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With its concept of strategic autonomy, the EU risks triggering a new Cold War. In the context of globalisation and digitisation, it should focus on strategic interdependence instead. Annegret Bendiek provides a counterpoint to Paul Timmers on strategic autonomy and cybersecurity.

Europe’s foreign and security policy framework has changed fundamentally since Donald Trump took office. With the US’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, declaration that NATO was “obsolete”, unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and termination of the nuclear agreement with Iran, the political atmosphere in EU-US talks has noticeably cooled when it comes to upholding multilateral agreements. Meanwhile cooperation on a technical level in counter-terrorism and cybersecurity is still vital. Punitive US tariffs on European steel and aluminium products and the EU’s countermeasures have marked another low point in transatlantic relations. Relations with Russia are also strained. NATO has just carried out its largest military manoeuvre since the end of the East-West conflict. Added to this are the currently unpredictable consequences of Brexit for European foreign, security and defence policy.

Europe’s striving for strategic autonomy, as postulated in the EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy in 2016, is therefore an understandable aspiration, at least at first glance. It is Europe’s reaction to its dwindling confidence in the stability of the multilateral world order and the Western community of values, and marks a turn away from the idea of an unconditional partnership with the USA. As comprehensible as this aspiration may be, it is also illusory: the EU does not currently have the resources to act independently on the global stage, nor is it likely that member states will bring themselves to take the necessary steps in the medium term. A second round of 17 arms and defence policy projects of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) are far from constituting a European army. The EU’s member states do not have a common strategic vision vis-à-vis the USA, Russia or China, let alone a concerted idea of who might acquire nuclear weapons in the medium term or how these should be controlled, and within which European structures. It is therefore hardly surprising that the concept of strategic autonomy is just as controversial among the member states. It competes, especially in the eyes of Central and Eastern European states, with the close links between the European and North American pillars of Western security policy and, from several members’ point of view, threatens to cast doubt on NATO, which they regard as essential to their survival.

Strategic Autonomy Revives Old Patterns of Confrontation 

The concept of strategic autonomy also threatens to initiate a normative weight shift: until now, the EU has primarily pursued its liberal aspiration to market integration and global economic integration and interdependence. This was based on the idea of a converging and interdependent world, in which conflicts are settled cooperatively or at least within the framework of international law. However, initial action plans and initiatives to shape the Global Strategy are at odds with this idea: they focus on isolation, security and territorial defence, thus giving foreign, security and defence policy priority over other policy areas. From this perspective, “interdependence is seen as a weapon” to protect oneself from. Juan Zarate, former advisor to George W. Bush and architect of the Iran sanctions, summed up this way of thinking: “Geopolitics is now a game best played with financial and commercial weapons”. If this “realist” tradition of thought gains traction in Europe, it is likely to revive old patterns of confrontation and, in the process, arms races as well.

In its efforts to become less vulnerable to external risks and threats, Europe should not make the mistake of promoting precisely what it intends to prevent. Not deterrence, but confidence- and security-building measures and understanding, must remain its means of choice. Against this backdrop, an appropriate strategic goal is not autonomy but strategic interdependence.

Strategic Integration Enables Cooperative Problem Management

What does this mean? Strategic interdependence recognises that, in the context of globalisation and digitisation, reality is complex. According to this perspective, security is not differentiation from the Other or part of the framework of classical friend/foe thinking in the sense of Carl Schmidt, but the result of a complex process of integration in trade, development, climate, digitisation or migration. In terms of a wider understanding of security, all the policy fields in which nation states on their own are no longer effective but reach their limits must be managed together. Cooperative problem management is the appropriate instrument for modern international politics. To contain conflicts institutionally and develop overarching problem solutions when needed independently of the USA, the existing transatlantic security architecture will need to be supplemented by multi-stakeholder networks with relevant regional organisations, such as the OSCE, the NATO-Russia Council, the Nordic and Eastern Partnerships, the African Union and the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership.

European integration is the best example of how dialogue, multi-perspectivity and transnational integration have brought peace and stability to Europe. It was not emphasising the nation state but surmounting it that made the longest period of peace in the history of Europe possible. There are good reasons to believe that this experience can also be applied to creating security in a global context. All the sceptics who think that in a world of carnivores there is room only for carnivores, as the former German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel once put it, should remember that the largest, strongest and most long-lived of all living creatures are still vegetarians.

This article was originally published by the SWP (Stiftung für Wissenschaft und Forschung). The text has been translated into English by Tom Genrich.

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