International affairs is a fast changing arena. Just two years ago, conflict was unimaginable in Europe and no one had heard of ISIS. This rapid pace of change is what drives governments to produce regular security policy papers. Not only does this inform the world of what said government is thinking with regard to the challenges of the day, but the process of actually writing out a strategy can help the government figure out and prioritize its own positions as well.
To this end, the US publishes a National Security Strategy (NSS) for every administration. This is required by law (Goldwater-Nichols Act), which means that, on average, the US government updates its thinking on global affairs every four years. Not surprisingly, there is much carryover from one NSS to the next. While some facets of international relations change rapidly, others hardly change at all. Furthermore, certain national interests, such as democracy promotion and human rights are constant due to issues of strategic culture, although their saliency may fluctuate with time and the people in charge.
Overall though, documents like the NSS are useful as organizing tools, thought exercises, and advertisements. This last part in particular is important, as oftentimes documents like the NSS are read most thoroughly by foreign governments, who are interested in better understanding US strategic thought. These governments use the NSS to shape their own policies, either to improve relations/coordination with Washington or as a guidepost on where/how to best oppose US interests.
This is all to say that documents like the NSS are important and useful tools. Which makes it all the more disappointing that the European Union (EU) has not updated its strategy since it first published one in 2003. At the time, the EU published this document as part proof of and part experiment in being a unified and important global actor. Since then, however, it appears to have taken a step back in ambition. Instead of releasing a fully updated security strategy, in 2010 the EU published an Internal Security Strategy that aimed to guide domestic EU policy with regard to five issues (cybercrime, terrorism, organized crime, border controls, and natural disasters). Currently, the EU is in the process of updating this internal strategy; a new policy paper should be published later this year.
The EU today is very different from the EU in 2003. Back then there were only 15 member states, today there are 28. Furthermore, the Security Strategy was written before the failure to ratify the European Constitution. And perhaps most importantly, in 2003 the EU was not in the middle of a decade-long economic crisis. In other words, in 2003 it was far easier to focus on foreign affairs given the relatively stable domestic situation in Europe at the time, and far easier to achieve consensus within a EU of only 15 member states.
Achieving a similar level of focus and consensus today will be difficult. But if European leaders want to revitalize the integration project, and retain Europe’s status as an important player in global affairs, a new European Security Strategy would be a good place to start. After all, the world today is different from the world in 2003. It would be nice to know what Europe thinks and plans to do about issues such as Russian revisionism, Chinese power, and a host of other pressing concerns. Such a statement of purpose, in addition to helping the EU organize its foreign policies, would help states interested in EU membership calibrate their policies to conform to EU positions. More importantly, an updated EU Security Strategy would act as both a counterweight and compliment to the pending US National Security Strategy revision. Just as domestic political competition leads to better policies and more honest government, the same can be true for foreign political competition, at least among entities that share similar goals. This is true of the US and EU, which generally speaking share a common vision and political ideology, although they disagree on how best to reach their objectives.
Individually, no EU state is powerful enough to engage as an equal with the US. The 28 member states united, however, stand a better chance. Washington, and the world in general, would benefit greatly from a united and ambitious Europe. While seeing such a development through requires much more than just an updated security strategy, such a document, and the process behind it, would be a great place to start.