Strengthening European Deterrence and Defense: NATO, Not European Defense Autonomy, is the Answer

From by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS),
September 20, 2021


Media – The time has come for the U.S. and its NATO allies to take a truly serious look at how they are shaping the future defense of Europe, the Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. In doing so, they must focus on improving deterrence and defense, not funding levels. They must assess the role each country should play in creating a more effective alliance instead of debating in generalities, and they should create meaningful force plans instead of issuing more strategic rhetoric.

The U.S. needs to change it approach to NATO and Europe. The U.S. focus on the Chinese threat, the way the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, the lack of full U.S. consultation with its NATO partners, the collapse of the Afghan government and its forces, and the casual way in which the U.S. engaged Australia and the U.K. in a closer alliance by substituting U.S. nuclear submarines for French conventional submarines have all raised a whole new series of European doubts about relying on the U.S. as a strategic partner.

At the same time, Europe needs to both be far more realistic about its strategic dependence on U.S. forces and do far more to improve its own military capabilities. It needs to focus on nation-by-nation force improvements rather than burden sharing and arbitrary spending levels, and it must recognize there is no credible European alternative to NATO and an Atlantic alliance.

Both the U.S. and Europe need to properly assess their defense spending levels in terms of actual military requirements and in comparison to the size of Russia spending and forces, and it must put an end to their present emphasis on burden sharing by arbitrary percentage of GDP and equipment spending. The European nations need to focus on net assessments of their present and future capabilities to deter and defend against Russia, on what member countries can actually do to improve their forces, and on modernization at a time when there is an ongoing revolution in military affairs that will last for at least the next few decades. They also need to plan collectively to deal with the ongoing emergence of China as a far larger and more effective military superpower than Russia and subsequently create a stable balance of deterrence in dealing with both Russia and China.

This analysis addresses all of these issues in a summary form, quantifying the key trends involved to the degree that is possible with unclassified data. It makes it clear that the U.S. must remain the center of the Atlantic alliance and that any rebalancing of its forces to Asia must take this into account. This analysis makes it clear that most European powers have left important gaps in their military efforts and that they have not created effective plans to modernize and strengthen their contributions to the NATO alliance.

It also makes it clear that there is no European alternative to safely deterring Russia and meeting its military threats that can significantly reduce European dependence on the U.S. – and there are no meaningful ways the European Union can substitute for NATO.

The U.S. Needs to Refocus on Force Planning, Not Burden Sharing and Make Its Continuing Commitment to NATO Clear

The analysis also shows, however, that both Europeans and Americans have reason to be concerned. The U.S. defeat in Afghanistan in July and August as well as the growing U.S. emphasis on the rising threat from China have raised legitimate European concerns over the reliance on the United States. President Macron is scarcely the only senior voice calling for a much stronger and EU-based approach to European defense, and Europe has valid reasons to be concerned.

For more than a decade there have been a series of reports that the U.S. is rebalancing its forces to Asia in ways that reduce its presence outside Asia and that retreat from its strategic commitments to Europe and the Middle East, although such reports have not described real-world trends in U.S. deployments and capabilities that alter the U.S. commitment to NATO.

More substantively, President Trump’s emphasis on “burden sharing” and on raising European military spending came close to strategic bullying. So did his threat to cut U.S. forces in Germany, failures to confront Russia, and focus on China. Although the U.S. actually increased some aspects of its commitments to NATO during his administration, his words and actions did undermine European confidence in the United States.

Europe Also Needs to Refocus on Force Planning and Improve National Contributions to NATO in Key Areas, Not Seek European Options

At the same time, the U.S. has equally serious concerns about European defense efforts. Many aspects of the pressure that the Trump administration put on NATO European states to increase their defense efforts were legitimate. As the country-by-country analysis later in this report shows, many European states have fallen short in maintaining and modernizing their military forces in spite of Russia hardening its position and the signals sent by the Russian seizure of the Crimea and the invasion of the Ukraine.

A majority of the current European members of NATO have also been slow – and often faltering – in adapting to the changes in NATO since the fall of the former Soviet Union (FSU) and in reacting to the rise of a more aggressive and threatening Russia – and this is true of many European states that did increase their defense spending and that met NATO’s burden sharing quotas.

For all of the recent emphasis on burden sharing and claims about rises in defense spending as a percent of GDP, this analysis shows that the overall level of European cooperation in creating effective deterrent and defense capabilities may actually have declined relative to Russia since 2014. The following review of region-by-region, country-by country, European forces, and their capabilities to deter and defend shows all too clearly positive rhetoric that has praised higher spending percentages. While some efforts have improved defense cooperation, they do not reflect meaningful improvements in the military realities in many – if not most – European states.

The European Option Fallacy

So far, the leading voice for some form of European defense autonomy – linked to the European Union (EU) – is from President Emmanuel Macron of France. He stated in a news conference with then German Chancellor Merkel in June 2021 that “We have succeeded in instilling the idea that European defense, and strategic defense autonomy, can be an alternative project to the trans-Atlantic organization, but very much a solid component of this.”1

President Macron has since raised the same theme on several occasions and repeatedly called for “strategic autonomy.” U.S. and French military relations also deteriorated sharply in September 2021 because of Australia’s decision to buy eight nuclear submarines from the U.S. instead of 12 French conventional ones without consulting France – a decision that highlighted the problems in U.S. efforts to “rebalance to Asia” that do not inform and consult with America’s European allies and that reject France (and Macron’s) effort to create a “third way” to deal with an emerging Chinese superpower.

At the same time, the new strategic partnership between the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. plays a critical role in strengthening the West’s ability to compete with China, and Australian nuclear submarines will give the alliance a far better and more lasting capability to deter China in the Pacific waters near China compared to France’s troubled conventional submarine program. Moreover, President Macron’s efforts to actively promote a “third way” in the Pacific that emphasizes trade and cooperation with China seems to be decoupled from the realities of dealing with an emerging authoritarian Chinese superpower that later sections of this report show is becoming an all too real and growing threat.

It is also important to note that other European leaders have been far less critical. Chancellor Merkel placed her emphasis on NATO at that same press conference, stating that she was glad that President Biden had shifted away from President Trump’s focus on burden sharing and on reducing the U.S. commitment to Europe and that instead President Biden was rebuilding a “climate of cooperation.” She stated that,2

It is very clear from the G7 and NATO talks that the United States sees itself as both a Pacific and an Atlantic nation and, given the strength of China, is naturally challenged to be much stronger in the Pacific than perhaps it was 20 years ago… And that means for us Europeans that we have to take on certain tasks and responsibilities for ourselves… but I see the absolute necessity—and I think this is also expected of the United States of America—that we act coherently.

NATO Needs To Be Fixed, Not Broken

This analysis shows that NATO needs to be fixed rather than broken, and there are no real European alternatives to Atlantic deterrence and defense. It shows that the U.S. and each of its NATO European allies need to focus on making the alliance more effective. They need to cooperate far more in shaping NATO’s real-world strategy and creating actual levels of meaningful modernization and cooperation. Moreover, they need to focus on nation-by-nation improvements in the common capability to deter, defend, and cooperate, rather than on burden sharing, setting arbitrary spending goals, and substituting good intentions for action.

It also shows that NATO needs new realities, not more rhetoric. It shows that every nation in the alliance needs to do more to actually implement the strategic and force modernization goals set out in NATO’s 2030 plan. It shows that the creation of a well-balanced, integrated, and interoperable mix of national forces should be a common U.S., European, and Canadian objective. It highlights that the resulting efforts needs to address the military strengths and weaknesses of each member state in different ways; that the alliance needs a new approach to force planning based on real net assessment, plans, and budgets; and that NATO does now need to actively review the changing capabilities of the world’s three superpowers and to consult on the rising threat from China, rather than just Russia, as well as from terrorism and the out-of-area threats closer to Europe.

This report has the following Table of Contents:

This report entitled, Strengthening European Deterrence and Defense: NATO, Not European Defense Autonomy, is the Answer, is available for download at

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

1Reuters, Macron says European defense autonomy and NATO membership are compatible, June 18, 2021,
2Reuters, Macron says European defense autonomy and NATO membership are compatible, June 18, 2021,


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