With Friends Like These: How the United States Can Foster the European Union’s Strategic Autonomy (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Juan Garcia-Nieto, Fall 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The partnership between the United States and the European Union (EU) is largely a successful one. Europe, once a continent ravaged by wars, achieved an unprecedented level of political and economic integration. However, the transatlantic relationship rests on a deeply flawed assumption: that the United States should be the security guarantor of Europe through its unparalleled military prowess. This hinders any EU progress towards its strategic autonomy. For this paper’s purposes, strategic autonomy is understood as the capacity for the EU to conduct a defense and security policy in line with its own interests, independent from other powers. As Daniel Fiott explains, autonomy can be likened to a responsibility to take charge of its own affairs. But for a responsible EU to emerge, the United States must change its ways.

Maintaining military primacy in Europe has been in the interest of the military-industrial complex (MIC) entrenched in U.S. statecraft, but is at odds with the balanced, prudent strategy which the United States needs in order to foster the EU’s strategic autonomy (EUSA). These two factors (the absence of strategic autonomy, and the MIC’s influence over American foreign policy) are two sides of the same coin.
This paper integrates the foreign and the domestic dimensions of American foreign policy towards the EU in order to lay out a better way forward. To improve the foreign dimension, a restrained strategy will need to change the way in which the United States engages with the EU. U.S. policymakers should also steadfastly support the projects put forward by the EU to enhance its defense integration.

But reining in the MIC is a precondition for an autonomous EU. Tackling the domestic dimension involves a combination of legal and institutional reforms aimed at, among other factors, improving the oversight of arms sales and repositioning diplomacy at the core of American foreign policy. The leverage of the MIC can be curtailed, ensuring that it remains a tool at America’s disposal, and not the other way around.