Joe Biden and Collective Security in Europe


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by Benjamin Hautecouverture
CGAI Fellow
February 2021


Table of Contents

Joe Biden and Collective Security in Europe

Since the end of last year, opinion leaders and a large part of the European mainstream press have warned their readers and the public at large: Do not expect the United States to return to Europe under the pretext that an old Democrat is back in the White House. This caution is understandable: this side of the Atlantic shares a concern about American disengagement from European security affairs. This concern is worrisome; however, it is triply incorrect. The argument that the new Biden administration will continue to disengage the United States from European security is false, but it is still significant.

First, no serious analysis corroborates the idea that the United States is disinvesting in European security, contrary to what is widely peddled in the mainstream media. Measuring America’s commitment to NATO in financial terms can be done in various ways, but the following figures speak for themselves: direct U.S. defence spending in Europe was estimated at $30.7 billion in 2017. The U.S. increased spending to $36 billion in 2018, or 5.5 per cent of the total U.S. defence budget, up from 5.1 per cent in the previous year. In particular, the U.S. strengthened its position in Europe after June 2014 via the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI, formerly the European Reassurance Initiative prior to 2017), in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The EDI’s budget of $789 million in 2016 exceeded $6.5 billion in 2019.1 In spite of Donald Trump’s anti-European behaviour and rhetoric, U.S. officials in NATO have repeatedly reassured their European counterparts over the past four years: “Don’t listen to what we say. Look at what we do.”

NATO has indeed been working for several years to reduce its dependence on the United States for capabilities. This has been going on at least since the presidency of George W. Bush and all NATO members have endorsed it since at least 2014. There is no reason to expect a reversal from the Biden administration. European strategic autonomy is a reality inscribed in more than 20 years of practice. The pace of its progress is a subject of debate and a cause for concern, but the idea that a common security policy cannot be effective without appropriate military capabilities has advanced since the formulation of the Helsinki headline goal in 1999 (even if the target was set for 2003). This goal paved the way for the 2010 Lancaster House Treaty between France and the United Kingdom, as well as for the European Intervention Initiative (EI2) which was launched in 2018.

The question of strategic autonomy runs through European thinking against the backdrop of a generally shared perception that Europe is entering an era of heightened strategic and geopolitical competition. As such, strategic autonomy can be seen as a response to this exacerbation: in the uncertain environment that has taken shape around us over the last twenty years, does Europe need more strategic autonomy or not, and if so, in what areas? European countries' responses to this question are always contrasted, but they have the advantage of existing, which was obviously not the case during the Cold War. It is therefore a specific European feature of the beginning of this century. At the institutional level, the ambition of strategic autonomy for Europe was already included in the EU's Global Strategy for 2016: autonomy of action, autonomy in decision-making, and the concept of autonomy as a guarantee for ensuring peace and security within its borders and in its neighbourhood. This is a theme which, at least institutionally for the 27 EU states (28 at the time of drafting the Strategy), is meant to be one on which there is consensus, and has been, even if the modalities, the pace and the compromises made necessary by the process of empowerment give a sense of disorder.

Second, to imagine that the Biden administration’s European policy will not be ambitious is to forget that threats to Europe’s security also affect American security interests. The deterioration of relations between Russia and NATO member states is well established and very well illustrated in recent years: erosion of the conventional security architecture in Europe since the beginning of the 2000s, the Georgian crisis in 2008, the Ukrainian crisis since 2014, Russia’s repeated violations of the INF Treaty before its abandonment in 2019 (even if the withdrawal from the treaty was a sovereign American decision first), Russia’s support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Salisbury chemical attack in 2018. At the end of their meeting in London in December 2019, the leaders of NATO countries jointly declared that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security.” It was a communal decision, not exclusively an American one.

Contemporary forms of terrorism have threatened liberal democracies on both sides of the Atlantic for more than 20 years. Here again, this awareness is widely shared, although each state’s response may differ. NATO is not a suitable alliance for the fight against terrorism, even though several relevant programs have been launched to adapt defence instruments to new threats and hybrid forms of armed violence. In any case, the Americans and Europeans share this security problem.

The U.S. State Department and European diplomats have identified the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as a threat to their security at least since 2003. Today, Iran is the main worry with its progress in the range of operational ballistic missiles towards intermediate segments (up to 5,500 km). Both Paris and Washington are concerned.  The acceleration of the Iranian ballistic program has never been so significant since 2018, including for medium- and intermediate-range missiles (up to 4,000 km theoretical range for the SEJIL-3 under development), but also in terms of solid propellants and much more advanced guidance systems. The accuracy of Iranian ballistic missiles is improving, especially in the short-range segments, as seen on numerous occasions during 2019. Even if the method of dealing with the Iranian nuclear and ballistic dossier has differed widely among the governments of the E3 (France, Germany and the U.K.) and the White House since May 2018, they all agree that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of July 2015 is insufficient because it deals neither with the ballistic issue nor with Iran’s behaviour in the Middle East.

Therefore, one should not expect a Biden administration to return to the simple terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement, even if appeasement will be sought through a return to policed diplomacy. NATO has marginally dealt with WMD proliferation but the Americans and Europeans have co-ordinated their response through various other formats (export control regimes, ad hoc initiatives, UN Security Council resolutions, P3 Group, initiatives of the Council and the European Commission, etc.).

Finally, to think that transatlanticism is an anachronism in a world whose epicentre is shifting to Asia is, paradoxically, to use the methods of the last century to understand what is at stake in this century. First, the rebalance of American security interests in Asia will not automatically be accompanied by an abandonment of Europe. The European Union, with strong support from France in particular, is designing  an ambitious strategy to defend its interests in Asia-Pacific. This is obviously a reason for convergence with the American policy initiated by the Obama administration. Second, the globalization of trade has as a corollary the globalization of threats: the materialization of new threats in East Asia affects American and European security interests. Third, the strategic emergence of China is a factor in rebalancing the transatlantic partnership, but it is obviously a revitalizing factor as well.

Joe Biden has spoken extensively on the issue of collective security in Europe and the intersecting interests between the United States and European democracies. As a candidate, he referred several times to NATO’s importance, calling it the “cornerstone” of North American and European collective security. As president-elect, Biden made the restoration of alliances his foreign policy priority, accompanied by a desire to “re-imagine” them. One of the modalities of this re-imagining will be to ask European allies “to recommit themselves to their responsibilities as members of a democratic alliance,” in Biden’s words. There is no good reason not to take this literally, although domestic policy priorities are likely to become more prominent in the first few months of the new administration.

Naturally, the terms of what could be a new political-moral transatlantic contract – which seems to be the new president’s intention – will give rise to a dialogue. This dialogue must above all be strategic. Biden’s pronouncements about the need for a grand alliance of liberal democracies under the aegis of the United States are less convincing, less pragmatic and, to all intents and purposes, of little use at a time when the new administration is not yet well established in Washington. Generally speaking, such rhetoric probably no longer serves U.S. foreign policy but rather tends to indicate its relative impotence. This was already true under the Obama administration, which was very much marked by promises of an internationalist nature that could not be fulfilled in a world whose meaning must, perhaps unfortunately, be read according to the parameters of the realist and neo-realist schools.

If we should not expect the United States to return to Europe, it is because it would be undesirable. In this respect, worrying about the risk of American disengagement does not inform Biden’s European positions, but it does indicate that part of European opinion still grasps the process of the continent’s strategic autonomy: it is more a European debate than a transatlantic one. For the rest, the alignment of European and American positions on security is a reality that Trump’s threats did not manage to seriously alter. A caveat by way of conclusion though: regardless of the new convergence between Europeans and Americans in foreign and security policy in the near future, Trumpism will survive despite Trump being gone. Thus, it would be wise for the U.S.’s NATO allies to anticipate possible future gaps in American collective security policy.


End Notes

1 Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, Nick Childs, "The US and its NATO allies: Costs and Values", Military Balance Blog, 9th July 2018, IISS


About the Author

Benjamin Hautecouverture is a historian, a political scientist and a senior research fellow at the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (Paris, France). He is a senior fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, technical director at Expertise France, and one of the founders of the European Union Consortium on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.


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