This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power, examining the forces shaping the country’s global standing. Read more here.
ON AUGUST 31ST, President Joe Biden told Americans that he took full responsibility for both the decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and the way it was carried out. For Europeans, however, that was not the essential issue. It was, rather, his affirmation that America would from now on use force only to defend its vital interests. This, far more than the defeat in Afghanistan, marks a turning point in international relations.
Mr Biden’s statement, confirming similar words and actions by Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in effect concludes the period that began in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and marked the triumph of the West. Only one superpower remained; only one model of society, that of liberal democracy, which would gradually spread to the whole world—or so it was assumed. The embodiment of this Western hubris, the United States, now renounces the messianic aspirations that drove it to Baghdad and Kabul. The empire is tired; its soldiers are returning home.
To be sure, some countries stood up in opposition to American hegemony and some societies have refused to let others decide their welfare against their will. When I represented France at the United Nations in 2009-14, I could see the increasing attraction of authoritarian solutions for the developing world. Suddenly the West was on the defensive, facing aggressive challenges to democracy and human rights.
In this context, Europeans might seem to be the big losers in the period that lies ahead. Everything they hold dear is being blithely trampled upon by one side or the other: international law on their own continent with Russia’s annexation of Crimea; free trade with China’s unfair practices and America’s tough protectionist stance; human rights with the widespread rise in authoritarianism. The world seems more of a jungle than ever, from which the American global policeman is quietly tiptoeing away.
Europeans must adapt to this harsh reality. They might be tempted to retreat to their haven of freedom and prosperity. This is clearly the dream cherished by the Germans, Scandinavians and others. However some, particularly the French, have concluded that Europeans should finally equip themselves with the tools needed for “strategic autonomy”, which France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has called for. At a time when Ukraine, Syria, Libya and north Africa’s Sahel region—that is, Europe’s closest neighbours—are ablaze and America is losing interest, the European Union should be capable of dealing with these crises itself, including militarily.
This would certainly reignite arguments over the respective roles of NATO and the EU. Eastern European countries are subject to constant Russian provocation, be it militarily in Ukraine or at sea and in the skies over the Baltic. Through his actions and declarations, Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has become the best justification for NATO’s existence. Western European countries still want the alliance, since it lets them pay the bare minimum for their defence: 1.5% of GDP for Germany, 1.4% for Italy, 1% for Spain. France pays 2%. The idea of strategic autonomy would require a financial commitment that none of our partners is willing to make.
Hence despite the debacle in Afghanistan, Europeans are likely to grumble but ultimately reaffirm their interest in NATO, enshrining the American security guarantee it grants to allies. During my time at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I saw how French proposals to promote European defence, however modest, invariably met mistrust and often opposition from our European partners, who regarded it as a potential substitute for NATO—something they certainly do not want. The result of our efforts thus were modest, more symbolic than substantial. I doubt this will change.
That said, must we really revive the dispute over European strategic autonomy? If there is one lesson to be learned from the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from France’s impasse in the Sahel (where its troops battle jihadists in Mali and neighbouring countries), it is how limited the use of force is in dealing with the crises of our time.
Although an increase in the armed forces of some EU members is necessary, most of the threats to the security of our continent are not military in nature, whether these are international migration, climate change, terrorism, cybersecurity, organised crime, pandemics or global poverty. Nor are future challenges military-related either, such as the economic rivalry with China or the technological revolution, from cryptocurrencies to artificial intelligence.
Moreover the EU already has the means to confront these challenges: it is a financial, regulatory, commercial and technological superpower; it distributes nearly 60% of global development aid. For these sorts of issues, what is required is political will rather than military autonomy; effective diplomacy rather than an army.
I remember at the United Nations how the European Commission would refuse to act when countries receiving massive EU aid systematically opposed EU requests. Today’s world no longer allows such angelic naivety. The union must use its power in a deliberate, consistent and purposeful way. The Lisbon Treaty signed in 2007 gave the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy the status of a vice-president of the commission, in the hope that they would have the authority to harness all the tools the EU has globally. But this never happened. In this area, the commission continues to work in silos.
Rather than engaging in a theological debate about the creation of a European army, which might happen at some stage but is not a priority today, what the EU really needs is a genuinely integrated foreign policy so that European diplomats can do more and preach less. The EU is a political power. It must behave like one.
On most of these issues, a reinvigorated European Union will be able to work with the United States to promote a world order based on common values and interests. When authoritarian solutions attract increasing support not just in the wider international arena but in Western countries, Americans and Europeans need to be closer than ever. It calls for a United States that is open to equal co-operation with Europe, and an EU that is ready to assume the full responsibilities of power.
Gérard Araud was France’s ambassador to the United States in 2014-19 and earlier, its permanent representative to the United Nations, among other diplomatic roles.