Did the US just endorse European strategic autonomy?

Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron
President Joe Biden shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron after a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Susan Walsh/AP

Did the US just endorse European strategic autonomy?

About 15 months ago, it looked like the relationship between the United States and France was spiraling down the drain. At that time, the Biden administration had signed the AUKUS security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom, the core tenant of which was the transfer of U.S. nuclear submarine technology to Australia. This deeply upset the French, seeing as AUKUS meant an end to their own $66 billion conventional-powered submarine contract with Canberra. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister at the time, condemned the deal as a “stab in the back.”

There was none of that acrimony during Thursday’s press conference at the White House, where President Joe Biden stood alongside Macron before their state dinner to lavish praise on one another. The two leaders presented a united front on the most critical issues, and while Macron was quick to point out his displeasure with subsidies for U.S.-based green industry, Biden committed to working with the French to iron out any issues.

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The joint statement issued before the press conference was a long one. But one line in particular stood out: “The presidents recognize the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense that contributes positively to trans-Atlantic and global security and is complementary to and interoperable with NATO.”

At first glance, this statement doesn’t look like a bombshell development. Successive U.S. administrations as far back as that of Dwight Eisenhower have called on the Europeans not only to increase their defense budgets but also to sustain those investments over time. The term “burden-sharing” is a popular one in Washington. Indeed, it’s hard to find a single person inside the Beltway who doesn’t at least acknowledge that Europe needs to stop penny-pinching. Hence why German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement earlier this year of considerable new defense investments was seen as a huge development.

The U.S., however, is much more hesitant when it comes to actually letting Europe off its security leash. While the U.S. wants the Europeans to grow their defense budgets, they don’t necessarily want the Europeans to boast an independent defense strategy separated from U.S. preferences. The U.S. foreign policy establishment views NATO as Europe’s ultimate security guarantor. Of course, because NATO is entirely dependent on U.S. military power and can’t sustain a large-scale operation without Washington taking the lead, what this really means is the U.S. acting as Europe’s ultimate security guarantor.

In that sense, however, the U.S. is a big part of the problem here. It’s the definition of an enabler, encouraging Europe’s bad behavior. The U.S. complains about Europe lagging on defense while at the same time insisting that a U.S.-led NATO be the primary security organization through which Europe remain at peace. Moves toward “strategic autonomy,” a narrative Macron has pushed throughout his presidency, have been frowned upon by Washington as an unnecessary duplication of NATO capabilities. And let’s be honest: Some also view the concept as a threat to American hegemony on the continent.

Thus follows the question: Is Biden’s written welcoming of a stronger and more capable Europe a sign that Washington is perhaps changing its policy? We don’t know. But for the U.S. and Europe, which both have an interest in preserving a stable balance of power on the continent, it’s a policy move worth pursuing.

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Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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