An agency of the EU
A Chinese Navy nuclear-powered submarine during an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of People's Liberation Army Navy, 23 April 2009. © Guang Niu/AP/SIPA

Q: The future of EU-US security and defence cooperation: what lies ahead?

Debate - 03 October 2011

Daniel Keohane

EU Institute for Security Studies

Senior Research Fellow


A: Confusion 

Europeans need to think much harder about their collective interests. If they do not, EU-US security and defence cooperation faces a confusing and difficult future.


A few years ago, I gave a presentation about EU defence policy to a Chinese delegation. The first question from a Chinese delegate was: “What are the EU’s plans for defending the straits of Hormuz?” My nose-scrunching response was that I was not aware the EU had any such plans. 

In contrast to the Chinese and other major powers, the EU does not yet think about how to defend its interests with military force. This is for at least two reasons. First, EU governments do not agree on their common interests; second, they do not agree on how to use force – witness German and Polish (amongst others) reluctance over NATO’s operation in Libya. 

Furthermore, while US defence policy is increasingly preoccupied with South and East Asia as well as the broader Middle East, European defence planning is almost exclusively focused on Europe’s neighbourhood. Put simply, the US is an Asian power, but the Europeans are not. This is not new. During the Cold war, France and Britain carried out a military operation in the Suez Canal, but they did not join the Americans in Vietnam. 

Indeed, future historians may conclude that Afghanistan was the exception that proved this post-World War II rule. Most Europeans went to Afghanistan for the sake of their close relationship with the United States, not because it was an existential threat to their security. That unhappy experience makes it very unlikely that Europeans would follow Americans on future military operations beyond Europe’s neighbourhood. 

Richard Gowan, therefore, is right about the emerging strategic divergence between Europeans and Americans. But for Europeans the issue is not so much that the Pentagon cares more about Asia; it is that Washington cares much less about Europe. 

The key question, consequently, is how will Europeans cope with problems in their neighbourhood – with or without the US? Herein lies the potential for confusion. Sometimes the US may wish to take the lead, with or without Europeans (think Yemen or Bahrain). Sometimes, the US may act with Europeans (think Libya or Egypt). But sometimes Europeans may have to act alone. Although they didn’t use military force, it was the EU-27 governments that led the international response to the Georgia crisis in 2008. 

An even tougher question is: would Europeans use robust military force alone? (Whether they have the capabilities to do so is another question again). At first glance this seems unlikely, based on past evidence. But then, only a year ago the idea of France and Britain leading a military operation in Libya also seemed fanciful. 

The Libya operation can and will be used as evidence that the Europeans can or cannot act alone militarily. Perhaps there is a more interesting question: is it in the American (or European) interest if Europeans cannot act alone in future? Given the Pentagon’s recent reluctance over Libya and Georgia, surely they would be happy to leave most future Balkan, Caucasian and North African crises to the Europeans? Washington, after all, has enough to worry about in the broader Middle East and Asia. 

In other words, Europeans need to think much harder about their collective interests, based on the fact that they do not have the resources to influence much acting nationally (or even bilaterally), and cannot expect the US to solve all their problems. If they do not, EU-US security and defence cooperation faces a confusing and difficult future.