U.S. President Joe Biden wants EU allies to build up their own military and defense capabilities in ways that will complement NATO. But his defense secretary on Friday indicated that Washington thinks it’s up to the Europeans to figure out the details.
“I’ll allow the EU to prescribe or outline the capabilities that they think they need,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a news conference at NATO headquarters.
Austin’s comment came in response to a question from POLITICO about whether he saw any value in taking an active effort in supporting the push for what some EU leaders, notably French President Emmanuel Macron, refer to as “strategic autonomy.”
U.S. political and military leaders have long resisted coordinated EU military and defense initiatives, warning that they could create redundancies or even conflict with NATO. Instead, they pushed European countries to spend more on their individual militaries.
Biden offered his own backing for Europe bolstering its military prowess during a call last month with Macron, in which the U.S. president was trying to smooth over a diplomatic crisis over the announcement of a new U.S.-led Indo-Pacific security pact with the U.K. and Australia that caught France by surprise. As part of the new program, Australia canceled a contract to buy French-made submarines.
While input from U.S. military leaders on needed capabilities might help guide European allies, who often don’t agree with each other on defense priorities, Austin’s comments suggested Washington’s support would be more tacit than active. Some influential EU military officials, including outgoing German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, have said the debate on strategic autonomy is misplaced because EU countries can make more effective use of capabilities that already exist.
To that end, Germany and four other NATO allies have proposed a new joint “rapid-reaction force” using existing capabilities to better handle military crises.
Austin’s comments, made at a news conference following a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers, came as Biden and Macron held another telephone call in the continuing effort to soothe the recent tensions.
According to a White House readout of the call, Biden again expressed support for Macron’s efforts.
The presidents “discussed efforts to enable a stronger and more capable European defense while ensuring complementarity with NATO,” the White House statement said, adding: “President Biden looks forward to the meeting with President Macron in Rome later this month, where they will continue the conversation, take stock of the many areas of U.S.-France cooperation, and reinforce our shared interests and common values.”
The two leaders will be attending a G20 summit in Italy at the end of October.
NATO and the EU are currently working on a new partnership declaration, the third such agreement between the two organizations. (A large majority of EU countries — 21 out of 27 — are also NATO allies.)
But even as Biden seemed to offer reassurance, there seemed to be growing concern in Paris that the effort could amount to little more than words.
At this week’s NATO meeting, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said better efforts were needed.
“The EU is indeed NATO’s prime partner, and we cannot content ourselves with the current level of cooperation and dialogue, given that the two organizations share the same challenges in a rapidly deteriorating security environment,” Parly told her colleagues, according to a diplomat who provided the text of her remarks.
“The topics are numerous,” Parly continued. “Resilience, climate, emerging and disruptive technologies, countering disinformation, operational cooperation, military mobility, space — the list is long. Regarding these topics, NATO-EU cooperation must be a catalyst, a force multiplier and therefore a factor of effectiveness. However, this ambition cannot be reduced to mere statements of intent, without sincere convictions and a practical purpose.”
But Parly herself did not offer specifics and some allies have long questioned France’s commitment to NATO, which Macron at one point said was experiencing “brain death.” France, for instance, is now the EU’s sole nuclear power but it does not participate in NATO’s “Nuclear Planning Group,” in which the U.S. and U.K. confer with the other 27 allies.
Parly emphasized that new and better EU military capabilities should never be viewed as a threat to NATO. “European defense isn’t being built in opposition to NATO, quite the contrary: a stronger Europe will contribute to a strengthened and more resilient Alliance,” she told the allies.
During his news conference, Secretary Austin declined even to suggest examples of the capabilities European allies might pursue.
“I would just say that we certainly support a stronger and more capable European defense, and one that contributes positively to the transatlantic and global security that’s compatible with NATO,” Austin said.
He added, “What we’d like to see is … initiatives that are complementary to the types of things that NATO is doing.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, at his own news conference following the ministerial meeting, stressed the importance of cooperation with the EU, and said he hoped the new NATO-EU partnership declaration would be completed by the end of the year.
“These declarations are important because they shape the framework for our cooperation,” he said. “Then there is a lot of follow-on work, and we also identified a lot of areas as a follow up of the previous declarations, like for instance military mobility, maritime security, cyber, hybrid and many other areas where NATO and the EU are working together. We do a lot together.”
During this week’s meeting, defense ministers also began a discussion about “lessons learned” in Afghanistan, particularly after the messy U.S.-led withdrawal. Additionally, the ministers touched on issues related to China, including Beijing’s recent threats toward Taiwan, as well as the deeply deteriorated relations with Russia.
NATO recently stripped the credentials of Russian diplomats who allied officials said were actually working as intelligence operations. In retaliation, the Kremlin has suspended its diplomatic mission to NATO and ordered NATO diplomats in Russia to leave.