Post Conflict Era: The Future of the EU Strategic Autonomy

Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖
Source: Shutterstock

The longstanding wish of the EU is to achieve strategic autonomy, yet the U.S. has always maintained a wary attitude about it. The EU already accomplished market integration as well as financial and monetary integration but if it reaches autonomy in discourse, it will become a political force to the U.S. Moreover, if the EU achieves autonomy in security, it will put the US-led NATO in danger of hollowing out. Although the U.S. encourages EU countries to strengthen their discourse power and defence, it must be within the framework of “the West.” As a consequence, the actual process of the EU’s strategic autonomy has been challenging.

The Russo-Ukraine conflict that broke out early on in 2022, on the one hand, strengthened the EU’s determination to seek strategic autonomy and accelerated its pace. However, the conflict has also led to the EU’s further reliance on the US and NATO in terms of discourse and security, which is contradictory and difficult to resolve.

Washington’s Discourse Power

Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukraine conflict, the US has painted the conflict as a war of “democracy vs autocracy.” Under this narrative, the U.S. aims to create the Otherto unite the world under its leadership. “The Other” is a philosophical idea established by self-consciousness that is used to differentiate the self from others. In political science “the Other” is a cumulative component of self-image that identifies other human beings in terms of their differences from oneself. Political identity and its identification are formed this way. In this narrative, Putin is described as a dictator, with his regime being described as evil, and Russia’s military action as unjust. From this narrative, the West, or “the international community,” should be the guardian of the international liberal rules-based order.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Source: POLITICO

The binary narrative of the West vs the Other has successfully influenced EU decision-makers and the European public. However, much of the rest of the world, specifically the Third World, does not buy this narrative. Instead of viewing this conflict as a great threat to global stability and the laws and norms underpinning the global order, it is interpreted as a regional conflict. Instead, these states believe that international efforts should focus on peace negotiation rather than using the conflict as a proxy war to isolate or weaken Russia.

Under this portrayal, the subjectivity of the EU is weakened as Europe is subject-positioned as part of “the West,” which is dominated by the U.S. Therefore, standing on the frontline with the U.S. on the issue of the Ukraine crisis becomes the only moral option for the EU.

However, it’s important to point out that the U.S. and the EU have clearly divergent interests in the face of the Russo-Ukraine conflict. For the U.S., the long-term instability in Eurasia is beneficial to reinforce Washington’s influence over the Euro-Atlantic region. In practice, the prolongation of the Russo-Ukraine conflict serves American national interests. For instance, the Euro is viewed as an alternative trading currency — even a challenger — to the hegemony of the U.S. dollar. However, long-term geopolitical instability in Eurasia makes the market lose faith in the Euro.

Euro to US dollar Chart. Source: Xe

For the EU, on the other hand, regional stability is an important precondition to its economic prosperity and this cannot be achieved without responsible-continual dialogues with Russia. Today, there are many articles opposing this argument and hoping Putin’s disastrous Ukraine war brings his downfall. A pro-western Russian regime is in the interest of Europe. Nevertheless, we should be aware that Putin was working hard for Russia’s membership in NATO in his early career stage. Putin was a pro-western politician. In other words, a regime change cannot really solve the problem. The fundamental conflict here is between U.S. and Russian interests — not the nature of the Russian regime.

From a perspective of geographic determinism, Russia is always on the east side of the EU, and dialogue is the only way to achieve a lasting peace. Because of this very reason, some European leaders, such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, tried to opening a dialogue with Russia. However, their actions, under the English-speaking media’s narrative, are viewed as “cowardly” and a “betrayal to democracy.”

The weaker subjectivity of the EU means the stronger influence of Washington — or the West — over Europe. There are many other signs showing that the subjectivity of the EU has been weaker since February 21, 2022. The first sign is the contradictory views between Old Europe and New Europe regarding how to face the Ukraine crisis. The idea of distinguishing Old Europe and New Europe was first raised by American political analysts. Old Europe usually refers to the former traditional Western European powers led by France and Germany. New Europe refers to the new countries that have joined the EU after its eastern enlargement, mainly the former members of the Warsaw Pact.

The Ukraine crisis offers a difference of outcome among European countries. Particularly, Old Europe does not exclude a peaceful negotiated settlement to the conflict while New Europe prefers to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty by force because of their history with an imperialistic and belligerent Russia. Another sign is the raising of many nationalist, populist, and far-right parties in each European country. One of the major reasons for the victory of these parties was the higher cost of living that is being brought on by the Russo-Ukraine conflict.

NATO: A Friend or Foe to Security Autonomy?

EU’s political and economic integration has been fruitful for decades. However, in terms of defence and security, the EU defence industry is generally small in scale and uneven in development. Its arms development and procurement are even more fragmented, with about 80% of arms procurement done at the national level by member states.

After World War II, European countries enjoyed a long peace for many years by relying on NATO and the U.S. for security and defence. But as a result, defence and security have become major shortcomings for the majority of European countries. Strategically, the Washington’s idea of controlling Europe has remained unchanged since the end of the Cold War. Following the Iraq War, the U.S. differentiated the EU through the strategy of dividing so-called Old Europe and New Europe. To some extent, New Europe represented an important grasp for American control over Old Europe. Most Central and Eastern European and Nordic countries prefer to rely on NATO as a security umbrella and see the Franco-German push for EU defence integration as a means for both countries to increase their leadership in the European security architecture. After the outbreak of the Russo-Ukraine conflict, the U.S. stands on the moral high ground, tying the EU to the American and NATO chariot.

European Council President Charles Michel, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the signing ceremony of the Join Declaration on NATO-EU Cooperation at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 10 January 2023. Source: The New York Times

To Pursue or Not to Pursue!

The EU’s pursuit of strategic autonomy has a number of internal bifurcations and no unified compass. In the future, if the EU fails to improve its own consensus on the idea of strategic autonomy and lacks hardcore power — such as discourse power and military power — to deal with external influences, its internal differences will intensify and greatly deplete the momentum of strategic autonomy.

  • Is a US-led NATO compatible with the EU’s strategic autonomy?
  • Could the Ukraine crisis have been avoided if Russia had joined NATO in the early 21st century?
  • What are the divergences between Old Europe and New Europe on EU strategic autonomy?

Suggested Readings

Charlemagne (2018), “The Baltics fear European “strategic autonomy,” The Economist, October 4, 2018.

Murat Sofuoglu (2022), “Russia could have joined NATO. But why didn’t they do it?” TRT World, March 16, 2022.

Seymour Hersh (2023), How America Took Out The Nord Stream Pipeline, February 8, 2023.

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  1. Pingback: The New Normal/La Nouvelle Normalité/新常態: The Anniversary of Russo-Ukrainian War: China’s Position Dilemma - The New Global Order

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Post Conflict Era: The Fu…

by Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖 time to read: 5 min