February 01, 2022

The EU’s Half-Hearted Quest For Defense Autonomy

By Nicholas Lokker

The EU has been consistently ill-equipped to address the seemingly endless proliferation of crises on its periphery. As the US-dominated international order that traditionally allowed the EU to shun military power is increasingly contested by new centers of power, the bloc must adapt accordingly. While the EU can wield its economic and technological influence to manage power shifts and security threats, its shortcomings when it comes to defense undermine its global position. The Union’s stubborn tendency to view itself predominantly as a normative power has hindered its ability to integrate defense capabilities at the supranational level.

This posture as a non-military power is especially problematic when staring down an aggressive Russia, an authoritarian China, and an uncertain US commitment to European defense. The discourse on great power competition generally triangulates US, Chinese, and Russian power, sidelining the EU as a secondary security player. Yet, Brussels not only has the capability to navigate great power competition but might in fact benefit from competing as a US-aligned yet independent pole going forward — and the intensifying push for EU strategic autonomy illustrates that many Europeans are now coming to this conclusion.

Already wielding significant influence in the economic and technological spheres, the EU can strengthen its position by addressing obstacles to its defense autonomy, including its identity as a uniquely non-military power.

The EU’s self-image as a normative power is rooted in its origins as a peace project. Rejecting the idea of using force for political ends, the bloc emphasizes its unique status as a “civilian,” “post-modern,” or “ethical” power. In practice, this has entailed a foreign policy based on promoting norms such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. While these are worthy aims, EU leaders tend to treat them as an alternative, rather than a complement, to military power. This choice causes the EU to be excluded from discussions on hard power issues. For example, Brussels has been largely absent during the ongoing negotiations aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the threat posed by Russia’s military buildup near the Ukrainian border. Without military clout to back them up, the EU’s diplomatic efforts are destined to continue falling flat in the face of powers like Russia that only respect brute strength. Brussels, therefore, lacks not only the ability to contribute militarily, but also the foundations of a legitimate diplomatic platform from which to advocate for its vital interests.

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