'Strategic Autonomy' Is A Dangerous Myth

The Importance of Identity and Multiplicity for EU Strategy, Policy and Practice 

Benjamin Tallis, Policy Officer, European Centre of Excellence for Civilian Crisis Management 

It’s a truism that in international affairs every action is an interaction – but you wouldn’t know it from the debate on European Strategic Autonomy. Everything from development cooperation and diplomacy to peacebuilding and or warfighting necessarily means engaging with other actors in a variety of ways. Even deterrence is based on interaction, one actor cannot simply declare another to have been deterred, as deterrence happens in the mind, or collective conscience, of the other.  

Yet in Europe the focus has been squarely on the EU, its Member States (MS) and whether their own capabilities and cultures make military autonomy viable (spoiler: they don’t). Where external actors have featured in the debate it has mainly been with regard to the perceived wisdom (or lack of it) in seeking autonomy from the US and thus what do with NATO. Beyond military matters, concerns about economic autarky have been raised, but there has been little consideration of whether, at a deeper level, strategic autonomy for the EU is actually possible at all.  

This introverted European conversation reflects both an underlying problem with the notion of autonomy as well as several worryingly conservative and even reactionary trends in EU foreign and security politics. Eschewing these tendencies, I argue in this commentary that autonomy is a myth, and a dangerous one at that, which the EU and its Member States should jettison as soon as possible.  

The Trouble with Autonomy 

Those contributions to the debate that have delved a little deeper have generally ended up tying themselves in knots or, eventually, abandoning the concept (or at least the language) of autonomy. An exception is that from Nathalie Tocci (one of the originators of the concept) who provides the most extensive discussion so far of strategic autonomy’s underpinnings and meaning, explicitly distinguishing it from ‘sovereignty’, ‘independence’, ‘unilateralism’ and ‘autarky’. For Tocci, autonomy is “the ability of the self – autos – to live by its laws – nomos” and, she argues, that “in living by its laws, [the EU’s] aim is to pursue its strategic interests.” But the plot thickens when Tocci notes that:  

“an autonomous EU is able to live by its laws, rules, norms, and values both by protecting these internally and by being a partner to an international order based upon rules it has contributed to shaping.” 

We may ask how these can still be the EU’s own ‘laws’ (or rules or norms - terms which Tocci uses somewhat interchangeably) if it has only contributed to shaping them and if the EU “functions best or perhaps can only function” in a “rules-based multilateral order, in which its liberal values are at least partly embedded.” Tocci argues that autonomy “involves the EU’s capacity to shape international norms and practices” and is necessary precisely because of the “unprecedented connectivity of our age.” It is not clear though how such connectivity or even multilateralism and partnership with others to create the rules of international order satisfy the definition of autonomy quoted above, which requires the rules to be the EU’s own.  

In rebutting any suggestion that autonomy should be an excuse to seek economic ‘autarky’ (a closed-off, hyper-protectionist form of self-sufficiency), Tocci argues that rather than “sinking into protectionism, the EU must govern interdependence.” In another of the rare deeper analyses, Niklas Helwig echoes this sentiment, emphasising that strategic autonomy means “the political, institutional and material ability of the EU and its MS to manage their interdependence with third parties.” As Helwig adds “on many issues, the EU’s ability to shape the global agenda is reliant on close cooperation with partners and allies, and hence the Union is no better off when acting independently, which makes ‘autonomy’ a confusing label for domestic and international audiences.” 

It certainly is confusing and, while the EU and its MS’ multiple entanglements may make interdependence a superficially more appealing way to interpret autonomy, it would stretch Tocci’s definition past breaking point. It would also miss the underlying significance of the debate, which is as much about identity as the instrumental pursuit of interests, and which can be better understood with the help of a little International Relations (IR) theory.  

Autonomy, Identity and Multiplicity  

Autonomy has a long and diverse history as a concept including Kantian, Nietzschean and Marxist interpretations, alongside its uses in developmental psychology and, more prosaically, in politics where it is often used to refer to ‘self-governing’ territories or units within wider polities. Across its different variants, this notion of self-government is generally considered important, which implies a clear understanding of the unit or actor that is – or seeks to be – autonomous. To understand autonomy we therefore need to understand the identity of the actor in question – and how it is produced.  

‘Constructivist’ thinkers in IR have long rejected the idea that the identity of international political actors is either fixed or independent of other actors. They argue instead that the identities of states or institutions are formed and reformed in interaction with each other - ‘intersubjectively’ in the jargon. More recently, Justin Rosenberg proposed a compelling new theory of IR which he calls ‘Multiplicity’ that takes this approach further. He argues that the existence of multiple societies and thus actors (whether states or others) is fundamental to international politics and that this multiplicity has five ‘consequences’, which extend to how we understand identity (and thus also autonomy).  

The first and most important consequence is a basic acknowledgement that rather than simply ‘existing’ in isolation, societies always co-exist with other societies regardless of how differently they are organised and represented by various forms of polities, such as states, or the EU. Indeed, this co-existence is understood through such difference (the 2nd consequence) and the borders that both mark and produce it, which allow us to recognise the various societies and to understand their differing geographical locations, resources, capabilities, political preferences and possibilities. Co-existence also means that every society and polity must deal with a human world that extends beyond their own borders and which thus brings both the opportunities and dangers of interaction (3), whether through diplomacy, trade, people-to-people contact, development assistance, warfare or crisis management.  

These interactions between different societies and their polities leads to combination (4) where they ally, join together or take on each other’s characteristics in ways that mean that each society evolves as an amalgam of local practices and outside influences. These interactions and combinations also lead to dialectical or relational change (5) because they produce phenomena and processes that could not have been produced internally or alone by individual societies. These phenomena and processes not only changes the societies themselves, but also the relations between them and the ways they can co-exist.  

Multiplicity therefore implies that the EU and its MS do not determine their identity alone as they do not so much exist as co-exist with other actors in international affairs – and all of them therefore mutually constitute each other’s identities to varying degrees. This doesn’t mean that the EU and its MS do not have particular paths of historical development or current ways of being, but that their histories, like their presents, are those of interaction, combination and relational change with those others with whom they have co-existed and currently co-exist. While actors do therefore have particular identities, they are fashioned with and through others, rather than developed alone or in isolation. Every action can affect the way that an actor is perceived and interacted with by others, with these perceptions and interactions, having cumulative effects on their identity over time. The ways that actors seek to differentiate themselves from others – such as by pursuing ‘strategic autonomy’ – also affect their interactions and the ways they are perceived by others. 

Autonomy as a Myth 

What all this means is that strategic autonomy is not a viable concept in the way Tocci defines it. There is no ‘independent’ self - ‘autos’ - which could claim to live by laws - ‘nomos’ – that are truly its ‘own’. Actors in international affairs are simply too entangled for that. Refashioning autonomy as ‘managing interdependence’ doesn’t work either. Entanglement affects actors, like the EU, at the level and terms of their (co-)existence, their identity, rather than merely impacting on the pursuit of interests. The international realm cannot merely be seen as an arena for the pursuit of these interests, but rather as the place in which identity is forged, through relations and interactions with the multiplicity of other actors.  

Genuine autonomy for states, societies or the EU is, therefore, an illusion. The only way autonomy really makes sense is in seeking autonomy from another particular actor. Despite numerous denials, a key motivation for some participants in the European debates is to seek autonomy from the US but, as this is not a shared aim of all 27 EU Member States – and is actively opposed by many of them – it cannot be the official version, regardless of its practical viability. 

Yet even though autonomy as such cannot be achieved, openly talking about it and taking steps to pursue it will, nonetheless, have significant and potentially dangerous effects. Pursuing – or claiming to pursue – European strategic autonomy risks changing the perception of the EU in the eyes of others. In this regard, autonomy is more of a myth than an illusion. Myths inspire and guide actors and can be highly productive of certain kinds of political action, for which they seemingly provide a justification. In this case, strategic autonomy seems to provide the justification for pursuing particular directions in security and defence policy, but also in the EU’s overall outlook, that would have serious implications for its identity. These new directions and outlook would influence the way that the EU is perceived by others and change the qualities and types of its interactions with them. In turn this would alter the terms of its co-existence and the ways it combines with and differentiates itself from others, with the potential to change its domestic governance as well as its international affairs.  

The Dangers of Pursuing Autonomy 

As Helwig argues, strategic autonomy, however mythical, has been widely used as “a vehicle to steer policy debate” or “as a justification” for increasing EU capacities. Taking capacities first, announcing the pursuit of autonomy has prompted extensive discussion of how to address the EU’s perceived lack of military means. This debate has built on initiatives like PESCO and CARD but has, significantly, taken place alongside the ongoing Strategic Compass process. The Strategic Compass is not limited to military strategy and, as the name suggests, will have a wider role in political orientation and will be based on a ‘360 degree’ threat assessment. It thus resonates with the EU’s more general move to what Richard Youngs has called “Protective Security”.  

From migration and border policy and practice (including Integrated Border Management) to the growing emphasis on the ‘internal-external security nexus’ and the closer links between Civilian CSDP and Justice and Home Affairs, ‘Protective Security’ means a shift to a narrower, more defensive and exclusively self-interested conception of security for Europeans from threats seen to come from outside. This marks a significant shift from the mutually beneficial, interdependent vision of security that underpinned the EU's own historical development, its enlargement and its emergence as a normative, transformative power in foreign policy. The move to protective security reveals a more fearful, less confident worldview. As Roderick Parkes argues, the loss of confidence has led the EU to doubt its previously creative approach to geopolitics (which gave us the single market and the Schengen zone) in favour of a more ‘traditional’ and allegedly ‘pragmatic’ approach.  

In fact this amounts to a ‘retro-Realism’ that can also be seen in the intent to have a ‘geopolitical commission’ and a Union that will ‘relearn the language of power’ as well as in the development of military capabilities and the threat-dominated Strategic Compass. It is apparent in the drive for strategic autonomy, which as Youngs has noted is a “trap” because trying to address vulnerability by going your ‘own way’ decreases rather than increases an actor’s influence over and through others. Moreover, in the fundamentally entangled international realm, talking of autonomy and emphasising self-interest, while building up capabilities, may well create security dilemmas for other actors who could start to see the EU as potentially threatening and could act to cut off this threat before it becomes a reality.  

Rather than talking themselves into a position they don’t want to be in and are ill-equipped to deal with, the EU and its MS should abandon the language – and the mythical concept – of strategic autonomy. Instead they could do worse than adopt the 2020 German Presidency’s focus on their “ability to act” and use this to more effectively manage the consequences of multiplicity, which they cannot escape and nor should they wish to. Whatever they do, they should remember that they don’t do it alone and that their choices will affect their interactions with others – and their identity.  

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