The Future of Transatlantic Security

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

Bolstering the Transatlantic Partnership: What do we expect from each other?

The American-German Institute (AGI) in cooperation with the German Federal Ministry of Defence hosted a workshop on “The Future of Transatlantic Security” on March 10, 2021. Three working groups discussed what the United States and the European Union expect from each other on the near- and longer-term issues of transatlantic security and defense, as the Biden administration begins to implement its foreign policy, as Germany approaches its federal election in the fall, and as the EU moves forward its security and defense policy reflection process towards the Strategic Compass.

The 2020/21 U.S. and German elections as well as recent EU and NATO strategic reflection processes (Strategic Compass and NATO 2030, respectively) should present new opportunities for an even stronger and enhanced transatlantic security partnership. There have been important efforts, particularly over the past few years, to assure that security cooperation between the two institutions is transparent and mutually reinforcing. Maritime cooperation in the Mediterranean has addressed migrant trafficking and smuggling, to name an example. In other examples, NATO and the EU have coordinated procedures through parallel exercises that have heightened security for both organizations.

The EU Strategic Compass will sharpen the understanding of what Europeans expect the EU to be able to do – and what not to do – in security and defense based on the core assumption that the EU should work closely with international partners whenever possible (even while developing the ability to act alone when necessary). In this respect, the decision of the United States to seek participation in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) Military Mobility project has been a milestone in cooperation and will further enhance the project and EU-NATO cooperation in general.

But as the United States and the European Union deepen their security partnership, they need to be clear about what they want from each other. It is time to revitalize the transatlantic partnership. The potential and importance of addressing emerging technologies and force modernization will be necessary to assure strong NATO-EU institutions ready for future challenges, including hybrid and cyber threats, disinformation, and artificial intelligence.

There is a need to develop more coherent policies that address shared potential external threats. How do we as partners and allies deal with China and Russia, the former an emerging threat far from Europe and the latter posing quite different geopolitical as well as economic/energy challenges for the United States and Europe? With Iran and its potential for nuclear proliferation? With these challenges in mind, three working groups developed recommendations for future cooperation.

Group 1: The working group comprised of American experts discussed their expectations of Europe (particularly Germany) for the transatlantic partnership. The U.S. participants expressed their conviction that Europe/Germany must assume greater responsibility for the critical shared security threats to the allies. The priority desires for the transatlantic relationship were:

  1. The election of President Biden and the appointment of his foreign/security team opens a real opportunity for Europe and the United States to work together positively on critical issues. How the U.S. and its European allies recognize and act on this opportunity will determine if they ‘win big or lose big’.
  2. China will be an increasingly high priority for the new administration. Signs of partnership such as greater European/German participation in exercises, defense collaboration, clear signals of European/U.S. collaboration including on human rights and maritime tensions, as well as defense-related modernization will be necessary. This will not always be easy. There will often need to be European recognition for differing assessments of China between the U.S. executive and legislative branches that will increase the challenge of reaching coordinated policy decisions at times, as well as an agreed common strategy for the Indo-Pacific, an objective that should be high on the list of U.S./European priorities.
  3. Greater coherence in the transatlantic response to Russian provocations is also needed. Strengthened defense planning potentially with co-deployment in Central Europe would send signals to Russia of determined deterrence. Projects such as Nord Stream 2 must receive earlier and more in-depth consideration for their security implications. The recent sanctions imposed, for example, in reaction to the Russian treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been insufficient and, in the future, must prompt more serious response.
  4. For the United States, the willingness and ability of the Europeans/Germans to assume responsibility for filling current capability gaps and increasing readiness will be more critical than the size of defense budgets as a percentage of GDP. Most important will be increases in tangible defense capabilities that demonstrate European willingness to adequately address mutual threats.
  5. The United States will need to be confident that Europe could be the first responder in case of threats to the European continent. Germany, for instance, should consider a clear, consistent commitment that European security will not be left to the Americans. This would require improved force readiness and the acquisition of state-of-the-art defense equipment and technologies.

Group 2: The working group comprised of European experts summarized their expectations of the United States: Europe does not want to be abandoned by the United States, but it also does not want to be entrapped. Desirable priorities for the transatlantic relationship were:

  1. Both the European Union (Strategic Compass) and NATO (NATO 2030) are engaged in strategic reflection processes. The United States should do whatever possible to ensure that these result in greater alignment between the two organizations and a holistic strategic outlook, including Europe’s ability to act. This should include a reassessment of how burden-sharing is defined and measured, so that a country’s contribution to transatlantic security was not reduced solely to the two percent defense spending target at a time when post-COVID-19 fiscal strains could make continued spending increases unsustainable.
  2. The United States will conduct defense reviews at the start of the Biden administration: nuclear, global force posture, defense strategy, etc. It will be important for these reviews to consider the effect they would have on deterrence in Europe, especially the nuclear/conventional balance and the implications for arms control policy.
  3. It is important for the United States to remain engaged in Europe, where it can be essential in helping European countries reach decisions and bridge political gaps that will shape Europe’s future security and defense policy.
  4. As Europe takes on greater responsibility for its immediate neighborhood, the United States still has important interests there. A “transatlantic neighborhood policy” would help counter the growing geopolitical rivalry happening in Europe’s periphery as Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others attempt to exert influence. At the same time, the European experts highlighted issues that could complicate transatlantic security and defense cooperation. Two stood out:
    1. Secondary sanctions imposed by the U.S. executive branch and by Congress on European entities had a corrosive effect and threatened to undermine cooperation.
    2. Europe, especially Germany, was not prepared to be pulled by the United States into geopolitical conflicts, such as a possible military confrontation with China. It was important for the U.S. and Europe to have a strategic dialogue on China and develop a joint narrative that would delineate the areas of cooperation.

Group 3: The working group comprised of European and American experts, debated what shared U.S. and European priorities are most achievable. The desired priorities for the transatlantic relationship were:

  1. The European Union should present a coherent and positive image to Washington. The Biden administration is preoccupied with domestic issues and would have limited bandwidth to engage with a divided Europe. From how to approach China to how to approach Europe’s southern and eastern neighborhood, European cohesion is essential for effective transatlantic security cooperation.
  2. At the same time, the United States must be clear about its security guarantee to Europe. The United States should also support Europe as it moves toward a greater ability to act  and plans for its own future, as a stronger Europe leads to better burden-sharing.
  3. The United States and Europe should work together to support democratic institutions and civil societies at home, within the alliance, and throughout the world.
  4. On China, it will be difficult to come to a consensus on joint responses to some Chinese policies and activities until transatlantic partners come to a consolidated position. On other issues there is clear agreement within Europe and within the transatlantic relationship. The pandemic demonstrated that supply chains for some products such as medical supplies are a matter of national security. The United States and Europe should work together to diversify their supply chains for key medical and technological inputs and develop trusted alternative networks.