Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and the SubStack blog Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Four years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron, newly arrived in office, proposed a European Defense Force – a counterweight to a NATO alliance he and increasingly other EU leaders feared was being effectively held hostage by the United States and especially Donald Trump.
The result at the time was a rupture between Trump and Macron, followed by the French leader’s rapprochement with then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Still, Macron’s idea went no further. Until now.
On Thursday, it will come to fruition. With Macron in the driver’s seat as France holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, the vehicle is called the “Strategic Compass.” This blueprint for Europe’s security strategy, ratified Monday by the bloc’s defense ministers, sets out a context and concept in the strongest, even belligerent language. “We are adopting this,” the report begins, “at a time when we witness the return of war in Europe” – with these words boldfaced.
It continues by warning that: “Russia’s war of aggression constitutes a tectonic shift in European history. The EU is more united than ever in the face of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine.”
The document then goes on to recite the broad scope of challenges to the security of Europe, but equally in regions where Europe has profound interests from the Middle East and Gulf region across Africa to the Asia Pacific region, even Latin America. Many of these challenges are traced to “increasing foreign interferences” with their roots in the Kremlin.
To cope with all of this, Europe now intends to act, in unison and with determination, to build a powerful military-industrial structure that can spring into action whenever and wherever the collective or even individual interests may be threatened.
Until now, Europe’s defense relied on a curious mix of NATO power – for the nations in the alliance – to national armies of every conceivable level of competence and funding. All these report, largely, to a national commander. Now, under the Strategic Compass, there will be a single unified command. There is also anticipated to be a close partnership with NATO, the United Nations and the G-7 that includes Canada and Japan, according to the blueprint. All EU nations, NATO and non-NATO alike, will be part of the Strategic Compass.
While Ukraine is not a member of the EU, though it is an aspirant, there is nothing in the Strategic Compass that in theory – unlike NATO – would bar any such European armed forces from acting, should the bloc believe its security is being challenged.
As for the immediate crisis in Ukraine however, it would likely not result in direct armed intervention by any European forces – especially since it could take a year or more for the mechanism to be established even after its ratification this week.
That said, this year Europe will agree on “operational scenarios” for a 5,000-member “EU Rapid Deployment Capacity” that will begin “regular live exercises,” with full deployment by 2025, according to the report. All branches of the military of member countries – land, air, sea and civilian defense – will be mobilized and integrated into these efforts, it added.
None of this can be good news for Russian President Vladimir Putin. His hope was that an invasion of Ukraine would be met with discordant reactions – dividing large nations from small, East from West and those with deep reliance on trade with Russia and access to its natural resources, especially oil and gas, from those more capable of standing alone. And above all, that the war would divide the United States from Europe.
But as the Security Compass declares, again in boldface emphasis: “We are showing an unprecedented resolve to uphold the principles of the UN Charter and restore peace in Europe together with our partners.”
With the drafting process beginning two years ago and accelerating into today’s fifth and final draft, ballooning along the way from reportedly 28 pages to 47 pages, it’s now become part of a broader pattern of making Putin pay. And a strong, united Europe with the military muscle to back it up is likely more than enough payment.
It seems likely that the Security Compass will fill some critical holes in Europe’s overall ability to defend itself – and the broad, often disparate interests of its 27-member nations. A handful of these, including Cyprus, Finland and Malta, are not in NATO and unlikely to be welcomed into the organization in the foreseeable future.
The broader fear among many NATO-member nations that they could be drawn into a war not of their own choosing, is one that does not find its place in the Strategic Compass document. Meanwhile, the existence of a provision in the NATO treaty holds an attack on one member is an attack on all, and every member could be required to respond.
Indeed, many NATO member nations worry that any expansion of the alliance, particularly to smaller nations bordering Russia – Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova in particular – could mean all are sucked into a wider war.
At the same time, the existence of a European-deployed military force could represent a standard by which to measure NATO and its defense capacities. Or certainly, calibrate Europe’s defense relations with the United States. Where and how quickly, for instance, could this European force spring into action – while a more cumbersome NATO, perhaps at the mercy of the US, its dominant member, might hesitate.
As President Macron told reporters last week as he unveiled his platform for reelection next month, he was determined “to try to make our country a more independent nation in a stronger Europe.”
Third and perhaps most importantly – for many NATO and non-NATO nations alike – the Security Compass would effectively insulate the continent from the vicissitudes and inconsistencies of the American political system.
Amid Putin’s catastrophic and increasingly barbaric invasion of Ukraine, the fear that Donald Trump and his temper tantrums over NATO’s defense spending may not be permanently in the rearview mirror has certainly strengthened the case for a European army to call one’s own.
What should be the response of NATO and especially the United States to what could be seen as a direct challenge to their 73-year maintenance of peace in Europe? Unquestioned and unquestionable support and encouragement of the foundations of the Strategic Compass.
It’s clear that since NATO power and American diplomacy failed to intimidate Russia from launching, now prolonging and intensifying, the largest military attack on the European continent since the Second World War, it’s time to bring other actors to the table.
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Joe Biden has a unique opportunity to project America’s support this week as he visits Europe’s leaders who are slated to approve the Strategic Compass on their two-day summit meeting beginning Thursday.
Any wavering in that support can only be seen by Vladimir Putin and other challengers to the world order as a victory to be seized and exploited. This is the time to present a united front in whatever form it might take against autocracy and aggression now and in the future.