independently from the US — even as it maintains a close partnership with its American ally.

The conundrum behind “strategic autonomy”

This working definition poses two major problems. First, strategic autonomy is too often mischaracterised in Washington as an overtly NATO-sceptic stance. Second, as The Economist’s Paris correspondent Sophie Pedder asserts, this understanding of strategic autonomy (if popular in Paris) meets at best a tepid response the closer you get to the Russian border. Here, the US remains the only credible guarantor of European security. 

Macron, this criticism goes, has failed to make a compelling case to the Eastern countries, who fear that “strategic autonomy” will create a rift with the US that would isolate them and leave a vacuum that Europe is simply not equipped to fill. Albeit for different reasons, Germany’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has warned that the “idea of European strategic autonomy goes too far if it nurtures the illusion that we can guarantee security in Europe without NATO and without the USA”.

An expectation that the burden of Europe’s security may be relocating for the worse could, perversely, incentivise some European nations to decrease their defence spending even further. By doing this, they may hope that the US will thus be compelled to maintain its presence in the region. Under President Donald Trump, the US actively pushed European countries to cease free riding on American defence and ramp up their own spending to the 2%-GDP target committed to by NATO members.

This is the conversation around strategic autonomy. While European defence has made progress through the EU’s so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) in which 25 of the 27 national armed forces partner on a diverse array of projects, these remain modest in scope, to say nothing of the delays that beset them. As for national missions that may also turn into multilateral partnerships, France’s long-running Serval operation in the Sahel has been succeeded by the Takuba operation in hope of eliciting larger European involvement. So far, though, progress is underwhelming. Support for France by fellow member states was also muted after Australia called off its multi-billion-dollar submarine contract as part of the Aukus partnership, with some heads of government even expressing their surprise at France’s outrage.

America, where’s your European strategy?

Macron’s anger at the Aukus announcement was not a façade, but a deeply felt grievance. It was the cancellation of the “contract of the century” and perceived across the country as a national humiliation. It wasn’t so much because of the commercial loss — that should be manageable given the size of France’s defense industry — but due to the “breach of trust” between old allies, as both Pedder and Haddad underlined. 

Australian and US diplomats had been lying to their French counterparts until the very day of the announcement. In the process, the US undermined the most Atlanticist voices within the French administration and political landscape, with several candidates for the 2022 presidential election calling for a withdrawal from NATO’s military commandment. The otherwise-very-diplomatic Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian deemed Aukus Gate a “stab in the back”.

More broadly, the last few months has seen a general sense of US-directed malaise spreading across Europe. Biden’s “America is back” slogan insisted on treating America’s democratic allies with respect. This was both to signal a shift from Trump’s bombastic and aggressive diplomatic style and also because the US would clearly need its European partners in order to confront China’s rise. 

Instead, the Biden administration has often needlessly antagonised its Nato compatriots over the past 10 months. While Aukus was a blow to the French, other EU member states have been dismayed by the lack of US communication over its withdrawal in Afghanistan. The new Buy American Act has severely restricted the ability of EU companies to win US public procurement bids. The travel ban to the US, maintained for EU travellers (without any convincing public health reasons) will only be lifted on the 8th November. This comes after months of recriminations by European diplomats. With an understaffed State department (the Berlin embassy only has an acting ambassador, while the one in Paris is led by a chargé d’affaires) and America’s labyrinthine administration, these could well be unforced diplomatic errors, but they nonetheless signal a lack of US strategy in Europe.

Biden has tried to make amends in the past few weeks and is due to meet with Macron in the next few days in Rome. In a joint statement on 22nd September, the former recognised the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence that would be “complementary to NATO”. While Macron expects more than just words to heal the wounds, he nevertheless hopes that these comments signal a larger shift in US policy regarding strategic autonomy. In something of a feedback loop, interactions between European member states concerned about strategic autonomy and American policymakers reinforced both parties’ suspicion that the concept constitutes a threat to the transatlantic partnership. If Biden commits to supporting European defence, he could push the conversation forwards.

The end of grand alliances

Following the Aukus humiliation, France bounced back with a new defence partnership with Greece. Their €3 billion contract includes a mutual defence assistance clause amidst a backdrop of tensions with their NATO ally Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. This is an illustration of Macron’s comment that NATO is “brain-dead”, made to Sophie Pedder in 2019. 

Just like Aukus, this sub-NATO partnership illustrates a new trend in international diplomacy: the emergence of more agile diplomatic partnerships at the expense of large multilateral alliances. This opportunistic form of diplomacy, also manifest in Turkey and Russia, is the product of a larger geopolitical backdrop where it has been increasingly difficult to get many countries to agree on major international accords, including in NATO, the UN or the WTO.

With the conversation around strategic autonomy having reached a dead-end, this new “minilateralism”, as IR scholar Moises Naím has dubbed it, could well show the way. Rather than opting for an EU-wide scheme and having to convince every member-state, the partisans of a strategically autonomous Europe might want to revive the idea of a “à la carte” Europe with a coalition of the willing on strategic and defence issues. Following the Franco-Greek partnership, an Antenna News poll showed that 70.2% of Greeks felt that France was the friendliest country towards Greece, 34 points ahead of the US. These small steps might well be the best way to construct an effective form of strategic autonomy and create a community of both interest and destiny.

François Valentin (@Valen10Francois) and Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) are co-hosts of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod).

28th October 2021