The US Should Support a Stronger EU to Defend Against China

September 3, 2021 Updated: September 6, 2021


The failure to build democracy in Afghanistan, and the resulting withdrawal of U.S. forces, is causing concern in Europe about how much the continent can rely on its long-time ally, the United States.

When push comes to shove—such as Ukraine when Putin invaded, Taiwan, which the United States does not recognize as a state, and the Philippines, whose maritime territory China is gradually stealing—the United States has failed its allies.

In response, Europeans such as French President Emmanuel Macron, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and the European Union’s Thierry Breton, are right to renew calls for a stronger and more coordinated EU military structure. Currently, the EU has only 3,000 troops divided into two national battle groups for rapid deployment. In 1999, the EU agreed to build a joint capability to deploy up to 60,000 troops overseas within 60 days. That plan should be renewed and accelerated.

Macron and Rutte met on Aug. 31, the withdrawal deadline from Afghanistan, after which France and the Netherlands “emphasized the need for the EU to develop ‘strategic autonomy’ on economic and military fronts, while continuing close co-operation with NATO,” according to the Financial Times. Their joint statement recognized “that Europe must prove resilient and capable of taking more responsibility for its security and defense by allocating the resources necessary for this aim.”

Breton told the Times that a common EU defense is “no longer optional” after the European Union “learned the hard way” in Afghanistan about the need to build up its defense capabilities and “attributes of hard power.”

Some EU states, and Britain, had begged President Biden to extend the withdrawal deadline, but to no avail. They were bereft of the ability to remain at the Kabul airport without the unique forward deployment capabilities of the United States.

European forces do not have the necessary equipment for such long-distance deployments, having prioritized social spending and accepted a lesser military function only capable of augmenting U.S. expeditionary forces. This makes the United States the de facto leader of NATO.

The European Union is an economic, but not military, superpower. The other two economic superpowers are the United States and China. By GDP purchasing power parity (how many goods, like bread, steel, and ships, that GDP buys), China blew past the United States and European Union in 2017.

China’s superpower economy has enabled it to become a military superpower. That military, along with China’s greater risk tolerance, now threatens to outpace the United States in Asia. The U.S. Navy is slowly being edged out of Asia, including not only in Afghanistan, but the South China Sea. That body of water is as big as India. China has not only taken maritime territory, without consequence, from the Philippines, but promulgated a new maritime law to force commercial and military shipping through it to comply with Chinese law, as if it were a Chinese lake. China is attempting to apply this law to U.S. vessels in international waters.

Chinese aircraft carrier
China’s operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning (front), sailing with other ships during a drill at sea on April 2018. A flotilla of Chinese naval vessels held a “live combat drill” in the East China Sea—as state media reported on April 23, 2018—the latest show of force by Beijing’s burgeoning navy in disputed waters that have riled neighbors. (AFP via Getty Images)

Europe is the only other superpower economy, and thus the only other power with a chance of becoming a military superpower. Thus, it is one of the only hopes for reversing the growing power imbalance between the United States and China. Together, the United States and Europe could deter China militarily. That deterrence could last indefinitely, giving China the chance to democratize over time.

This requires not only more European military spending, but would be assisted by an independent EU military that can rapidly forward-deploy forces where the United States is failing. In some cases, this will not only require new European military capabilities, but a new European will to defend democracy on a global scale, for example in Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Philippines, and Taiwan. It also means an EU that can defend itself and global democracy if the worst were to occur in the United States: The country’s military weakens significantly or experiences adverse regime change.

However, trusting the military power of constituent national armies to Brussels will require corrections to illiberal influences in Europe, especially those emanating from countries like Hungary, Greece, Poland, and Croatia, which have vetoed European initiatives meant to strengthen cohesion and defend against threats like China and Russia. Germany’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, and the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, both rightly support abolishing the member state veto on EU foreign policy matters.

The United States need not fear a militarily stronger and more united Europe. America and the EU, as democracies, will always be natural allies. History shows that democracies almost never go to war with each other.

And, parallel EU structures to NATO will not “end up draining resources and personnel without adding to Europe’s security,” as some American analysts argue. An independent and powerful EU military will give Europeans skin in the global game and encourage them to see global defense as their responsibility, leading to an increase in European defense spending, and a welcome security redundancy in military matters. A layered defense of global democracies is absolutely necessary, in case one of the layers fails. A stronger EU military will relieve a costly and overstretched U.S. military posture that simultaneously defends against China, Russia, and global terrorism.

Former President Obama initiated the “pivot to Asia,” former President Trump threatened to leave NATO if Europeans didn’t step up their defense spending, and President Biden allegedly failed to consult Europeans on the details of the Afghanistan withdrawal. It took three U.S. presidents, in succession, to make it crystal clear: America needs more help in defending democracies globally, and if Europe does not step up to the plate, global instability will result.

“We understand our allies will be much more focused on China, Asia maybe,” Breton told the Times. “We learned the hard way, including with what happened in Afghanistan, that one way or the other we have to enhance our global solidarity of defense.”

The EU military will not be a competitor to NATO, but a stronger and more equal alliance member than its component parts are now. It will encourage democracies to expand their security umbrellas globally, and include countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Ukraine, in their defense structures. A strengthened and globalized NATO is needed as a defense against China, Russia, and terrorism.

NATO Ukraine
NATO warships are in battle formation during Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers, in the Black Sea, on July 9, 2021. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo)

The next small step in building the EU military is to double its expeditionary troops, along with the planes and ships to support them, to at least 6,000 troops. A senior EU commission official told the Times, “Look at the number of US troops to secure Kabul airport: around 5,000. Look at the number of troops that the French have in Operation Barkhane [in the Sahel of Africa]: 5,000-6,000 people. This is a number that can make a big difference in a number of different situations.”

Concerns by Poland and the Baltic states that a stronger EU military will push away the American defense of Europe are reasonable but can be addressed through an exchange of tripwire forces. The United States should agree to retain its frontline troops in Europe against Russia, in exchange for a European complement to American troops in frontline states in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea. Likewise, Japan and South Korea should commit to the defense of Europe by providing troops to a common European defense. The United States and Europe should both put troops on the ground in Taiwan for its defense.

Global democracies must demonstrate their unity through a networked defense in the face of increasing threats from China, Russia, and terrorism, or risk losing it all by succumbing to illiberal divide-and-conquer strategies.

This risk is demonstrated by Britain’s decline and breakup. What was once a global empire that sought democracy and the free movement of people within its borders, is now through secession a disaggregation of states, relatively easily picked off by growing Chinese economic and diplomatic influence in Southeast Asia and Africa. Liberal democracies are weaker, when they are divided and thereby susceptible to the political influence that attends China’s illiberal and globalized investment and trade.

Great Britain even finds it difficult to retain many of its citizens in Scotland, who want to secede because of Britain’s break with the EU. A newly independent Scotland would likely join the EU and pressure Britain to remove its military bases, including its nuclear submarine bases.

For cost reasons, British submarines might then have to base in the U.S. state of Georgia, which would be a blow to British sovereignty. In all but name, Britain would be dependent for its nuclear deterrent on America. This weakens global democracies, by making England easier to pick off. Therefore, it is a mistake to entertain any further non-strategic plans for secession. Secession in democracy leads to weakness.

A balance is required that should allow for devolution of social issues in democracies, while also having highly coordinated foreign and defense policies. At the same time, democracies must be independent when necessary, for example, to provide credible nuclear deterrence and layers of defense in case one ally fails.

Even as some in Scotland agitate to secede, Britain is at least allying more closely with other democracies, including militarily. The historically close U.S.-UK alliance is still the strongest that either country has, despite tensions between London and Washington over the Afghanistan withdrawal. The combined UK-France joint expeditionary force, recently established at 10,000 troops, is another step in the right direction.

A stronger and more unified UK, like a stronger and more unified European Union and the United States, will be an asset in the defense of global democracies. Secessionary pressures, especially sub-national pressures, should be resisted or refused, as they tend to weaken democratic nation-states.

At the same time, democratic nation-states should build military strength that can operate independently, far from their shores, and as part of a unified alliance system. Major democratic nation-states, including not only those that are already nuclear, but the EU, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan, should have their own independent nuclear deterrents. The closer a democracy is to a belligerent autocracy, such as China and Russia, the more critical is its independent nuclear deterrent in affording it protection. In the case of nuclear deterrence, no ally can be fully relied upon, as the costs of nuclear war are far too great. Thus the only credible deterrent in the nuclear age is an independent nuclear deterrent.

Democracies should interleave their command structures for operational deployments, as in Afghanistan and South Korea, and focus on two main military structures for a layered defense of global democracies: the U.S. military, and an EU military, both of which are needed for a strong and layered defense against illiberal threats emanating from Beijing, Moscow, and terrorists globally. Countries like Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Ukraine, and Georgia, should be brought into the U.S.-EU alliance structure through their accession to NATO.

Only through unity and interoperability, while maintaining independence for emergencies, can global democracies effectively defend themselves against the world’s biggest threats.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His latest books are “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (2021) and “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea" (2018).