European Autonomy is a dream

11 juli 2023Leestijd: 7 minuten
V.L.N.R. VON DER LEYEN, SUNAK, BIDEN, SCHOLZ. FOTO: Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street / eyevine

The EU is pursuing strategic autonomy, again. It is a dream, writes Roberta N. Haar. 

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I was asked recently to give a presentation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the topic Open Strategic Autonomy (OSA).  Although the concept of European Strategic Autonomy is very clear to me and one that I have written about in previous EW columns, the open specification needed further clarification for me.  What exactly is meant by Open Strategic Autonomy and why are Dutch diplomats interested to learn more about it?

Guarding the Gates

I believe that one of the students that I am advising at Maastricht University has a good idea.  Her bachelor thesis is entitled: “Guarding the Gates: An Analysis of Dutch Export Controls on Semiconductor Technology Amidst Geopolitical Tensions.” Her topic starts with the realization that the global supply chain of semiconductors is enmeshed within the current geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China.  These tensions leave the Netherlands, one of the key players in the semiconductor industry with lucrative ties to China, while at the same time being one of America’s closest allies, caught in the middle of a geopolitical struggle.  So far, the Dutch have sided with the Americans.

In 2019, the previous American administration pressured the Dutch government to ban the sale of a specific type of chip making machine to China as part of a larger strategy to cut off the supply of advanced chips to China. Last October, the Biden administration announced new measures related to this ban on advanced microchip printing equipment made by ASML, which the Dutch government agreed to follow. Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra recently announced that the final Dutch text that would be in line with the U.S.-engineered ban would come out “likely before the summer.”

Dutch-American divergence

But, given the economic impact that ASML has on the Dutch economy overall combined with the specter of competition that the Biden’s administration recent raft of subsidies in the chip making sector introduces, Dutch continued support is not guaranteed.  Hoekstra hints to differences when he adamantly says that the Dutch ban will not affect relations with China.  More evidence of differences between the U.S. and the Netherlands emerges with the fact that Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang agreed to meet with Hoekstra while at the same time Chinese officials refused to schedule a meeting between American and Chinese defense ministers at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, which is Asia’s biggest annual security conference.

That relations are open between the Dutch and the Chinese is furthered evidenced by Beijing’s invitation to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to visit while at the same time delaying a reschedule of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Beijing trip or to confirm China visits by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

OSA rhymes with ESA

Undoubtedly, the Dutch government has an interest in not taking sides in the technology competition between the U.S. and China. The U.S.-China competition in semiconductors and other technologies affects the Dutch, Europeans and other actors on the international stage in ways that go beyond traditional aspects of strategic autonomy in the context of transatlantic relations.  The European Commission, in February 2021, made a clear articulation of open autonomy as part of a Trade Policy Review, which highlighted the significance of free and fair trade, and the importance of ensuring that markets remain accessible and competitive for European businesses and their international counterparts.

However, if we take an historic view, OSA would seem to be the latest variant of Europeans pushing back when they are unhappy in their relationship with the United States. Unhappiness linked to talk of European autonomy in transatlantic relations can be traced back to 1956, when Charles De Gaulle sought to build-up Europe as a counterweight to America after U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower forced French and British troop to withdraw from the Suez Canal. Shortly after this episode, the European Economic Community (EEC) started to adopt collective positions to resist U.S. pressure on a number of trade fronts. Already in the 1960s, the competitive economic co-existence of transatlantic relations began to take shape.

Quarreling partners.

Competitive cooperation means that Americans have also not always been happy about the economic transatlantic relationship. U.S. financial difficulties, starting in the 1970s, prompted Washington periodically to push for economically-strong European countries to bear more of the burden of their own security and defense.  It is also true that the “burden-sharing debate,” like all debates, has two sides. If Europeans chaff at a rather paternalistic American leadership, the United States chaffs at its substantial contributions towards the defense and security of Europe, which includes the expense of its taxpayers’ money and the loss of its soldiers’ lives.

The differences of views on European security and the competitive-cooperative nature of transatlantic relations is as true today and it was back in the 1950s and 1960s and after. This means, while Europeans contemplate OSA, over the last few months discussions in Washington raised questions like, who should provide European security and should the United States prioritize Asia over Europe?  Leaders in European capitals, including Brussels, should recall that it was not that long ago that Europeans were struggling to find a place on a U.S. president’s agenda.

Balance of Threats

My capstone student did an excellent job of explaining the Dutch desire for an open trade policy that nevertheless supports the U.S.’ ban through International Relations theory. Using Stephen Walt’s Balance of Threat Theory, she determined that the Dutch government’s decision to fulfill the ban was influenced by a desire to maintain or form alliances as a counterweight to states that could potentially be a risk to national and international security. Her coding of key statements and her analysis of Dutch government documents showed that the Dutch government sees China as a military threat (because of its increased military spending, its assertive military activities in the South China Sea, its efforts at digital espionage against Dutch and other Western entities and its attempts to undermine the liberal-democratic world order) and an economic threat (because of Dutch dependencies on China for critical resources).

While it is true that the Biden administration faces implementation issues both nationally and internationally by using extraterritorial regulations as geopolitical weapons (in this case specifically cutting off China’s access to critical points in the supply chain through banning Dutch critical machines), it is also true that those who are losing financially recognize that it also pays to offset a future potential threat.

Sugar, Honey, Ice, Tea

I suspect that OSA will not produce much in the way of actual autonomy; however, much Europeans and Americans might prefer to maintain a vibrant rules-based international trading system and for Europe to have greater self-reliance.  For starters, OSA like strategic autonomy in general, is notoriously ambiguous.  Secondly, the world’s two superpowers are armed with large arsenals of nuclear weapons that Europeans are unlikely to build in the short, medium, or long term.  Today, deterrence through NATO is expanding and I need not remind readers that defense and security in the alliance is backed by preponderate military might. In the recent U.S. budget hostage-taking-like negotiations, the Pentagon was spared from the spending cap that Republicans demanded; spending is locked in at Biden’s proposed $886 billion.

Third, in the case of geopolitical rivalries, recent statistics show that America’s global GDP increased while China’s growth is leveling off (China is still ahead in calculations of purchasing-power-parity though).  Although European defense budgets are increasing, it will take perhaps two decades and between $228– 357 billion for Europe to have a convincing, rapidly deployable conventional counter-offensive capability.  While welcome, such a force will not replace the U.S. strategic role within NATO.  Politicians who tell you that Europe can get by without relying on the U.S. for strategic deterrence are filling you with Sugar and Honey and washing it down with Ice in your Tea—and we all know what that spells.  This does not mean that Europeans should not bother with doing more for their own defense. As Emma Ashford, a columnist at Foreign Policy, pointed out, there are many good ideas for how Europeans can get a better bang for their euro and increase their conventional defense readiness in  air defencelogistics, and naval forces.

The longer game

At the same time as Dutch diplomats strive for the nuanced game of open diplomacy between the U.S. and China, they are also clear-eyed about what kind of actor China is on the global stage. Even as Hoekstra says that the ban does not affect China-Dutch relations and specifically adds that he and Qin Gang “had an open conversation about ASML,” he follows it up with pointing out that national security concerns are becoming increasingly part of the global dialogue on chips. Hoekstra said that The Hague is worried about “what we see as a civil-military fusion,” of intellectual property theft on “a non-level playing field.” In fact, ASML faced intellectual property theft incidents linked to China in the recent past. In February 2019, it revealed it had been the victim of corporate espionage involving former Chinese employees.

Doubling down on the America First Approach

I have made it to the end of this column, and I managed to not mention the biggest elephant in the room once.  Strategic autonomy, whether it is open or the more classical variety, is an issue whether Donald J. Trump wins re-election or not.  But, if he does regain the White House, given the fickle and feckless way Trump treated allies combined with his predisposition for protectionism and waging trade wars, fears that he will ring the death knell of the Transatlantic relationship will be heard on both sides of the Atlantic.