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Commentary | 30 April 2021

Towards a transatlantic “reset”: Reframing European strategic autonomy after Biden’s first 100 days

Image of Patricia Jaworek

Patricia Jaworek |Senior Programme Officer, Global Nuclear Policy Programme, NTI

Defence Europe Security Transatlantic relations United States Global Security

As the Biden administration completes its first 100 days in office—an early benchmark of the Presidency—the future of transatlantic relations looks much rosier than it did before the US elections. Revamping EU-US cooperation will therefore require careful examination of Europe’s strive towards strategic autonomy.

Transatlantic relations during Biden’s first 100 Days

Since inauguration, the Biden administration has followed a transatlantic strategy aimed at rebuilding trust and reassuring European allies of US security guarantees and its strong commitment to Euro-Atlantic security and defence. Demonstrating a clear break from the previous administration’s rhetoric, President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin all proclaimed the return of the transatlantic alliance, setting a more predictable stage for future cooperation with Europe, once again guided by shared values of democracy, human rights, and multilateralism.

At the Munich Security Conference in January and, two months later, attending a virtual summit of the European Council as the first foreign leader in eleven years, President Biden underlined that a strong European Union (EU) remains in the US interest. Contrary to former President Trump, whose view on EU defence initiatives ranged from antagonistic to sceptical at best, President Biden has welcomed growing investments in the EU’s military capabilities as a basis for a more equally shared defence burden. At the same time, the administration sent a positive signal to NATO by announcing the increase of US forces in Germany in a broader attempt to reestablish the Alliance as the main forum for dialogue and consultations on transatlantic security issues.

Why European strategic autonomy will not disappear

Gone are the days, it seems, where Europe’s fate was “in its own hands”. However, the idea of achieving European strategic autonomy to ensure the defence of European security interests and values—alone if necessary—still lingers below the surface of initial enthusiasm for renewing transatlanticism. Often grouped together with notions of “European sovereignty” and a more “geopolitical Commission”, European strategic autonomy remains a vague concept. Regardless of imprecise framing, however, the idea—which gained support during the Trump presidency—has come to be understood as the EU’s capacity to act in its own defence and play a more active role on a global scale. It would do this both through improved capabilities and by striving to reduce the reliance on others.

As Biden prepares for his first overseas trip to Europe to attend the G7 and NATO summits in June, European concerns about the permanent decoupling of transatlantic security are dwindling. With Trump out of the White House, one could therefore wonder why the EU would still want to pursue a path towards strategic autonomy—a goal which in the area of defence and deterrence is sometimes criticised for undermining the transatlantic bond and being simply impossible to achieve in the foreseeable future. Many Europeans are concerned whether Biden’s recommitment to the transatlantic relationship will outlast his Presidency or give way to renewed isolationism and a stronger focus on America’s “pivot to Asia”. While a detailed agenda with concrete steps to revitalize USEU relations has yet to be formed, even the strongest relationship can eventually expect to hit a few bumps in the road.

The issue of burden-sharing and US demands for greater European defence spending will remain present, as indicated by Secretary of Defense Austin’s recent remarks at the NATO Defense Ministerial. Although the Biden administration has been careful to distance itself from the hostile and retaliatory rhetoric of former President Trump, allies are still expected to invest two percent of GDP in defence. Despite Biden’s support for growing capabilities in Europe, compromises will also be needed to manage defence industrial competition, especially in light of EU initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) that aim to enhance both the EU’s operational and industrial autonomy. A clear division of tasks between the EU and NATO to avoid duplication represents another area where dialogue will be necessary to establish cooperation and reassure those that fear disengagement from NATO as a result of strategic autonomy.

Another point of contention could result from sometimes diverging strategic interests. As noted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the Munich Security Conference, devising joint strategies to manage complex relations with Russia and, even more importantly, China, will be crucial to prove the strength of transatlantic relations. The joint announcement by Secretary Blinken and EU High Representative Borrell to relaunch the bilateral dialogue on China sends a positive signal in this regard. However, a debate about European sovereignty has resurfaced in relation to the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, with Germany’s Foreign Minister Maas noting that Europeans would not always bend to Washington’s will.

Reframing the debate on strategic autonomy to form a strong partnership

While it has yet to be seen how some of these issues will play out in the future, Biden’s first 100 days in office allow for an optimistic outlook on the future of transatlantic relations.

The debate around strategic autonomy seems to overlook that the transatlantic relationship can take on multiple facets beyond complete autonomy or dependence. Such black and white thinking should be replaced by an approach that strikes a balance between an over-reliance on the US (“lazy transatlanticism”) and a short-sighted unilateralism that puts Brussels and Washington at opposing ends (“Europe First”). Finding this sweet spot would adequately reflect the many normative, operational, and industrial interdependencies and help build a stable and serious partnership.

Despite remaining asymmetries, there is current agreement that a more capable EU is valuable rather than threatening to the US. Instead of leading a theoretical debate on autonomy, the EU can seize this momentum by offering concrete actions. Member states should start forming a coherent geopolitical vision built on a shared understanding of threat perceptions and common strategic priorities, particularly in relation to Russia, China, and Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. This would allow for the setting of operational objectives and a targeted buildup of capabilities that can close gaps and reduce redundancies between the EU and NATO. The EU’s Strategic Compass has the potential to provide helpful analysis.

Discussion about defence budgets, burden-sharing and diverging strategic priorities should form part of a structured and formal bilateral dialogue on U.S.-EU security and defence. The Biden administration should continue to encourage and support European investments in military and defence capabilities as well as attempts to foster European defence cooperation. To ensure a well-coordinated defence policy that strengthens European responsibilities within NATO, bilateral talks between the US and EU should be complemented by regular and transparent consultations with individual allies. These consultations can be focused on specific capability needs and spending targets but should be free from the favouritism of the Trump administration. Cooperation with the US might be particularly helpful in the area of cyber and artificial intelligence.

Finally, European strategic autonomy should not distract from the reality that global security challenges in the area of defence, climate, public health, and technology are better addressed together than in isolation. Biden’s recommitment to Europe will make cooperation easier despite differences. While strategic autonomy is likely to remain a recurring theme, the pursuit of it should enable both independent decision-making and alignment with US interests.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network (ELN) or any of the ELN’s members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.

Image: Flickr, Gage Skidmore