Europe needs a grand strategy

  • Themes: Europe, Geopolitics

Europe is at a strategic crossroads. Whatever path it decides to take will depend upon hard choices it has been reluctant to make.

NATO soldiers in a simulation exercise, 1986.
NATO soldiers in a simulation exercise, 1986. Credit: Dino Fracchia / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower had just been inaugurated as the 34th president of the United States when, in the Soviet Union, Stalin’s 29-year reign ended with his death on 5 March.

Eisenhower was a strong believer in the clarifying qualities of energetic debates. He wanted the greatest minds in the United States to think about the future of its national security policy in the post-Stalin age. To this end, Eisenhower devised Project Solarium; he created three task forces to separately analyse US-Soviet relations in the wake of Stalin’s death. Each one of these three groups was staffed by 21 members, including experts, diplomats, and military officers, working in isolation for approximately six weeks of intense 12- to 14-hour days. Each team had unrestricted access to the expertise and information of the US government. On presentation day, Eisenhower listened attentively to the findings of the three panels. His conclusion markedly influenced US grand strategy from then onwards. Project Solarium has come to be recognised by historians and scholars as an example of a valuable strategy design process, from which Europe can learn important lessons.

Europe now faces a similar inflection point to confronted by Eisenhower in 1953. It needs to make fundamental decisions on how to move forward. A useful next step would be to start a process similar to Project Solarium.

The European Union could undertake this process of strategic reflection, but a smaller grouping of like-minded European states aware of the monumental task at hand could also do the job. Indeed, when it comes to long-term strategic planning, all of Europe disappoints. Most strategic documents produced by European states (Germany’s National Security Strategy published in June 2023 and the EU’s Strategic Compass of 2022, for example) do not provide any clear strategy on how to address the key security challenges Europe faces. Such documents are wishlists. They highlight the importance of peace, the rule of law, multilateralism, and sustainable development, but offer little detail on how these objectives can be achieved. Most importantly, no strategic trade-offs are presented. One is left thinking, falsely, that Europe can have it all: territorial security and generous social spending; environmental protection and boundless economic prosperity; a focus on the rule of law and good relations with every country around the world, even authoritarian states such as China.

At close inspection, there are three distinct grand strategies for Europe to choose from. Each of these sketches a different course of how Europe could coherently use its diplomatic, military, economic, and technological resources to deliver its core national interests of peace and prosperity.

The first option is premised on the fact that the US remains the only credible guarantor of European security. This proposal sustains the current status quo but sees Europe take concrete and serious action to counter the growing alienation between it and the United States. To keep US-European security guarantees active, and successive American governments interested in Europe, European countries must show that they are valuable to the United States. Europe needs to meet American conditions and demands. This will include, most significantly, a momentous increase in European defence spending, and a realignment of its relationship with China according to American concerns. Transatlantic unity would be almost unbeatable in the economic realm. For all the talk of the United States’ and Europe’s fading global power, the transatlantic community is still a phenomenal economic force. With just 14 per cent of the world’s population, the US and EU combined still account for approximately 34.5 per cent of the world’s wealth (measured in GDP) and 50 per cent of global personal consumption versus a combined share of just 15 per cent for China and India. There are also political advantages to ‘outsourcing’ key strategic decisions to the United States

Large, diverse, and filled with complex historical legacies, Europe is a political patchwork quilt. Left to their own devices, Europeans have often had a very hard time achieving the level of coherence necessary to get things done. And yet, meeting American demands on defence spending and China comes at a cost. Many European governments have for decades preferred butter over guns, which has created entrenched domestic interests. China is the EU’s biggest source of imports and its second-biggest export market. China and Europe trade on average over €1 billion a day. Between 2000-2019, imports from China expanded tenfold, resulting in cheaper consumer goods, and freeing up disposable income for European citizens. Finally, even if Europe unanimously supported the renewal of the transatlantic alliance, it cannot assume the US will readily extend its hand. Domestic developments in the United States could see America become more fickle in its foreign and security policy towards Europe. US political polarisation is likely to lead to frequent and dramatic shifts in policy. In this erratic landscape, investing in a renewal of the transatlantic environment could be a risky option.

By contrast, strategic autonomy, the second option facing Europe, is a posture much less reliant on the United States. Its logic builds on recent discussions in European policy circles and the inclusion of the term in the EU Global Strategy 2016. It foresees Europe investing in its own defence capabilities. To do so, Europe would need to profoundly restructure its arms industries: at present, 80 per cent of defence procurement and more than 90 per cent of defence research and technology is run on a national basis. This has resulted in a high degree of fragmentation, with 178 different weapon systems being used in Europe, compared to 30 in the US.

Moreover, if Europe is serious about industrial autonomy, it would need to phase out existing American platforms and replace these with European ones. Strategic autonomy would also include the development of a European nuclear weapon to bolster deterrence. For all this to be effective, strategic autonomy requires Europe to act as a politically cohesive unit. Such cohesion can be achieved either through deeper political, economic, and military integration of the European Union (with qualified majority voting on security and defence issues), or through the cooperation of a core group of powerful European states – with Germany and France at the heart.

Strategic sovereignty is daunting but has its benefits. It would enable Europe to freely pursue its own interests. In military terms, Europe could stay out of US rivalries and conflicts, in the Indo-Pacific region and the Middle East, for example. In the field of military procurement, Europe would also become more autonomous and choose its own commercial partners, without answering to anyone.

To achieve actual strategic autonomy – territorial defence and power projection with minimal political, operational, and military-industrial assistance from the United States – is a titanic task, financially and politically. Much of Europe’s military hardware is in a state of disrepair. The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) reports that merely fending off Russia from European territories without US support would cost between €248-304 billion, while filling the equipment gaps could take 15 years or so. These figures do not even include maintenance or the costs of hiring, training, and paying additional staff.

Even more importantly, how can political unity be created for joint European decision-making? Public trust in the EU rests on shaky grounds. In the autumn of 2023, according to a Eurobarometer survey, less than half (47 per cent) of EU citizens had a positive image of the institution. Russia’s assault on Ukraine has created deep fissures among those European countries that perceive Russia as an existential threat to their security, and others that do recognise the Russian menace but consider the conflict non-existential.

The third strategic option for Europe is seeking a form of minimal global military engagement. The cornerstone of this strategy is a conviction that Europe should attempt to solve security issues through civilian rather than military means. In some circumstances, Europe might also attempt to completely transcend security threats by taking a neutral position in a specific conflict theatre. Yet, facing Russia, such a minimal military posture would foresee Europe defend itself –  with a nuclear deterrent force.

An often-invoked scenario plays out in the Baltics. Under a posture of minimal defence, what would Europe do? Given the lack of capabilities to counterattack, Europe could focus on preventing Russia from penetrating any further into Europe than the Baltics. In other words, Europe would need to abandon the Baltics and go all out on defence for Poland – which would include the threat of nuclear weapons. This would not be an easy undertaking, though an easier one than reconquering the Baltics. Military planners suggest that Russia will need to have a considerable force advantage over Europe in the Poland scenario, which would involve 16 to 22 armoured brigades – not currently feasible for Russia. Europe in turn would only need to maintain 11 armoured brigades, a more achievable goal.

Given the extreme risk of such a scenario, Europe would work hard to pre-empt an attack and try to resolve any tensions with Russia via diplomatic and institutional arrangements, potentially including territorial accommodation. Why would such an option meet some interests in Europe? Russia’s war in Ukraine has shaken European pacifism, but not fundamentally reversed it. Europeans are now much more likely to view Russia as a serious threat than they were before the invasion. The greatest change has been seen in Germany, where the proportion rose from 42 to 75 per cent.

A willingness to defend Latvia, however, remains a minority position in all European countries except Poland, according to a YouGov poll. In Germany, for example, only 43 per cent would support NATO coming to Lavia’s defence in case of a Russian attack, and an even a smaller percentage of respondents in France.

Many Europeans also do not believe that it should become embroiled in the US-China rivalry. Even within countries that are most in favour of taking the American side in a new Cold War, such as Denmark and Poland, just 35 per cent and 30 per cent respectively want to take a side on China. Minimal defence brings Europe close to being a ‘neutral’ actor in world politics. It can use its economic and diplomatic tools to influence world affairs, but it won’t be able to back them up with military influence. During the Second World War, Sweden was officially a neutral state, but still allowed Nazi Germany to transport and move troops across its territory. Norway, Belgium, and Denmark were occupied by Nazi Germany despite their ‘neutral status’. Countries such as Spain and Switzerland managed to maintain their independence by not remaining neutral: they de facto sided with Hitler.

The situation is somewhat different when we talk about the Cold War. Sweden, Finland, and Austria positioned themselves as neutral mediators between East and West, while supporting various peace initiatives. Such neutral positioning of these and other states in Central and Northern Europe was not inconvenient to both superpowers. They provided a buffer zone that would have bought both parties more time in a potential war scenario. Indeed, from a NATO perspective, the neutral states were the first line of defence. The bottom line, therefore, is that we must ask ourselves whether there is such a thing as ‘neutrality’ in world politics or are neutral states just tokens in international politics?

The three grand strategies discussed above could become part of a European debate that vigorously tested their premises and probed their consistencies. My objective here has been to provide an indication of the work that needs to be done, the data that needs to be collected, and the intellectual journey that needs to be embarked upon. At the moment, no such process is underway. It is critical that this journey begins very soon.

This essay reflects the proceedings of The Failure of the Post-Cold War Global Order event, hosted by the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS and the University of Mainz.


Marina E. Henke