Can the EU Do Strategy?


Andrew Cottey argues that the existing literature on EU foreign, security and defence strategy has paid insufficient attention to two basic prior questions: what is strategy? And what constitutes good strategy? Answers to these questions help us to understand why the EU struggles with strategy.

The 2003 European Security Strategy and the 2016 EU Global Strategy are generally viewed as landmark documents in the development of EU foreign, security and defence policy and have triggered much debate on the character of EU external strategy. We should, however, be sceptical of official strategy documents. Strategy has become de rigueur. States, government departments, international organisations, businesses, non-governmental organisations and universities all adopt official strategy documents. Such strategy documents, however, are often long lists of aspirational goals and even longer lists of existing policies and activities – plus some new ones that, in reality, may or may not be implemented. Strategy risks becoming a synonym for policy or even for everything that an organisation does or aspires to do.

In assessing EU foreign policy strategy – and documents like the European Security Strategy and the EU Global Strategy – we should go back to basics and ask what is strategy and what defines good strategy? If one examines the writings of key military and business/management thinkers on strategy, there is a consensus that strategy is – or perhaps ought to be – about the integration of ends, ways and means. Strategy is thus about the identification of objectives or goals, the development of concrete policies or actions to achieve those goals and the allocation of the necessary resources. According to Echevarria, this ends-ways-means formula ‘is as recognizable to modern strategists as Einstein’s equation E=mc2 is to physicists.’

A second question is what constitutes good or successful strategy? According to Eliot Cohen strategy is a ‘theory of victory.’ Strategy is thus an approach – a choice amongst others that might be pursued – that makes a decisive impact, that enables one to achieve one’s objective or, at least, brings one closer to that goal. Critics such as Richard Rumelt argue that bad strategy is the inverse of this: it avoids choice and it incorporates long lists of objectives and actions, rather than identifying a small number of key objectives where one may hope to have a real impact and allocating political attention and resources accordingly.

How does the EU measure up against these definitions? The EU’s central problem is its character as polity. Notwithstanding the creation of institutions such as the foreign policy High Representative post and the European External Action Service (EEAS), EU foreign policy-making remains heavily inter-governmental. Consequently, EU foreign, security and defence policy still depends to a large degree on consensus amongst the member states. In terms of strategy, this pushes the EU and documents such as the European Security Strategy and the EU Global Strategy towards a lowest common denominator and shopping list approach. Rather than identifying a few core objectives where the EU might hope to have the greatest impact, the EU retains a long-list of global objectives. If one was being was being critical, for example, one could argue that the foreign policy goals identified in the European Security Strategy and the EU Global Strategy are the strategic equivalent of motherhood and apple pie: they are perfectly reasonable and (almost) no one could object to them, but they reflect an inability to prioritise.

The EU’s strategy problem is highlighted by the Union’s relations with the world’s three most important great powers, Russia, China and the United States. Many Eastern Europe EU members (especially Poland and the Baltic states) view Russia as a strategic threat that essentially needs to be contained; whereas Western and Southern European states view Russia either as partner to be engaged or a power driven by its own defensive insecurities (- although this has changed to a degree since the 2014 Ukraine conflict). At the same time, in recent years countries such as Italy, Hungary and Greece have pursued their own bilateral side-deals with Moscow. EU strategy towards Russia – to the extent that there can be said to be one – involves constantly balancing the competing perspectives of member states.

With China, the EU has for more than twenty years pursued a strategy of engagement and bilateral institution-building through what the two term their comprehensive strategic partnership. The aim has been to encourage China to play by the rules internationally, further reform its economy and liberalise politically. Since the 2010s, however, China has become more assertive internationally (for example, in its disputes with South East Asian states and Japan in the South and East China Seas), more repressive politically and has done little to open its economy foreign companies. In strategy terms, the EU has lacked the means – policies, leverage, concrete actions – to persuade China to moderate its behaviour. EU member states, again, are divided over how to respond to the new China. France and the UK are now joining the US and other Asian states in undertaking freedom of navigation operations in the South and East China Seas. Many other EU member states, however, would rather benefit from trade and investment ties with China and avoid contentious geo-political issues. The EU lacks the means to shape Chinese behaviour in the way it hopes, but is unable – or unwilling – to develop an alternative strategy.

With regard to the United States, the EU is torn between an Atlanticist strategy of maintaining the closest possible relations with the US and a Europeanist strategy of developing the EU as an actor more independent of the US. Amongst EU members, France leads the Europeanist wing, the UK (currently in the exit door) and Poland lead the Atlanticist wing, and Germany is in the middle. The EU Global Strategy included the objective of strategic autonomy, but there is no consensus about what this means – or even whether it is desirable.

Some observers believe – or hope – that US President Donald Trump’s ‘America first’ policy or Brexit may be the moments that forces the EU to get its act together strategically. Such hopes are likely to be disappointed. EU member states remain divided in their assessments of the external environment they face, the relative priority of different international challenges, the appropriate approaches for addressing these challenges and the extent to which they are willing to pool sovereignty in the interest of developing a common approach. Neither the Trump presidency, nor the removal of the British awkward partner are likely to alter these realities.

If one takes the perspective of emergent strategy, the EU can be viewed as in the process of developing a foreign and security policy strategy through learning and trial and error – but this process can only be viewed as painfully slow. So long as member states remain divided on key questions of strategy and foreign policy decision-making is primarily inter-governmental, the EU is likely to remain an astrategic actor: a Union that struggles to prioritise amongst competing foreign policy goals, to identify the situations where it may have a decisive impact and to focus attention and resources on those situations, that avoids difficult foreign policy choices and that is unable to fully translate its potential into impact.

This piece draws on the article ‘Astrategic Europe‘ published in the Journal of Common Market Studies (JCMS). 

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of  Ideas on Europe, JCMS or UACES.

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Andrew Cottey | @andrewcottey

Andrew Cottey is Senior Lecturer and Jean Monnet Chair in European Political Integration, Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork. His publications include Security in 21st Century Europe (Palgrave Macmillan), Reshaping Defence Diplomacy: New Roles for Military Cooperation and Assistance (with Anthony Forster, Oxford University Press/IISS).