An indispensable (though not in itself sufficient) condition for any Atlantic Alliance capability project to work is that the United States contributes, with money, personnel, and equipment. Then the European allies can be convinced to put in their share.
For the United States, the point of the current Smart Defence initiative however is exactly the opposite: to convince the Europeans to solve the European capability problem, without American support. Why would Washington pay for, say, European air-to-air refuelling capacity of which it has an abundance already when its defence budget is undergoing a major cut? (even so ‘abundance’ remains an apt term to describe the United States’ budget when compared with the rest of the world). The aim is for Europeans to pay for a European capacity, not simply to ‘do more stuff together’, but to acquire their own enablers, thus allowing the United States’ capacity to be diverted elsewhere – that would be true burden-sharing. Therefore the prerequisite for the United States to safely shift their strategic focus from Europe’s neighbourhood to the Asia-Pacific region and redeploy their means accordingly, is European strategic autonomy, at least regionally.
Rather than an American threat, this strategic shift is a desire, which is partly dependent on Europe’s ability to defend itself. If Europe were seriously threatened, the United States would have no choice but to intervene because of its own vital interests. In that sense, America remains a European power. European capitals, all too well aware of this, ignore at their peril however that the United States might decide to make the point by withholding its military support for a crisis management operation of importance to Europeans without threatening vital interests – like Libya. Meanwhile, however, absent American money, European enthusiasm for Smart Defence began to ebb once concrete projects, and therefore budgets, had to be defined.
On the face of it, the United States is now more supportive than ever of European military co-operation. But old ways die hard and certain American attitudes continue in reality to undermine it.
Unlike the Cold War era, European allies no longer have the scale to generate significant new national capabilities, certainly not in the field of strategic enablers, hence the need for collective initiatives. Logically, a new collective level will have to be introduced into the Atlantic Alliance’s Defence Planning Process: instead of dealing only with individual allies, it will have to take into account collective targets and contributions by the European allies. The need for both European strategic autonomy and a collective European defence planning level: is not the evident conclusion that this level already exists – we call it the Common Security and Defence Policy?
Yet for the moment the United States appears reticent to put two and two together, for fear of losing the initiative and leadership over the process. The European autonomy which their new strategy requires cannot be achieved however without a platform for European co-ordination, for which the Atlantic Alliance is not now configured. How else can Europeans decide on capability priorities, which are a function of their interests and foreign policy priorities – which if and when they define them collectively they do so through the European Union?
In short, the natural American desire to steer everything through a twenty-eight strong Atlantic Alliance – because it allows Washington to steer the decisions of the Europeans – now stands in the way of the United States’ strategy.