With the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, relations between the United States and its European partners have undeniably entered into turbulent times. Besides the vitriolic tweets, imposition of tariffs, and statements that the EU is a “foe” on trade, what arguably stands out is Trump’s criticism that Europe is not sufficiently pulling its weight in defense, specifically regarding adequate financing. Claims that Europeans are not contributing enough to their own security are not new. In fact, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, although less vocally, also urged Europeans to increase their military spending. One could argue that Trump’s approach has proved to be somewhat more effective, given that a growing number of NATO member states have increased their military spending in recent years. However, a deteriorating security environment, due to factors such as Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe and the rise of international terrorism, may be a far more likely reason for amplified defense investments.
Such collaboration would undeniably militarily strengthen U.S. partners beyond the Atlantic – something numerous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have been incessantly asking for.
Nevertheless, what has received far less media attention is that recent European efforts to buttress defense and security go far beyond a mere hike in military spending. Numerous European allies, under the auspices of the European Union (EU), triggered new defense initiatives – most notably, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defence Fund (EDF), and the Annual Review on Defence (CARD). Although these have not yet delivered many tangible results, they have tremendous potential to strengthen Europe’s capability development and military-industrial landscape, hence substantially increasing the EU’s defense autonomy. This is not surprising, as already in 2016, the EU issued the so called ‘EU Global Strategy’ which promotes the idea of European Strategic Autonomy, highlighting the need for “…a sustainable, innovative and competitive European defence industry…” From that perspective, the aforementioned initiatives (PESCO, EDF, and CARD) are just one of many instruments for attaining such an aim.
While the United States strongly supports the idea of European allies increasing their military spending (especially since many European countries subsequently utilize such investments for purchasing U.S. military hardware), it is far less enthusiastic about enhanced European defense cooperation, if not outright integration. However, such collaboration would undeniably militarily strengthen U.S. partners beyond the Atlantic – something numerous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have been incessantly asking for.
The crux of the problem lies in the difference between what U.S. policymakers might regard as the overarching benefits and fragmentary disadvantages. If the United States wants its European partners to start pulling their weight in defense, closer military and defense-industrial cooperation among European nations is one of the best ways to do so. As of now, within the EU, 80% of defense procurement and more than 90% of research and technology investments occur on a national basis, leading to numerous redundancies and duplications. If EU member states collaborated only in procurement, they could altogether save up to an estimated 30% of annual defense expenditures. Likewise, less than 3% of European troops are deployed, specifically due to lack of interoperability and equipment shortages. Instead of mindlessly pressuring its European partners to increase their military spending (already now European NATO members spend roughly three times as much on the military than the Russian Federation), the United States should encourage EU member states to collaborate, and thus considerably increase their defense and military effectiveness.
Stronger European partners will not only reinforce the transatlantic link, but also will simultaneously allow an overstretched United States to re-focus more effectively on the emerging challenges in the Pacific. Striving for greater military and defense collaboration, might therefore prove to be a substantial strategic boon for the Euro-Atlantic partnership.
Nevertheless, the European defense collaboration also comes with aspects that U.S. policymakers often view as disadvantageous. The EU, under its new initiatives, strives to considerably strengthen the European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB). Within PESCO’s 20 binding commitments, three (the 15th, 19th, and 20th) explicitly state such an aim. Furthermore, the EDF, along with increasing the investments in defense, similarly states that one of its goals is to identify ‘… ways in which financial instruments can support the EDTIB…‘. The idea that the EU would in the long-term strive to develop a competitive defense market, which would especially benefit European companies, irritates numerous Washington policymakers. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison even stated in 2018 that ‘We want the Europeans to have capabilities and strength, but not to fence off American products…‘.
Herein truly lies the U.S. dilemma when approaching European defense integration. On one hand, such a process will undeniably make U.S. allies considerably stronger, more effective, and ultimately more reliable as security partners. Moreover, should the United States feel compelled to increasingly concentrate on the Pacific theater, having strong partners in Europe would be essential. On the other hand, European defense integration, if fully realized, might generate a far more competitive defense-industrial market. Certainly, U.S. military hardware would not stop being sold to European governments (many of which actually buy such products in order to intentionally strengthen their ties with Washington), but would over time likely face tougher competition. Either way, U.S. policymakers should not confound the difference between the overarching advantages European defense integration would provide, and the fragmented disadvantages it might generate. Making such a mistake could have detrimental strategic implications.
Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of authors only and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any institution they are affiliated with.
Michal Bokša is a graduate of the University of Cambridge (MPhil in International Relations and Politics) specializing in international security, with research and analytical experience from the politico-military dimension of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, NATO Defense College, and most recently NATO Supreme Headquarters. Besides security related issues he carries out research projects on democratic governance, digitalisation, and e-Governance. Simultaneously he works as a Research Fellow for the Association for International Affairs’ Research Center.
Monika Bokšová is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (Master of Advanced International Studies) and the University of Economics in Prague (Doctor of International Economic Relations). She is specializing in international trade and European Union with work experience from the Ministry of Justice of the Czech Republic, German Bundestag or German Federal Ministry of Defence. Currently she works at the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the Czech Republic in the Department of European Affairs and the Internal Market.