Since the end of the Cold War, we always knew the day was going to come that Europe would slide down in the priority list of US’ strategic interests. At a much-anticipated speech at the Pentagon, President Obama recently outlined America’s key strategic goals and focuses over the coming decades, which will see a significant shift of US strategic interest from Europe to Asia.
While US Secretary of State Clinton was keen to stress that this did not signify a disengagement from Europe, with recent examples such as Libya demonstrating the maturity of the relationship, the future of the transatlantic relationship seems nonetheless uncertain.
It could certainly be argued that that the move can be attributed as much to a reset of the US relationship with Russia and as to the imperative for downsizing military capacity due to pressures on the budget. However Europe will also have to seriously consider what the withdrawal of US troops means for the provision of security on the European continent at a time when Europe’s government find themselves under considerable pressures to cut budgets, making a stronger commitment to fill the security vacuum left by the US unlikely. On the contrary, with a number of European governments implementing severe austerity measures, it seems certain that defence budgets will face considerable reductions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Military downsizing and a redefinition of the transatlantic relationship is likely to lead to a weakening of NATO and its influence, leaving a gap in the provision regional security and beyond. As pointed out by the UK Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richard in a recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), European states will have to carefully reconsider their strategic alliances, looking beyond traditional relationships with partners. However it could also be an opportunity to revive security architecture closer to home. The EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), despite its institutional strengthening with the Lisbon Treaty, has not been able to gain a higher international profile in recent years. The lack of focus on CSDP by key EU member states is reveals the state of the initiative at present and it is unlikely that in the short-term it will become a mechanism to replace the US as a security guarantor.
However the re-set of the US’ commitment to Europe coupled with strained national budgets that make the maintenance and expansion of national armies and military capabilities unfeasible, could serve as an incentive for European governments to move ahead with much closer cooperation in the area of defence.
With similar strategic priorities and increasingly aligning interests, the pooling of resources on a much larger scale would ensure that Europeans would be able to go ahead with unavoidable budget cuts without compromising their commitment to the provision of regional security on the European continent. With the US shift of focus to Asia, this would also not be seen as a competition to the transatlantic relationship and NATO, but as an affirmation of EU member states commitment to finally become partners of equal footing in the area of defence.
While there are a number of reasons suggesting that closer defence cooperation among EU member states would be beneficial to all, the current divisions within the EU, and especially between Britain and France/Germany make a move to a revival of CSDP unlikely in the short term. It remains to be seen whether member states will be able to overcome their current disagreements and use this moment to strengthen the EU’s defence policy preparing the Union for the security challenges in the decade to come.