The concept of European strategic autonomy was used by the European Union in 2013 and became a contested concept by the fall of 2020.
What does European strategic autonomy mean? Why is it important in the European political and policy debate? Why is it controversial? And what do experts think about it?
The term European strategic autonomy was used by the December 2013 Foreign Affairs Council of the EU in reference to security and defense.
European strategic autonomy means “the EU’s ability to act in security and defense together with partners when it can, alone when it must”.
Later on, the term was extended to include the economic, digital, energy, climate and migration fields as well.
European strategic autonomy is intertwined with sovereignty, independence, unilateralism, and autarky; that is, the EU follows its own laws, rules, norms, and values, while attempting to pursue its strategic interests.
But why is strategic autonomy more important than ever? First, the economic weight of Europe in the world has decreased and it is predicted to be far behind China and the United States and on par with India. If the EU does not act together now, it will become irrelevant. Therefore, strategic autonomy is a process of political survival. Second, Europeans have invested a great deal in the transformation of economic interdependence, particularly through the defense of multilateralism. Third, there is a shift in the world’s focus towards Asia, particularly in US policy.
European strategic autonomy seems more important from the perspective of the transatlantic bond. The transatlantic bond, to the collective defense under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, is the fundamental pillar of the Alliance due to the common interests, common history, and shared values of Europe and North America.
This question has attracted the attention of researchers and analysts of international policy for years: do the EU and the US pursue a common policy on international issues? Are their behavioral foundations aligned and convergent or inconsistent and divergent? Each of them presents different answers for the following points: The first group of researchers, with a cultural perspective, believes that the common cultural and civilizational roots lead the US and the EU to create convergent views on global issues. From this point of view, the US and the EU, although they sometimes have opposite ideas, are considered the “West”, a value-cultural concept founded by Christianity. Therefore, for on anything that contradicts Christian values, the US and the EU will adopt the same views.
The second group of researchers, based on a policy-oriented approach, believes that the EU and the US are democratic societies based on liberalism. In this view, liberal peace between libertarian states and the war against dictatorial and authoritarian regimes are clearly a value and a capability. Here, political-value foundations cause coherence between the views and behaviors of the EU and the US. The third group, based on a realistic and power-oriented approach, believes that national interests are the main foundation of world politics and that power is the main tool to achieve goals. Therefore, any country, regardless of its political nature, seeks to achieve its national interests through the exercise of power. Therefore, the EU and the US have only aligned views in the areas that serve their national interests.
Examples of relations between the US and the EU are in the field of the international system and in the economic, security, political, and international dimensions. In this context, transatlantic relations should be analyzed in the context of cooperation, competition, and strife, and based on the national interests of both sides. Accordingly, international political-cooperation is categorized in the form of common interests, economic relations into disputed interests, and security and military relations in the form of parallel interests. Here, the discussion is about the convergence and divergence in international (transatlantic) political-security relations between the US and the EU.
During Clinton’s presidency, the orientations and foreign activities of the US were based on the benefits strategy for international cooperation, in which the US consulted and cooperated with its European partners in global politics. So, in spite of differences between the EU and the US during this period, these differences were less realized. But in the new era (the Bush era onwards) and with the events of 11/9 not only the number and nature of the differences between the US and the EU have increased dramatically, but the events of 11/9 have created a context in which the US, shifting the priorities of its foreign policy, has followed unilateralism and revealed its true nature of the international system.
In the new strategic space, the EU, taking the advantage of features different from the past, attempts to advance a European perspective in international politics, play a role in line with its position in the international community, and pursue the policy of equality with the US (balance of power), which do not necessarily lead to convergence and coordination with the US.
The most important indicators and areas of convergence and divergence of the EU-US in the field of international political-security relations in the transatlantic field and the extent of the convergence and divergence are the US macro-foreign policy strategy in the aftermath of the 11/9 attacks which includes: the military power that the US uses in international politics, definition of “defense” by the US, prohibiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and preventing terrorists from gaining access to these weapons.
Therefore, the three elements of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and rebellious countries, along with technology and radicalism, are the excuses for the US to impose its unilateral policies by focusing its military power on the structure of the international system.
America’s behavior reflects this fact that this country acts within the framework of the hegemonic stability theory, according to which US security is a priority. Intervening in the affairs of weak countries, the US endangers and ignores the great powers, including the EU, in those weak countries. The US and the EU have different approaches to major global issues such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, due to their various interests which have led to a gap in transatlantic relations. Indeed, US hegemonic approach has led to US unilateralism in international politics.
The EU and the US follow two different logics, despite having some common and parallel interests on the international stage. The EU is complementary to and a partner of the US, while in others, the EU is balancing, challenging, and rival to the US. The dimensions of convergence and divergence in the EU’s relations with the US depend largely on the different interests and roles of each in international relations. In areas where the EU and the US have common or parallel interests or play a global-international role, there is likely to be more convergence and cooperation. However, in areas where their interests do conflict or they play a national role, there is likely to be more divergence and competition.
Thinking of Atlantic convergence, the US and the EU cooperate on strategic policies, including security and politics, as defined by their international-global role.
Common interests and responsibilities move the EU and the US toward closer relations, although there may be differences between them in terms of the tools and methods of achieving their goals. However, the EU and the US seek to strengthen regional convergence and compete with each other in the field of soft (economic and cultural) policies that are mainly defined by their national role and are less sensitive and less important than strategic policies. However, the EU and the US seek to strengthen regional convergence and compete with each other in the field of soft (economic and cultural) policies that are mainly defined by their national role and are less sensitive and less important than strategic policies.
In their strategies and policies, the US and the EU try not to harm the other side’s security while providing their own. Nevertheless, both sides seek to gain power over other world powers. Therefore, given the political and economic influence of the US and the EU in global affairs, these two are influential actors in the global arena.