Rebooting the EU-U.S. Defense Relationship

In this webinar, DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow Sophia Besch presents her research on the prospects for future transatlantic defense cooperation.

The Trump administration helped to kickstart European defense efforts. Now there is an opportunity for the EU and the United States to anchor any progress made in a lasting transatlantic framework that provides strategic direction for a new era of politics. The Biden administration has demonstrated unprecedented willingness to engage with the EU as a defense actor. But between elections in France and Germany and the U.S. midterms, the window for action is small, and lasting tensions over industrial interests risk slowing down progress. What measures can both sides take to put the relationship on a stronger footing? This seminar will present initial findings from three months of field work in the United States and offer policy-relevant recommendations.


Event Summary

Why does the EU and U.S. defense relationship matter?

  • Key point: The EU is growing in importance as a security and defense actor.
  • Today’s broader definition of security goes beyond militarism and includes societal resilience, economic resilience, and resilience of critical infrastructure. The EU adds value in economic security, experience with Russia, countering disinformation, and programs to improve military readiness. In recent years, it has invested in defense and just announced its Indo-Pacific strategy, and it is developing better crisis strategies to intervene in crises without relying on the United States.
  • NATO is broadening its understanding of defense and expanding opportunities of cooperation with the EU. The EU is in a critical time, struggling with a divide between theological debate on European strategic autonomy and technical initiatives to fill a capability gap. Members are now trying to devise a Strategic Compass. This moment of reflection for EU members runs in parallel to NATO’s own strategic concept process.

There is a window of opportunity for this administration and EU to create new and lasting engagement.

  • The United States has previously been skeptical of EU defense for a number of reasons: concern about losing influence in Europe, Europe diverging on policies toward Russia and China, and potentially restricting U.S. defense companies’ access to the market.
  • With the current U.S. administration, both sides have an opportunity to use current good relationship to build lasting structure of engagements to withstand future tension.

How does the Biden administration view the EU as a defense player? And how has that changed compared to previous administrations?

  • The Biden administration has come into office determined to reboot the transatlantic relationship.
  • This administration acknowledges the EU as an actor with important geoeconomic clout and a valuable ally in engagement with China.
  • The traditional skeptical view of EU defense prevails in the administration, especially now that the UK has left the bloc. Other U.S. officials are more open to EU defense policy and believe Europeans should be able to take on the crisis in the European neighborhood without U.S. support.
  • Embracing a more constructive course will help to address the long-standing objective to fill capability gaps in operations because Libya, Afghanistan, and Mali have shown shortfalls in strategic lift, air refueling, heavy lift helicopters, drones. The EU needs to modernize their armed forces to prevent widening capability gaps and maintain transatlantic interoperability, especially in the context of competition with China.
  • The diplomatic spat over AUKUS usefully served to refocus the Biden administration to address transatlantic tensions and provided momentum to devise a strategy vis-a-vis the EU as a defense player.
  • Despite more positive rhetoric, both sides are frustrated with the relationship. EU officials who come to Washington have complained they have not been able to discuss EU defense efforts, while U.S. officials believe the Strategic Compass will result in a bureaucratic exercise, disappointed by lower defense budgets. The sense in Washington is that the ball is in the EU’s court.
  • One of the drivers of the EU’s defense industrial initiatives such as PESCO and the European Defense Fund is that the money should go to European firms. President Trump openly lobbied against this and accused the EU of shutting out U.S. firms.
  • Bilateral negotiations in Paris and Washington over AUKUS helped to detangle these issues and most recently, the U.S.-EU defense dialogue was launched on Friday, December 3.

Six recommendations:

  1. Make the U.S.-EU defense dialogue a success. The first meeting of the dialogue will be held in early 2022 with many important actors. It is important to establish official channels of engagement now in order to future-proof the relationship for less Europhile administrations and help prevent exchange of angry letters in the future. The dialogue should devise a more substantial agenda, whether it is on crisis management on the Indo-Pacific or newer defense domains.
  2. Get through the European Defense Agency’s (EDA) administrative arrangement negotiations as quickly as possible to avoid this issue coming back to haunt cooperation efforts in the future. These EDA negotiations, which the EU has conducted with several other partner countries before, have taken months and years and the transatlantic relationship does not have the time. Both the EU and United States have implemented restrictions on third party participation in defense procurement, but both defense industries remain relatively open. It would be smart to not let this issue bog down broader cooperation efforts.
  3. Use the parallel NATO Concept and EU Compass processes to improve NATO-EU cooperation on capabilities. After the processes are completed, organizations could agree on a short list of capability gaps and find agreement on who takes responsibility for priorities and gaps.
  4. Deconflict NATO-EU defense innovation and modernization efforts. AUKUS established a partnership with just one European ally for now. NATO has set up an innovation fund and the UK was one the drivers, so now Europeans have to face a post-Brexit reality. It is important to avoid duplication when possible and appropriate.
  5. One way to address the longstanding points of tension in the United States-EU defense relationship is to insert money into EU defense, which will resolve institutional rivalry between EU and NATO, alleviate defense industrial competition, and increase European credibility.
  6. The EU and UK need to sort out their defense relationship. It is the only way the EU can fill their capability gaps and preserve defense institutions, and we cannot afford this spoiler in the broader U.S.-EU relationship.

Event summary by Halle Foundation/AICGS Intern Jaylin Small


This event is supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office.

December 7, 2021

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