Europe is the original strategic actor—and that may be part of the problem. If we define “strategic” as a concern for vital interests and objectives, broadly defined, Europe has been in the strategy business for a very long time. From Mediterranean empires, to the rise of modern nation states, to the industrial revolution and the globalization of European competition, Europe has led the intellectual debate about geopolitics and strategy. It has also experienced the dramatic costs of strategic ambition as well as the failure to think strategically. I hope my former RAND colleagues will forgive me if I say that, even during the Cold War, much of the best strategic thinking was to be found in Europe. Europe has a long history of thinking and acting strategically. But this history, especially when it comes to questions of national power, is also highly fraught.
For the American foreign policy establishment, the desirability of a strategic Europe is no longer a topic for debate. Twenty years ago, there were still doubters fearful of the implications of a more cohesive Europe for U.S. interests, and not least, the role of NATO. Today, a stronger European partner is widely seen as serving core American interests and a stronger European Union defense capability is more likely to save NATO than drive it out of business.
Assuming that Europe (including key EU institutions) is able to commit the political, human, and financial resources to build a serious capacity for strategic action—still an open question under prevailing economic conditions—what would this imply? What are the priorities? From a transatlantic perch, several elements stand out.
First, environment shaping will matter as much or more than crisis management. There has been a natural tendency to measure Europe’s strategic capacity in terms of crisis response. This is understandable given the recent experience in the Balkans, North Africa, and elsewhere on the European periphery. Iraq and Afghanistan have also been part of the equation. But this is only part of the picture, and perhaps not the most important part. Beyond crisis management, a strategic Europe needs to be concerned with shaping the strategic environment in ways that serve European security interests over time. There may be some truth to the observation that Europe qua Europe has only had one real foreign policy instrument—enlargement. But this is actually saying a great deal, given the transforming effect of both EU and NATO enlargement on the geopolitics of Central and Eastern Europe.
There is still unfinished business on the enlargement front in the Balkans. But the key challenge in this arena will be Turkey. Turkey can be a key partner for Europe in shaping the environment to Europe’s south and east, especially in light of the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. And the prospect of eventual Turkish membership in the EU retains considerable power to shape Turkish society, notwithstanding the very troubled state of Turkey-EU relations. The truth is, Turkey’s candidacy was always a long term, open-ended project. Membership may be the ultimate goal, but the core strategic interest when seen from Brussels, Ankara, or Washington, is to ensure the continued convergence of Turkey and the “West,” sector-by-sector, policy-by-policy. This process of convergence is centuries old. It is likely to continue regardless of the pace of Turkish accession or affinity with the Muslim world. In the meantime, Europe needs to find a way of including Ankara as a foreign and security policy partner, de-coupled if need be, from the membership process. An unpalatable concept for some, but it will be essential to address challenges in Syria, Iran, and elsewhere.
Second, a strategic Europe will need to look beyond the neighborhood to develop a shared understanding of and approach to global shifts. What will the rise of China, India, and Brazil mean for European interests? The attention of the American “strategic class”—many of whom matured in a European security context—has shifted substantially to Asia. The political and commercial forces driving this diversification of American strategic attention are at play in Europe, too. Even in an Atlantic context, Europe will need to think more imaginatively about transatlantic relations, including a more comprehensive approach in which Brazil, South Africa, and even Morocco, can be accommodated. This should be just as much of a priority for Washington.
Third, modern strategy needs to be sustainable. This was possible in the context of EU and NATO enlargement, both of which derived great impetus from the desire to seal the end of the Cold War in geopolitical and normative terms. It also helped that the decade of enlargement coincided with a period of strong growth, economic optimism, and relatively weak nationalism. Today, big environment shaping projects on Europe’s periphery will be more difficult to sustain. Intervention in Libya is the focus of public debate, rather than the more important and expensive project of reinventing Europe’s Mediterranean strategy as a whole. Yet, the post-revolutionary environment across the Mediterranean will be a leading influence on Europe’s future. The United States has consistently failed to develop a strategic approach to Mexico. Perhaps Europe can do better in its near abroad?
Finally, American complaints about Europe’s defense spending and indecisiveness may be beside the point. European societies simply will not spend a great deal more on defense under current conditions, and Europe’s institutional arrangements for foreign policy decision-making may never mirror those of the United States (where we have some problems of our own). Europe’s ability to manage the financial crises in southern Europe, and to limit the consequences for global financial stability, may ultimately be more important to American strategic interests than the level of European contributions in Afghanistan or the tempo of European air operations in Libya. In this sphere, at least, Europe is already a leading strategic actor.
Ian Lesser is executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels.
This essay was first published by Carnegie Europe. To reinvigorate debate over European foreign policy and Europe's role in the world, Carnegie Europe is publishing a series of essays from leading policymakers, diplomats, experts, and journalists on Strategic Europe.