The Washington Post
Does Europe have a foreign policy?
It is hard to see when the continent remains so dependent on American force.
FOR YEARS, European leaders and intellectuals have touted the concept of “strategic autonomy,” which never had a precise definition but mostly meant a Europe capable of acting independently of the United States. “We have to be much more in charge of our neighborhood,” as French President Emmanuel Macron put it in 2021. Yet a year into the war in Ukraine, the old world seems more dependent, not less, on American force, and the main engine of Ukraine’s international support remains, unquestionably, Washington.
When Russia began its brutal assault, one might have reasonably expected that the concept would finally translate into a functional reality. Here, after all, was the start of a major conflict with no clear end in sight that marked the return of major ground warfare to the European continent for the first time in decades. And in many ways, the European Union did rise to the occasion: it imposed significant sanctions on Russia, came through with a hefty hunk of aid for Ukraine and promised arms for Ukrainian forces. Even so, the nations close to the conflict look to the United States, not the E.U., for salvation.
Today, “strategic autonomy” feels empty, even as the continent faces an urgent imperative to put it into action.
A year ago, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz introduced the term “Zeitenwende,” or historic turning point, about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That speech notably included the announcement of a roughly 100 billion-euro investment in Germany’s military forces — a historic turning point, to be sure, in a country so committed to the goal of never bringing war to Europe again.
These and similar recent announcements from other European leaders attest to a continent fully awakened to the reality of the war. But the truth is that Europe has not taken its defense seriously before now, and it cannot be strategically “autonomous” until it does. In 2014, after Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization pledged that its member states would annually commit a minimum of 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense spending. But by 2022, only nine of the 30 had actually kept that promise: Germany spent only 1.44 percent, while France spent 1.9 percent.
In much of Eastern and Central Europe, the view is that Western Europe failed to understand Mr. Putin’s true motives in time. Once Russian missiles began raining down on Ukrainian civilians, leveling cities and destroying the families that called them home, the nations in the region turned to NATO, not the E.U.
Germany was initially reluctant to freeze the Nord Stream pipelines of natural gas from Russia and at first refused to provide tanks to Ukraine unless the United States did the same. When Germany did finally agree to send Leopard tanks, it proved difficult to find enough functional models that could be shipped. Mr. Macron outraged Ukrainian leaders last year when he said, after numerous phone calls with the Russian president, that the West should not “humiliate” Mr. Putin.
A year later, Mr. Macron has changed his tune. “Now is not the time for dialogue with Russia,” he said at the Munich Security Conference in February. But in the eyes of Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans, this realization has come too late. It’s no mystery why they trust Washington more than they do Paris or Berlin.
This should not be the case. The E.U. is home to nearly 450 million people, generates a GDP of about $17 trillion, and its respective member states spend more than $200 billion annually on defense. A strong, autonomous Europe benefits the United States as much as it does Europe itself: Partners working in tandem present a more formidable front against any military threat.
The solution is not as simple as spending more on defense. Europe should first devise a coherent foreign policy, the bedrock of any serious future approach to autonomous European defense. Within the E.U. itself, member states such as Germany and France disagree on how the war should end and how to deal with Mr. Putin, both now and in the future. With 27 member countries in the E.U., it’s a daunting challenge to agree on a cohesive, common approach on defense matters.
Europe would do well to forge a more unified front before next year’s U.S. presidential elections. John Bolton, former national security adviser to Donald Trump, has said that Mr. Trump might very well have pulled the United States out of NATO had he been reelected in 2020. A future president might do the same, leaving an underprepared Europe dangerously vulnerable.