US President Joe Biden “absolutely” supports European allies by developing their own, stronger military capabilities – but it is time for EU leaders to go beyond theory and rhetoric, State Department Adviser Derek Chollet told POLITICO during a visit to Brussels.
Otherwise, Chollet warned, the gap between what the U.S. military can do – and what Europe’s collective armies can’t do – will only widen, especially when it comes to facing new threats from China.
The push for increased European military prowess, often called “strategic autonomy”, received a boost from Biden this autumn after his administration infuriated France by announcing a surprise Indo-Pacific security partnership with Britain and Australia.
As part of his efforts to patch up relations with French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden agreed to support a set of joint security and defense initiatives, which they discussed alongside the recent G20 summit in Rome and detailed in a joint statement.
Critics of strategic autonomy, including a number of skeptical allies in Eastern Europe, often cite the risk of creating redundancy or overlap with capabilities that the United States already provides to NATO. But Chollet, in an interview with the U.S. delegation in Brussels, said he was much more concerned that European allies would again fail to take more responsibility – and pay for it.
“I sat through many, many defense ministries when I worked at the Pentagon and was here in Brussels, where every defense minister around the table would all be in a violent agreement on the need to spend more on defense and have a more modern capable military,” Chollet said. , who has spent more than a quarter of a century working on U.S. diplomacy inside and outside the government, including stints at the State Department, White House and Pentagon.
“But then all those defense ministers would have to go back to their parliaments, to their governments and have to defend those budgets or plead for those budgets, and they didn’t succeed,” he added. “And that’s a dynamic that still exists here.”
Chollet said that if European allies are finally ready to get serious, Washington is more than happy to provide guidance on the kinds of capabilities to start building.
“We are ready – we, the United States – are ready to provide it,” he said.
“We want a stronger Europe,” Chollet added, recalling conversations during his time working in the Clinton administration more than two decades ago about the need to improve the European military after the 1998-99 war in Kosovo.
“It is in the interest of the United States to make Europe more capable of military service. That’s why U.S. administrations, presidents of both parties, defense secretaries before the last six or seven, have all talked about the 2 percent GDP as a kind of basic good operating standard for military spending, “he said, referring to spending spending made by NATO allies.
But he also said European leaders must stop talking and start doing so, showing the promise of French-led counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel region of Africa. However, he noted, many allies lack sufficient airlift, transportation and logistics operations.
“It’s important,” he said, “to get out of the theoretical realm, the think tank realm of strategic autonomy … and talk about pragmatic, practical solutions.”
Chollet’s stop in Brussels, for meetings with NATO and EU counterparts, came after a trip to Sarajevo, where he urged the three presidents of Bosnia to ease political tensions, which again aroused fears that the Dayton peace agreements, mediated by the US and the EU. in the early 1990s, may collapse.
Chollet last visited Bosnia 20 years ago as an assistant to Richard Holbrooke, the legendary U.S. diplomat who helped reach the Dayton agreement across the finish line. Chollet, smiling, called Holbrooke, who died in 2010, “my mentor and tormentor.”
His trip to the Bosnian capital coincided with the 26th anniversary of Dayton’s signing, and Chollet said he carried a “rather harsh message” from the Biden government, warning the country’s leaders against provocative language, including some suggesting disintegration of the country.
“There is a growing rhetoric within Bosnia-Herzegovina that is secessionist, that is about dissolving the state, you know, withdrawing common institutions,” he said.
Chollet noted that many U.S. officials, including Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, had spent time earlier in their careers working to help bring peace to the former Yugoslavia. “A lot of us have worked hard on these issues, believe deeply in a better future for the people of Bosnia, and are therefore really concerned about where things are now,” Chollet said.
Chollet noted that throughout the Western Balkans, countries are eager to move forward with their bids for EU membership, and he said progress for countries like Northern Macedonia and Albania will also raise spirits in Bosnia.
“The impatience is palpable in the region,” he said. “It’s heard all the time, almost everywhere.”
An eye to Belarus
Other problems in Europe are also on his radar, including the crisis along the border of Belarus and Poland, where Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko used migrants for what the EU called a “hybrid attack”.
“The arming of innocent people … it’s disgusting,” he said, adding that Washington is in constant contact with Warsaw to offer its support and is also concerned about similar attacks on Lithuania. “What Lukashenko is doing … shouldn’t be a question or any guess at what’s going on here and how despicable it is.”
As a State Department advisor, Chollet serves as an all-round advisor to Blinken. Previously, he worked closely with Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, including as a young research assistant helping James Baker III write his memoirs.
But if Chollet is a true in-house writer of State Department history, he noted the unfortunate precedent of having so few of Biden’s ambassadors confirmed by the Senate, in part the result of a Republican blockade campaign, and nurtured by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“We don’t have our team on the field,” Chollet said. “And it’s historical about what’s happening now. … It is off the charts depending on where things are, according to the number of appointments and those confirmed. I think we have about 50 people in the U.S. Senate. “
“There are consequences,” he added. “You can’t expect to succeed and use the influence that many want the United States to use around the world to try to solve problems, improve people’s lives, serve our interests if you don’t allow the president’s representatives to gain. go out and start doing their jobs. “
In the interview, Chollet described the stay in ambassadorial confirmations as proof of the greater political polarization and deadlock that has gripped the United States in recent years and worsened during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, which he said created “a lot of uncertainty and guesswork. . about where the United States is heading. ” Biden, he argued, “tried to spend the first 10 months to get some recovery.”
Chollet said Biden, like former President Barack Obama, is struggling with an increasingly complicated, multipolar global system and trying to repair the damage at home and abroad: “Now, we have the rise of China, we have had a pandemic., And that we still struggles with, of course, and deeper domestic dysfunction in the United States. “
And Biden needs to pay attention to that malfunction, he said.
“First and foremost for this administration … is to tidy up your home house, right?” Chollet argues. “We will not get anywhere if our country is still crippled by the pandemic … if our economy is worried, [if] we can’t get things done like infrastructure – what the president did – and if our domestic political system is unable to do things like confirm ambassadors. “
Traveling around the world, he said he feels the United States has not lost its luster.
“There is still a very strong demand signal for U.S. leadership,” he said. “Is it in Bosnia, where I was just, is it in Southeast Asia, where I was three weeks ago, is it in Libya and Tunisia, where I was six weeks ago: People want more from the United States. They want our presence. They want our leadership. “
And that, he said, he tells friends at home is not considered: “The United States in that position is unique. There aren’t many countries you can say that about if actually around the world. Not many people want more China.”