Online Commentary

Feb 15, 2021

Security and Defense

Transatlantic Action Plan
NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 14, 2018.

Within NATO, and in U.S.–EU and NATO–EU relations, considerable effort will have to go into: rebuilding trust; strengthening democratic governance and shared values; aligning threat perceptions; breaking down barriers to collaboration; maximizing defense value for money; and tackling new and emerging challenges collectively. No problem can be solved successfully by the U.S. alone, by NATO alone, or just in the U.S.–EU context. The most effective approaches will combine the institutional strengths of both NATO and the EU and all 36 of their respective member states. 


This Transatlantic Action Plan originally appeared in Stronger Together: A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power, a collaborative report from the German Council on Foreign Relations and the Harvard Kennedy School.

The transatlantic security and defense relationship is facing its most serious trust deficit since the founding of NATO in 1949. Over the past four years, President Trump has called Europeans “foes,” begun withdrawing U.S. forces from Germany, and created uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to collective defense, undermining deterrence; German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Europeans that they can no longer fully rely on the United States; and French President Emmanuel Macron called NATO “brain dead” and urged European strategic autonomy. 

While advances have been made in NATO mobility and readiness in recent years, arms control with Russia is collapsing, and the transatlantic community has largely failed to address new threats collectively, including cyber and digital security, health security and the challenges of a more assertive China. The COVID-induced global economic recession will stress NATO nations’ defense spending and the ambitious defense capabilities goals of NATO and the EU. While some on both sides of the Atlantic are hoping for a return to “normal” with the Biden administration, the old approaches to security and defense will not be enough to meet today’s challenges. 


External Challenges—Threats to a Secure and Prosperous Transatlantic 

NATO, the EU and their member states lack a coherent strategy to address challenges posed by Russia ranging from Ukraine to Syria to Libya, arms control, Moscow’s new weapons and hybrid warfare, to its disinformation, political influence and election interference campaigns. Inconsistent U.S. leadership on Russia and mixed signals to the Kremlin have weakened NATO cohesion and deterrence. Moscow has capitalized on the confusion to drive wedges among allies, cut separate deals with leaders and further erode democratic unity. 

The security challenges posed by China are relatively new terrain for Europe and also stretch NATO’s traditional understanding of its mission set. While the U.S. has seen China as its main competitor for several years, NATO only recently acknowledged the growing threat. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has now warned allies that they must focus on China’s rising military capability, including its development of long-range nuclear weapons capable of reaching Europe. Stoltenberg noted that while NATO would not start operating in the South China Sea, some allies do and cautioned that, “China is coming ever closer to Europe’s doorstep. NATO allies must face this challenge together.”

The China challenge makes clear that both NATO and the EU need to rethink what deterrence and defense require today. Stoltenberg also warned about Chinese non-military threats, such as heavy investment in European strategic infrastructure including ports, telecommunications and the energy sector that open Europe to serious vulnerabilities, especially in case of a conflict. The EU has strengthened investment screening mechanisms, but these remain voluntary and not as rigorous as the U.S. screening process through its Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS). The U.S. has only been marginally successful in convincing European governments not to use Huawei in their 5G telecom upgrades and has not seriously tried to use NATO or the U.S.–EU relationship to establish and enforce multilateral security protections or export controls. The U.S. has also spurned EU efforts to collaborate more closely on trade problems with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as noted in the project’s other action plans. 

In Afghanistan, 12,000 troops from 38 NATO allied and partner countries support NATO’s Operation Resolute Support to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces. Allies have also agreed to continue to provide financial support to Afghan security forces through 2024. Throughout this mission and the previous NATO combat operation, Allies have always operated on the “in together, out together” principle, and in fact, most NATO and partner nations cannot operate in Afghanistan, even in a training capacity, without U.S. support. President Trump’s announcement therefore that all U.S. troops would depart Afghanistan by Christmas surprised Afghans, Allies and his own generals, who have all insisted that a full departure must be conditions-based and tied to progress in the intra-Afghan peace talks. A coordinated, conditions-based withdrawal must take precedence over a fast withdrawal. Otherwise, the Taliban has no incentive to live up to its commitments, and Afghanistan risks falling back into nationwide conflict. In addition, the U.S. and its Allies must be ready to respond to future requests from the Afghan government for security support and training to protect the investment they have made over the last 19 years. 

NATO and the EU would also benefit from tighter coordination and burden-sharing to address challenges on their southern flank from the Balkans to the Sahel. While these regions present very different challenges—political and economic weakness and instability, corruption, drugs, human traffickers, terrorism and weapons smugglers—their troubles flow North when left unchecked. NATO’s role lies in coordination and support for regional and national actors to build their own security capacities, while the EU brings political, economic and humanitarian support, which can and should be better coordinated with U.S., UK, Canadian and other Allied efforts. Counter-terrorism cooperation—bilaterally, within NATO and in U.S.–EU channels—would also benefit from better information-sharing, capacity building and cross-training among the involved nations and institutions.

Internal Challenges—Threats to Cohesion

The tense atmosphere between Washington and European capitals has exacerbated internal rifts in the Alliance—some of which are as old as NATO itself. Because collective deterrence and defense are entirely built on the credibility of each member’s commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, these divisions risk rendering the Alliance ineffective and vulnerable to external threats. The EU continues to be plagued by North-South and East-West tensions. Post-Brexit, the UK is also recalibrating its relationships with the EU, NATO and the U.S.

Tensions on issues beyond the military realm from trade to China to technology further undercut the transatlantic commitment to raise and maintain defense spending to the NATO standard of 2% of GDP, with Germany the leading backslider on its 2024 pledge. This problem will be exacerbated by the deep recession on both sides of the Atlantic precipitated by COVID-19 and the high cost of recovery. 

Recent European calls for strategic autonomy have raised hackles in Washington and also revived the specter of NATO–EU rivalry without yet increasing military capability. While the creation of the European Defense Fund is promising, Europeans will be hard-pressed to increase defense spending until their economies fully recover. The EU lost 20% of its military throw-weight when the UK exited and remains far from autonomous in all but modest-sized operations. However, the U.S. will not get more security help from Europe by browbeating Allies in public or fear-mongering about European autonomy. 

Washington will be more successful in maintaining spending levels and addressing capability gaps through targeted mentoring of individual Allies and partners and offers of co-development of key systems. In particular, Washington should help Allies keep pace in addressing the security challenges posed by adversaries’ cyber weapons and advancements in AI, quantum computing and autonomous and space weapons. At the same time, the U.S. should welcome any level of autonomy that Europe can achieve in keeping itself safe. The more Europeans can do on their own, the less the U.S. burden for their defense.

The internal cohesion of the transatlantic community is further challenged by members who have departed from the liberal democratic consensus enshrined in the NATO and Lisbon Treaties. Institutionally, NATO has to ask itself how much the growing ‘values gap’ could undermine its core mission and members’ commitment to mutual defense. Similarly, how much should other allies trust NATO members who cut arms deals with Russia or China, or stoke conflict on NATO’s periphery? While the EU does have tools for evaluating and censuring members who weaken their own democratic checks and balances, these have largely been toothless in changing leader behavior because member states continue to receive EU budget allocations, loans and grants regardless of their democratic backsliding. 

If shared values and democratic institutions are truly the bedrock of the transatlantic community, both NATO and the EU need stronger mechanisms for sanctioning members who undercut them. NATO and EU members must also better harness their intelligence, law enforcement and financial tools to expose and root out state-protected corruption, whether its source is internal, or it is wielded as a weapon of external influence. Corruption is a democracy killer.

The Value of the Alliance and Strong U.S.–EU relations

At its core, it is a resource question: Can the U.S. advance its global interests without Europe, or, more precisely, would a world without NATO and strong U.S.–EU relations be cheaper for the U.S. or for Europe? The answer is: no. One of the America’s greatest strategic advantages are its alliances and partnerships. From a European perspective, the most fundamental truth about NATO has not changed since 1949: Europe cannot yet guarantee its own security without the U.S., given the capability gaps in European armed forces. Nor can it address the myriad other security challenges it faces from China, to terrorism, to technological dependence to climate change without effective U.S.–EU cooperation. Finally, if the democratic world is going to mount a successful defense against authoritarian states’ efforts to rewrite global norms in their own favor, the family of NATO and EU nations must make up the core of that defense. 


Transatlantic allies and partners will be strongest if they work together on all pressing defense and security challenges, drawing on the institutional advantages and capabilities of both NATO and the EU. They must start with a visible and strong political recommitment to common security and values by all NATO and EU leaders. They must also reject historically narrow definitions of defense and security and include issues like health and economic security, good governance and innovation in the technology sphere, and climate change in their calculus. Old institutional, regional and national rivalries must give way to joint work to protect and expand a world that favors freedom, peace and shared prosperity, with the transatlantic community at its core.

Other Action Plans in this project go into further detail on some of the recommendations below, but a comprehensive definition of common security must include them all. 

Restoring Trust, Unity, Effectiveness:

  • Hold a “Trifecta” of summits in Brussels within the U.S. president’s first 100 days, including: 
    • 1) a NATO leaders meeting; 
    • 2) a U.S.–EU leaders meeting; 
    • 3) a NATO–EU leaders meeting to demonstrate unity, recommit to collective defense and shared values, launch an agenda of joint work on Russia, China, defense capabilities, digital challenges, climate, economic renewal. Repeat in one year to check progress;
  • Create a NATO–EU Task Force with a committed staff to craft common approaches to major challenges, drawing on the tools and strengths of each organization. Revitalize the North Atlantic Council (NAC) and the EU Political and Security Committee (PSC) (NAC-PSC) to support and advance this agenda, breaking down institutional barriers to cooperation;
  • Strengthen outreach to and partnership with other global democracies to shore up international standards, norms and institutions that favor freedom and blunt autocratic takeover or democratic rollback.

Defense Spending, Burden-sharing, EU Autonomy and Stockpiles:

  • Refresh NATO Allies’ “2% by 2024” pledge tied to concrete capability upgrades, while simultaneously signaling U.S. support for PESCO and EU self-reliance wherever possible;
  • Focus on capabilities by launching a new transatlantic military capabilities push in both NATO and the EU, applying some amount of national economic recovery funds to investments in defense and the co-development of advanced systems, infrastructure upgrades, technology, cyber security and military exercises;
  • Build out existing fuel, munitions, and humanitarian stockpiles in NATO and EU, respectively, to include critical medical supplies and vaccines, and first responder data bases;
  • Consider making NATO’s Eastern bases and troop rotations permanent, within the constraints of the NATO–Russia Founding Act (smaller than brigade-size). 


  • Launch comprehensive U.S.–Russia arms control and strategic stability talks, in close coordination with NATO Allies; simultaneously strengthen allied missile defenses, cyber defenses, nuclear and conventional deterrence against Russian short and medium range missiles and anti-access/arial-denial (A2/AD); 
  • In U.S.–EU channels, strengthen defenses and public information against Russian disinformation and political influence campaigns, corruption, money laundering; create a menu of incentives for better Russian behavior, sanctions and deterrence mechanisms if aggression continues. Add the UK, Canada and other global democracies to these efforts; 
  • On Ukraine, launch a new diplomatic push to implement the Minsk agreements with U.S. participation, firm timelines, and calibration of sanctions and sanctions relief to progress. 

Strategic Technology and Investment Security:

  • On leaders’ instructions, craft a comprehensive NATO + EU approach to safeguarding sensitive technology, infrastructure and innovation from adversaries, including: 
    • Common export control regime restricting sensitive, dual-use items;
    • Common and binding investment screening guidelines;
    • Common approach to next generation technologies like 5G, AI, quantum computing, nano- and biotechnology; joint investments in transatlantic solutions, and lead in shaping global norms and standards;
    • Joint review of supply chain vulnerabilities with the goal of insuring transatlantic redundancy.


  • On leaders’ instructions, craft coordinated NATO and EU approaches toward China:
    • Launch NATO review of military vulnerabilities to China and craft a comprehensive deterrence strategy;
    • Align U.S., Canada, UK and EU positions on trade, investment for negotiations with China; share sanctions burden as necessary;
    • Strengthen intelligence sharing on China, sensitive technologies and surveillance systems.


  • Publicly recommit to the “in together, out together” principle at the next NATO summit and maintain financial support for Afghan security forces through 2024;
  • Reaffirm conditions-based phase down of Operation Resolute Support, tied to progress in the intra-Afghan peace talks; and continued support to the Afghan citizens, government and military;
  • Deepen counter-terrorism cooperation by strengthening information-sharing, capabilities, training and law enforcement cooperation among NATO, the EU and their respective member states, breaking down firewalls and information stovepipes wherever possible. 

Shoring up Democracy:

  • Condition full benefits of NATO and EU membership on member states’ maintaining independent judiciaries, free media, political pluralism, and free and fair elections; 
  • In NATO, institute a biannual review of each ally’s democratic health, with poor performance sanctions to include the withholding of security infrastructure investments, exercise opportunities, and leadership jobs;
  • In the EU, tie poor performance as measured by EU processes and institutions to a decrease in allocation of cohesion funds, loans and grants for backsliders:
  • Strengthen U.S.–EU dialogue and coordination of tools to incentivize democratic protections in NATO and EU states, and create costs for governments that weaken key institutions;
  • Intensify collaboration and mechanisms to combat corruption, trace illicit money flows, and expose and prosecute corrupt actors. 

Bibliographic data

Mölling, Christian, Sophia Becker, and Victoria Nuland. “Security and Defense .” February 2021.

Action Plan from the report "Stronger Together. A Strategy to Revitalize Transatlantic Power" by the Transatlantic Strategy Group convened by the Harvard Kennedy School and DGAP.