The Afghanistan Withdrawal’s Impact on the EU’s Strategic Autonomy

The Afghanistan Withdrawal’s Impact on the EU’s Strategic Autonomy

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan throws the NATO alliance’s sustainability into a state of flux.  European policymakers may pursue a more deliberate course toward strategic autonomy if they determine that America is no longer a credible partner. Some quarters consider independent European security to be an impractical overcorrection given Europe’s capability deficiencies. The withdrawal from Afghanistan provides the opportunity for transatlantic policymakers to reassess NATO’s strategic priorities. 

Overview of Prior EU Bureaucratic Actions

The vestiges of the Trump administration’s “America first” foreign policy force Europe to consider more autonomous defense initiatives. The EU lacks the military capabilities required to confront mounting geo-strategic concerns. Limited defense budgets increase Europe’s reliance on US expenditures, and uneven national allocations to NATO threaten the political viability of the alliance. 

To rectify strategic shortcomings, the EU introduced the European Defense Fund (EDF). The EDF establishes the industrial foundation required for a resilient European defense program. The EU’s 2016 Global Strategy report included the EDF. The strategy sought to integrate Europe’s foreign policy and allocate resources toward external security threats.

In 2018, the EU established The Capability Development Plan (CDP) to “address long-term security and defense challenges”.  The CDP encourages supranational cooperation and promotes capability cohesion with NATO.  In the midst of COVID’s economic disruption, bridging the capability gap remains an aspirational strategic objective. The notional budgetary allocations to the EDF and CDP (proposed within EU defense and security briefs prior to 2020) may decrease to account for the fiscal and political uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

Military Realities

Beyond the broad, rather philosophical debate surrounding European strategic autonomy, the Afghanistan imbroglio reveals military deficiencies that are unique to the EU. The disparity in military expenditures across Western states may prove unsustainable as geostrategic competition intensifies.  Inadequate defense budgets preceded the capability deficiencies that plagued NATO’s European member states in Afghanistan.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, retired British General Richard Barrons states that without the US, “NATO is a very limited concept and very limited force”.  As the future strategic risks and threat perceptions of Europe and the US diverge, Europe will be responsible for defending its own interests. A shift toward a more autonomous European foreign policy will include improving the ability of the EU to intervene and protect their strategic priorities.

Russian belligerence in Eastern Europe adds a measure of urgency to the question of strategic autonomy.  The lingering ambiguity regarding US willingness to fulfill Article V commitments remains a driver of EU security policy initiatives. NATO-Russia force balance improvements on NATO’s eastern flank will be a strategic priority as Russia calculates the cost of future belligerence. Improving force readiness and maintaining operative-forward deployment positions in Eastern Europe may support European defense autonomy and promote capability cohesion within NATO. 

Political Implications

Emmanuel Macron continues to advance his conception of ‘European Sovereignty’.  In a February interview with the Financial Times, Macron said that he defends strategic autonomy “not because I am against NATO or because I doubt our American friends…but because I think we need a fair sharing of the burden and Europe cannot delegate the protection of its neighborhood to the USA.”

Angela Merkel agrees that Europe must “take [its] fate into [its] own hands”.  Macron faces reelection with an approval rating hovering around 40% and Merkel steps down as chancellor in September.  Therefore, transitional stability is a reasonable concern. Policy continuity among the EU’s principal members may determine the efficacy of Europe’s independent security agenda.

The resurgence of the ‘America First’ mentality is a threat to transatlantic defense cooperation. Hardline voters in Republican strongholds may determine the extent to which US foreign policy reflects isolationist doctrine. A 2024 general election triumph by a viable Republican candidate might call into question America’s commitment to Article V and to NATO itself.

Public opinion may determine how, and to what degree, European policymakers pursue strategic autonomy through increased budgetary expenditures. Though 61% of Europeans hold a favorable opinion of NATO, all but five member states oppose, in the majority, defending a NATO ally should Russia attack.  Such polling data suggests an overreliance on US protection, the aggregate fragility of Article V commitments, and the necessity of a more independent European security apparatus. 


Theresa May, while addressing Parliament, framed the question of European strategic autonomy, “What does [the Afghanistan pullout] say about us as a country? What does it say about NATO, if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision by the U.S.?”.  Forward-facing policy proposals will address the capability disparities within NATO and without it. Public opinion and the political will of elites to increase military expenditures against possible political headwinds determines, in part, the ultimate impact of such initiatives.

A more functional independent European security may inoculate the EU against the inherent uncertainty of quadrennial US presidential transitions. The volatility of US domestic politics will contribute to European skepticism regarding US commitment to the collective defense provision of the NATO charter.  Transatlantic incredulity will introduce urgency into policy planning and may provide political justification for increased defense spending.

The Afghanistan pullout has renewed calls to improve EU intervention capabilities. France and Germany have proposed the creation of an “initial entry force”. The conceptual force includes 5,000 troops supported by aircraft and ships. Such an EU rapid-reaction force, employed in concert with increased global development expenditures, may provide stability for struggling democracies abroad. Pursuing a balanced, synergistic combination of hard and soft power projection will make the EU a more capable NATO partner and a more formidable international actor.

US-Russia-China trilateral relations will play a large role in shaping the transatlantic alliance in the medium and long-term. In the short term, while US and EU threat perceptions regarding Russia and China differ, regional NATO cooperation in the Middle East will be a necessity. It is unclear what the nature of Russian and Chinese influence will look like on the ground, but the willingness of the two powers to engage with the Taliban is telling. The urgency with which NATO and the EU respond to these developments may determine the scale of imminent irregular migration crises.

In a September 1st guest essay for the New York Times, Josep Borrell Fontelles (the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy) underscores the instructive nature of the Afghanistan withdrawal. He writes that “Some events catalyze history: The Afghanistan debacle is one of them.” Whether Europe will pursue more efficacious security policies remains unclear. 

Categories: Europe, Security

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