From an American perspective, the EU is often seen as both a problem and an opportunity. An incoming Trump administration will no doubt view cooperation between the EU and NATO positively only if it benefits American security. If burden sharing is ineffective, the US may form informal coalitions outside institutional frameworks. The Heritage Foundation and other think tanks are developing plans to prioritize American interests and leverage bilateral relationships with European states. The US remains, however, dependent on international cooperation, including trade with Europe and China. The US has a predominant role in European security, but disengaging would diminish its leverage. The importance of US-European non-military security cooperation was highlighted after 9/11. In contrast the US has historically viewed the importance of a military security role for the EU as low, preferring to lead in NATO or informal coalitions. The US thus long discouraged the development of an EU security and defense policy. However, over time, the US has realized the need for Europe and has supported European capabilities at least in areas not vital to American interests.

“You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Europe should contribute to US security and prosperity. But Europe may be seen as a problem if the EU tends to develop its own security policy that contradicts or competes with American interests. For a potential incoming Trump administration, cooperation between the EU and NATO may be perceived as playing a positive role only if it remains a mechanism to leverage European investment in support of American security. If this mechanism proves ineffective in terms of burden sharing, as it has been for many years after the Cold War, might respond forcefully given increased expectations in Washington of what Europeans actually are able to do. Such a development is likely to result in the creation of another set of informal coalitions of the willing outside institutional frameworks, as seen in Iraq and elsewhere.

Plans are now being developed by the Heritage Foundation in coalition with staffers from a significant number of other think tanks, acting in support of a second Trump administration. For them, it seems to be a matter of putting America first and catering to American vital interests, where the notion of partnership is constantly viewed through the prism of evaluating the net value for the US of different types of cooperative relationships. Their vision of American relations with Europe seems to be based on a transactional approach, seeking to maximize American leverage bilaterally with a number of European states. Multilateral formats such as the EU and even NATO play a limited role in this concept, not to mention bilateral US-EU negotiations. The diplomatic recognition of the EU by the US may once again be questioned. This clearly is a vision that goes beyond the traditional US interest in leveraging European burden sharing: It is now stated more or less openly that to the extent the US is asked to become involved in Europe, Europeans should pay. This is a bargaining position, of course, which, however, denotes a fundamental conviction that American interests in a strong Europe in themselves are not vital. In view of the internal challenges to security in addition to the Chinese challenge to US primacy, this may seem to be a justified assessment in the perceptions of many American voters.

In the analysis of the prospects for future EU-NATO cooperation, it is therefore important not to take shortcuts and disregard overall US and European interests. Both the EU and NATO are as institutional frameworks more often than not seen as instruments to promote national interests.

The US is Less Dependent on International Cooperation than Europe – But Still Very Dependent

One of the first questions that arises is the question of the importance of international cooperation at large for the most important actors concerned, starting with the United States of America. This is, of course, essentially a question of political perceptions but is also closely related to objective realities measurable by statistics. In this context, the level of international dependencies, both in terms of overall trade statistics and necessary conditions for economic life, seems to be a relevant indicator. It is generally argued, and seems plausible, that the US is more self-sufficient than Europe but still very dependent on a number of raw materials, etcetera.

Culturally, Americans could be seen as more inward-looking than Europeans but still with fundamental ties to their heritage with a number of European and other cultures. In this context, Europe stands out as being closer to the US than the Western Hemisphere in general, possibly with the exception of Canada.

Also, it may not be well known to a majority of Americans, but Europe remains of vital importance to US trade and investments – as does obviously China.

The Role of Security in US-European Relations

If one then takes another step and zooms in on the role of security in US-European relations, several observations seem pertinent.

First of all, clearly, the US, since the Second World War, has developed a predominant role in European security, which it also uses to maximize its overall power over Europe and European states. This power is continuously developed in close cooperation with important European actors, such as the UK, in order to safeguard generic transatlantic economic and cultural interests. Not seldom is the argument put forward from the American side: “Since we are so important for your security, you need to pay more than us,” for instance in terms of international economic assistance. The expression “we tell you pay” has been heard more than once in US-European negotiations. However, this also obviously means that if America were to disengage from European security, much of that leverage would disappear, which might hurt fundamental American interests.

The US has also – although not always successfully – been able to mobilize European support for American security interests. Wars countering Russian aggression involving US armed forces would, in the first phase, have to be fought in Europe rather than on American soil and would not primarily cost American lives – the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was a partial exception to the rule. Fundamentally, such wars would be fought based on American strategic priorities.

An America disengaging from European security would also lose many of these benefits. In this context, it is often forgotten that it is possible and has been possible to construct coalitions of the willing in a number of out-of-area conflicts, but such conditions become incredibly more effective if there is well-trained and developed interoperability between forces over a long period of time.

The author is former ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.
This text is previously published by Consilio International.