After Afghanistan: Can Europe regain its ‘independence’ from the USA?

EU defence ministers meeting in Slovenia, Spetember 2021 EU defence ministers meeting in Slovenia, Spetember 2021

By Ramzy Baroud

Suddenly, the idea put forth by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, late last year no longer seems so far-fetched or untenable after all. Following the hurried and chaotic US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, European countries now find themselves forced to consider the once-unthinkable: a gradual disengagement from US dominance.

When Macron asserted on 29 September 2020: ‘We, some countries more than others, gave up on our strategic independence by depending too much on American weapons systems,’ the context had little to do with Afghanistan. Instead, Europe was smarting from and angry at the bullying tactics employed by then-president of the USA, Donald Trump, and was considering alternatives to US leadership. Trump had treated NATO – and all of Europe, actually – with such disdain that it forced America's closest allies to rethink their foreign policy outlook and global military strategy altogether.

Even the accession of Joe Biden to the US presidency, and his assurances to Europe that ‘America is back’, did little to reassure European countries, which are justifiably afraid that US political instability may persist long after Biden’s term ends.

The shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan – without NATO members even being consulted or considered as the US signed and enacted a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in July 2020 – convinced Europe that, despite Trump’s electoral defeat, Washington has essentially remained the same: a self-centred ‘ally’.

Now that the USA and NATO have officially left Afghanistan, a debate is raging in Europe on many political platforms. The strongest indicators that Europe is ready to strike out on an independent foreign policy agenda and a European-centred military strategy became evident in the EU Defence Ministers’ meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia on 1 and 2 September.

In a comment that is increasingly representing a wider EU stance, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, articulated the bloc’s prevailing sentiment. ‘The experience from Afghanistan has shown that our inability to respond comes at a price,’ he said. ‘The EU must therefore strengthen its strategic autonomy by creating the first entry force capable of ensuring stability in the EU’s neighbourhood.’

Despite assurances that this ‘first entry force’ will not represent an alternative to the NATO, but will rather ‘complement’ its role, this new army is being understood by many as a stepping stone for Europe’s coveted independence from the US foreign policy agenda. 

Many of the statements by top European, including British, officials and analysts provide an insight and appreciation into the crisis underway in NATO. Remember that fifty-one NATO members and partner countries had rushed to aid the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, following the invocation of the common-defence clause, Article 5 of NATO’s Founding Treaty.

‘Nobody asked us whether it was a good idea to leave that country in such… a way,’ Johann Wadephul, a deputy caucus leader for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said, referring to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the absence of any coordination with Washington’s NATO allies.

Former British prime minister, Theresa May, questioned everything, including Europe’s blind allegiance to the US: ‘Was our intelligence really so poor? Was our understanding of the Afghan government so weak? Was our knowledge on the ground so inadequate? Or did we just think we had to follow the United States and on a wing and a prayer it would be all right on the night?’

Katharina Emschermann, the deputy director of the reputable Berlin-based Centre for International Security at the Hertie School, seemed to speak for many European analysts when she said: ‘Part of the discord that we’re seeing now is probably also rooted in the sense of unease about how things are going to go on in the future.’

This ‘unease’ refers to Europe’s traditional foreign policy, which has been hostage to the post-World War II Trans-Atlantic European-American partnership. This is no longer post-World War II Europe, however; Europe itself is changing, as is the world around it. Moreover, the Chinese economy has grown tremendously in recent years, and, from last year, it was Beijing, not Washington, that held the coveted position of being the EU’s largest trade partner.

Not only has Chinese economic – and, thus, political and military – clout grown exponentially, but Europe’s share of the global economy has also shrunk significantly, and not only because of the Brexit ordeal. According to British accounting firm PwC, ‘[I]n 1960, the countries that would form the E.U. made up a third of the global economy. By 2050, the bloc is projected to account for just 9 percent.’

The growing realisation among European states that they must engineer an eventual break from the USA is rooted in their legitimate fear that the EU’s interests no longer represent a top American priority. This is why many European countries continue to resist Washington’s ultimatums regarding China, which were particularly strident in the Trump era.

It was also Macron, while explaining the concept of the European army, who rejected the US agenda on the China. ‘We cannot accept to live in a bipolar world made up of the US and China,’ he argued

What was once viewed as Macron’s ‘controversial’ view is now mainstream thinking in Europe, especially as many EU policymakers feel disowned, if not betrayed, by the USA in Afghanistan. If this trajectory of mistrust continues, the first step towards the establishment of a European army could become an actuality in the near future. 

* Dr Ramzy Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Afro-Middle East Centre, and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His latest book  is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons.

Last modified on Monday, 13 September 2021 14:39

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