Europe – Misunderstanding and underestimating Europe (Olivier-Rémy Bel, Atlantic Council)

Misunderstanding and underestimating Europe

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gestures as she attends an EU coordination meeting at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain on June 11, 2021. Photo via REUTERS and Phil Noble.

When US President Joe Biden attends the first United States-European Union summit of his presidency, he will find the EU different from the one he encountered during the Obama administration. Europe has changed. It has started—though only started—transforming into a global geopolitical player. Yet the extent of that transformation is often misunderstood and underestimated by other countries, especially its rivals and adversaries.

Consider the recent case of the Belarusian government’s hijacking of a Ryanair flight over its territory to grab the journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. The day after the audacious act, the European Council adopted a tough retaliatory package against Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka that including economic sanctions and flight restrictions.

The European Union’s early communications regarding the incident were far from perfect, with conflicting messages from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Transport Commissioner Adina Valean. And while the flight bans involving Belarusian airspace and airlines might hurt Lukashenka more than it seems—Belarus’s Belavia airline and overflight fees are a source of revenue for the regime—the real question will be whether the sanctions prove effective either at releasing Protasevich and Sapega or, at least, in deterring further aggressive actions by Belarus or its patron, Russia.

But in seizing Protasevich and Sapega from the air, Lukashenka didn’t just invite economic retaliation. He also placed the matter of his repressive rule in Belarus back on the EU agenda, from which it had been gradually slipping after the EU imposed sanctions last fall over his violent crackdown following an election widely viewed as fraudulent. He forced the EU to think through its Belarus strategy. From Lukashenka’s point of view, did Protasevich pose such an acute and immediate threat that detaining him was worth renewing the EU’s focus on Belarus? Or did Lukashenka miscalculate?

Or consider a similar case involving China. After the EU, alongside the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, announced sanctions on Chinese officials connected to human-rights violations in Xinjiang, China responded by sanctioning members of the European Parliament. Yet this took place right as the European Parliament was considering ratifying the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), an ambitious deal that had been negotiated since 2013 and that some saw as driving a wedge between Europeans and Americans on China policy. As a result, the European Parliament suspended ratification of the agreement. Did China “lift a heavy rock only to drop it on its foot”? Did Beijing think the European Parliament would not react to its sanctions or would be powerless to stop the ratification process?

So why the miscalculations and misunderstandings of the EU?

One explanation is the low expectations that are often attached to the EU’s endeavors. Observers regularly predict that the next crisis—debt, Eurozone, migration, populism and democratic backsliding, Brexit, or, even further back, the rejection of the proposed European Constitution—will spell the EU’s doom. Yet the EU has not, as of this writing, dissolved. As the journalist Caroline de Gruyter argues, its special genius is its ability to muddle along in the face of bad odds. It has in fact also shown a remarkable ability to bounce back from those bad odds, as illustrated by its historic deal on a COVID-19 relief package and Multiannual Financial Framework last summer.

Second, understanding how the EU works is not easy. This isn’t simply a matter of legal or institutional complexity. Rather, it is due to the EU being a strange creature: neither a state nor an international organization, with its politics playing out in a space that can be described as neither international affairs nor domestic matters. The European Commission isn’t quite the NATO International Staff or the United Nations Secretariat. This odd existence is best illustrated by Finland’s “two plates policy” disputes about whether the country’s president or prime minister (or both) should be attending European Council meetings.

Trying to anticipate EU reactions based on the ways states act in the international domain yields poor results. In particular, such an approach leads to underestimating the role and weight of the European Parliament, which has its own powers and democratic underpinnings—as it has repeatedly demonstrated.

Despite very close contacts and great familiarity with the EU, the United States and to some extent the United Kingdom sometimes have a difficult time reading European dynamics correctly or fully understanding the significance of the different moving pieces. How then can we expect, say, authoritarian China and Russia—with far less access to the EU and far less cultural and political proximity to it—to have a good grasp on European dynamics?

Third, the misunderstandings also highlight that Europe’s geopolitical transformation is incomplete. Having improvised in the face of multiple crises, the EU is, as Luuk van Middelaar argues, moving from a “politics of rules” to a “politics of events.” From Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Bataclan terrorist attacks in 2015 to China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy in 2020, Europeans are also awakening to the realities of a more dangerous geopolitical environment. Over the past few years, they have started building the tools to respond to that environment—to the point where the recent launch of the European Peace Facility, designed to buy weapons for partner forces in other regions such as Africa, has even raised concerns about the very nature of the EU changing.

Yet that transformation remains partial. Europe is still learning to “speak the language of power,” as shown by EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s February trip to Moscow, where he was subjected to an aggressive press conference by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The halfway state is best illustrated by the dissonance between von der Leyen’s firm tweets about the detention of Protasevich and Valean’s initial reaction on Twitter, which seemed oblivious to the journalist’s fate. The transport commissioner’s portfolio largely exists in that quasi-domestic sphere of the “politics of rules,” removed from great-power politics, while the Commission president is striving to respond to events and bring about a “geopolitical Commission.”

The urgent task before Europe is to finish that transition. This must start with deepening Europe’s strategic culture, notably by ensuring that the Strategic Compass, the two-year effort for developing common threat analysis and thinking through what kind of international actor the EU wants to be, remains a political process and delivers practical recommendations. Yet “speaking the language of power” is not enough. Several tools and instruments with great potential—the 5G toolbox, a European Magnitsky Act, and the European Defence Fund, to name but a few—have been developed over the past years. Using them to their full extent will be the EU’s real test. What is required now is not institutional frameworks but political boldness.

Washington can help focus the European debate over these issues, in part by clarifying its intentions and expectations about burden-sharing. As Biden meets his European counterparts, strong messaging supporting Europe’s transformation toward a more geopolitical politics could, ultimately, help the United States find a more reliable partner across the Atlantic.

Olivier-Rémy Bel is a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as a European affairs staffer to the French minister of defense as well as head of the EU desk at the French Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy.


NATO – Three priorities for NATO partnerships in a contested world (Lisa Aronsson and Brett Swaney, Atlantic Council)

The NATO Summit came at a pivotal moment for the Alliance as it adapts to a new security environment shaped by transnational challenges and increasing competition with Russia and, most significantly, China. The challenges associated with China’s rise first surfaced in official NATO documents during the 2019 Leaders Meeting, where allies agreed on the need to respond collectively. Since then, allied positions have hardened considerably as a result of the pandemic, China’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” economic coercion, and human-rights abuses. Today’s NATO Summit communiqué outlines China’s “systemic challenge to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.”

Over the next twelve months, the allies will negotiate a new Strategic Concept that adapts NATO’s core tasks—collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security—to this contested environment. It will be informed by the NATO 2030 Report, which characterized China as a full-spectrum rival and offered recommendations to strengthen NATO’s political dimensions and extend its global reach. The next Strategic Concept presents an opportunity to breathe new life into cooperative security by steering cooperation with non-member states toward these challenges. NATO should double down on what works—capacity-building—while expanding political consultations with partners and forging new frontiers in science and technology cooperation.

NATO’s Partnerships programs have provided options for cooperation with non-member states for more than twenty-five years. They’ve proven remarkably flexible and adaptable, serving partners’ as well as NATO’s evolving interests. They helped consolidate democratic transitions in Europe, provided support for NATO-led missions and operations, and strengthened collective defense and deterrence. Through Partnerships for Peace, NATO offers a menu of more than 1,400 activities open to all forty partner states around the world. Partners choose the scope, focus, and intensity of their cooperation with NATO. The arrangement has appealed to a diverse group of states, which NATO organized into the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, and Partners Across the Globe.

In the current environment, however, there is mounting pressure to adapt partnerships to ensure they continue to support NATO’s interests. The patchwork of geographic groupings is increasingly incongruent with today’s challenges. The groups have generally failed to promote security cooperation or political consultations at the regional level. They have also inhibited NATO’s ability to set priorities or steer cooperation with partners towards its own objectives. Moreover, the activities that partner states value most—capacity-building and interoperability, or the ability to link up their forces with NATO’s and act coherently—remain underfunded. As NATO reorients to incorporate China into a broader strategic calculus, how can NATO preserve what works for partners and adapt its partnership policies without defaulting to a one-size-fits-all approach?


Syria/USA – Narcos: Syria edition—and what the US can do about it (Ian Larson, Atlantic Council)

Major drug busts in Saudi ArabiaLebanonJordan, and elsewhere across the Middle East since April evidence the explosive growth in regional trafficking of the drug captagon, an amphetamine. Little-consumed outside the Middle East, captagon—also known as the “poor man’s cocaine”—has proliferated, owing to an industrial boom centered predominantly in war-torn Syria, where the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now relies on narcotics as a financial lifeline. While the United States cannot dismantle the Syrian narco-state, the Joe Biden administration can take low-risk, commonsense steps to end the impunity enjoyed by Syria’s drug kingpins and mitigate regional spillover effects.

Throughout the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime has transformed into one of the world’s leading narcotics enterprises. Hashish is among its major drug exports, but the most lucrative is captagon, a mild stimulant pill consumed recreationally throughout the Middle East. According to a report by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR), the street value of Syrian captagon in 2020 was at least $3.5 billion, five times the value of the country’s legitimate exports.

It is widely believed that Syria’s drug revenues are pocketed by Assad regime loyalists who control manufacturing plants, underground laboratories, and export facilities. Also critical to the industry are Iran-backed militia groups, including Lebanese Hezbollah, which smuggle the chemical precursors needed to synthesize the drugs. As the COAR report explains, narcotics are now a pillar of the Syrian war economy and, as other financial resources wither on the vine, the drug trade is likely to grow in importance, sustaining the Assad regime in defiance of the international community’s pressure campaign against Damascus.

Why is Washington silent?

Among the more puzzling aspects of the Syrian drug trade is the lack of any apparent US strategy to confront it. Captagon has long been acknowledged as a regional consequence of the Syrian civil war. In July 2020, Italian port officials intercepted a $1.1 billion shipment of the drug from Syria. Despite the Syrian drug trade’s expansion into Europe, the US and its allies have failed to set a clear agenda. Although it is believed that recent captagon interceptions in Eastern Europe, Turkey, and across the Middle East have been executed with intelligence shared by US drug officials, these interceptions do not represent a discernible strategy.

In the meantime, Syrian narco-entrepreneurs continue to enrich themselves as the drug trade destabilizes the region. At least three people were killed in clashes between Syrian drug smugglers and Jordanian border forces earlier in May. In parallel, Turkey intercepted what was described as the largest-ever shipment of illegal drugs—in this case, hashish—from Syria. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has warned of a burgeoning captagon trade in Iraq. Nowhere has the regional impact been greater than in Lebanon, which shares a mountainous frontier with Syria that is riddled with smuggling routes, creating conditions described by the EU as “strengthening the criminal links between the two countries.”

Lebanon’s entanglement in the regional captagon trade has brought its crumbling economy to a worrying precipice. In late April, the Saudi Interior Ministry banned Lebanese fruit and vegetable imports after authorities in Jeddah uncovered more than 5 million captagon pills hidden inside pomegranates arriving from Lebanon. Officials in Beirut protested the ban, claiming the shipment had originated in neighboring Syria. Their defense quickly fell apart. The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon subsequently tweeted that officials in Jeddah alone have seized more than 57 million captagon pills concealed in agricultural produce arriving from Lebanon since the beginning of 2020. The street value of the pills may exceed $1 billion, suggesting that Lebanon’s own narco-trafficking industry is also expanding rapidly.

‘Name and shame’

Only the Assad regime can end the Syrian drug trade, which it views as a critical financial resource given the nation’s battered economy and international isolation. As COAR explains, Assad is likely to exploit this position as leverage in future negotiations with the West. That said, the US can take simple steps now to end the climate of impunity. US officials possess a wealth of actionable information concerning Syrian narco-trafficking. In an interview with the author, researchers knowledgeable of illicit financing and the drug trade stated that a “name and shame” campaign can bring overdue attention to Syria’s captagon industry. Public disclosures can also reduce the pressure on key informants inside the country, who are currently reluctant to come forward with invaluable data out of fear of reprisal. Such information is vital to much-needed research on the drug trade and can support better enforcement outcomes.

Special designations

Sanctions are not a panacea. The US’ overreliance on coercive sanctions in Syria has complicated aid delivery and ultimately harmed the civilian population, as humanitarian carve-outs have consistently proven inadequate. However, sanctions designations for known major drug traffickers carry little such risk. They are also a first step in establishing a clear US agenda to counter the region’s booming narcotics industry. While the Syria Sanctions Program and Caesar Act grant expansive sanctioning authority, the Kingpin Act targeting international drug traffickers is more narrowly tailored and fit-to-purpose.

Support Lebanon

Apart from Syria itself, no country has been more adversely affected by the Syrian civil war and the regional drug trade than Lebanon. Its national army, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), is a linchpin of anti-narcotics operations and a potential guarantor of strategic US interests. The LAF is now in jeopardy, as Lebanon’s unprecedented economic collapse has severely weakened it. Morale is low, soldiers no longer receive meat rations, salaries have lost roughly 90 percent of their value, and the risk of defection is high. To date, the US has provided billions of dollars in aid to the LAF, including support for border enforcement and counter-narcotics capacity. Such support is imperative, as is non-military support to preserve the LAF’s basic functionality, including food rations, fuel, and logistical aid.

The LAF has detractors in the US, but it should be seen as a bulwark against Lebanon’s sectarian fragmentation. In the past, the LAF’s complex relationship with Hezbollah has raised hackles in Washington. However, a pragmatic US policy must recognize that, although the LAF cannot realistically curb Hezbollah’s powerful armed wing, the LAF will struggle to remain a counterbalance against the Iran-backed group without US support. In addition, since Lebanon’s popular uprising ignited in October 2019, the LAF has been accused of using excessive force against demonstrators that have advocated for the ousting of the country’s corrupt sectarian establishment. These charges are serious and worrying. However, the LAF remains broadly popular and it is arguably Lebanon’s only cross-cutting, multi-sectarian state institution. As the crisis in Lebanon has deepened, the army’s leadership has pushed back against orders to forcibly break up popular protests, siding instead with the diverse Lebanese population that the LAF is meant to represent.

Harm reduction and the underlying causes of drug use

Finally, US counter-narcotics initiatives must not export the US’s own failed drug policies. The proliferation of captagon can be seen as a Middle Eastern corollary of the opioid epidemic that has racked the US. Users in wealthy Gulf states consume captagon to partly escape the tedium of dead-end public sector work. In conflict-affected countries like Syria, such drugs are a diversion from the miseries that pervade daily life. A humane US counternarcotics strategy should include mental health and psychosocial support programming, mental health counseling, and addiction treatment, not “tough on crime” law enforcement initiatives that target end-users, particularly given the harsh sentences for drug use that are common in the region. The root causes of drug use are diverse, including rampant joblessness, political repression, and generational ennui. It is essential to ensure that the captagon boom is treated not only as a narco-financing issue, but as a consequence of persistent shortcomings brought on by inept governance, outside intervention, and economic malaise.

Ian Larson is an analyst focusing on Syria, humanitarian affairs, and aid policy at the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the positions of COAR’s donors. 


USA/Europe – US-EU Summit may end aircraft trade row, but it needs to fly higher to succeed (Barbara C. Matthews, Atlantic Council)

US-EU Summit may end aircraft trade row, but it needs to fly higher to succeed

An Airbus A350 jetliner flies over Boeing flags as it lands after a flying display during the 51st Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport near Paris, on June 15, 2015. Photo by Pascal Rossignol/Reuters.

The first US-EU summit in nearly a decade has raised hopes (and led to plenty of leaks) that some of the world’s most significant trade conflicts may come to an end.

A chance exists that bilateral tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump on Europe regarding large civil aircraft, and possibly also steel and aluminum tariffs, will be eliminated. However, eliminating these tariffs is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful transatlantic summit. The level of ambition—and deliverables—needs to be higher.

The optimism surrounding the US-EU summit is understandable. The pressure to deliver some concrete policy breakthroughs at the Brussels-based meetings is palpable. But if policymakers merely deliver movement regarding tariffs on selected physical items, they will have missed an opportunity to craft the foundations for a meaningful transatlantic relationship that addresses issues important to the 21st-century economy.

If US and EU leaders seek to provide a more effective 21st-century alternative to China’s state capitalism model for economic growth and prosperity, they must additionally begin to tackle deep transatlantic policy differences raised by the data revolution and the digital economy—from data privacy to technology company competition policy to climate-related financial policy and intellectual-property waivers for COVID-19 vaccines.

A report in the Financial Times on Monday night said that on the eve of the US-EU Summit, “two days of intensive negotiations in Brussels had left the EU and the Biden administration on the cusp of confirming a deal on subsidy rules for Airbus and Boeing.” The dispute between Washington and Brussels over subsidies is one of the longest-running battles in the history of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and a serious irritant to one of the world’s largest trade flows.

Promising moves by the US Trade Representative earlier this year placed both the metals and aircraft tariff policies on a path toward a negotiated solution by year-end. The recent agreement regarding a global corporate minimum tax at the G7 finance ministers meeting also creates hope that a trade war over digital-services taxes in Europe can be avoided, although it remains to be seen whether congressional action can deliver the kind of implementation that will meet European policy priorities.

A trio of parallel tariff talks are underway. They cover a range of siloed issues and trade tensions that have dominated the transatlantic relationship for years. For example, the decades-long litigation at the WTO between Washington and Brussels over aircraft subsidies culminated in a recent WTO decision authorizing the United States to impose tariffs on the EU. A parallel subsequent WTO ruling in favor of the EU effectively set the stage for a negotiated solution.

The stakes are certainly high. How policymakers choose to end this trade dispute will send significant signals to global trading partners about transatlantic policy regarding state subsidies going forward. This is a delicate issue. Many of the trade tensions regarding China stem from Beijing’s state-sponsored support for domestic companies. Recent US legislation adopting an aggressive industrial policy expressly to address geoeconomic competition with China suggests a deep American bipartisan consensus in favor of targeted subsidies. At the same time, the pandemic has sparked a much more permissive policy stance on both sides of the Atlantic regarding subsidies in order to deliver financial and economic stability amid extraordinary economic upheaval. Resolving aircraft-subsidies issues at this moment would thus be rife with irony.

Consider also the Trump administration’s imposition of import tariffs on steel and aluminum on national security/supply-chain diversification grounds. The move raised hackles in Europe, particularly since imports from America’s contiguous neighbors (Mexico and Canada) were largely exempted. Finally, European initiatives to impose (but not implement) taxes on American digital companies triggered retaliatory tariffs (which were temporarily waived) by the US Trade Representative under both the Trump and Biden administrations. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently indicated that European officials will eliminate digital taxes at the national level as soon as implementation begins of the recent agreement on a global corporate minimum tax. The key component of the agreement here is not so much the 15 percent minimum tax rate but the ability to attach tax liabilities at the location of consumption rather than the location of revenue recognition.

It is impressive to see that despite these policy tensions, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have so far kept the volume on disagreements sufficiently low to avoid loose talk of a renewed trade war. They want to reach agreement and move forward. A deal on Airbus-Boeing would be welcome evidence of this goodwill.

However, finding a way to address aircraft, steel, and aluminum tariff and subsidy issues should not be confused with success in rebuilding a fragile transatlantic working relationship. It is fine to end old arguments; but building a longer-term framework demands more.

Deep differences and policy priorities exist with respect to nearly all issues important to the global economy. European policymakers routinely refer to “technological sovereignty” by which they mean the imperative to rein in the economic and digital role that foreign (mostly Silicon Valley) companies play in their polities. The policy priorities on these issues in Europe are increasingly at odds with American priorities.

Many will rightly celebrate any agreement to end long-running tariff disputes. But if policymakers restrict their ambition, then they will miss an important opportunity to lay the foundation for resolving difficult issues raised by the data revolution and the digital economy. Real leadership that promotes transatlantic market competition and innovation will present a more effective alternative to China’s state capitalism model for economic growth and prosperity as well as a more meaningful foundation for the 21st-century economy.

Barbara C. Matthews is a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. She served as the first US Treasury attaché to the EU with the Senate-confirmed diplomatic rank of minister-counselor. She is also founder and CEO at BCMstrategy, Inc, which uses patented technology to measure public-policy risks.


NATO – Why NATO should invest in resilience (Jaclyn Levy, Atlantic Council)

The best defense: Why NATO should invest in resilience – Atlantic Council


USA/Afghanistan – Biden’s Europe trip can help secure Afghanistan’s future. Here’s how (Earl Anthony Wayne, James B. Cunningham, Atlantic Council)

Biden’s Europe trip can help secure Afghanistan’s future. Here’s how.

Afghan security forces escort Taliban militants, who were arrested by them, during a presentation to the media in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on March 14, 2021. Photo via Parwiz/Reuters.

Biden’s Europe trip can help secure Afghanistan’s future. Here’s how. – Atlantic Council


Global – Why the G7 summit matters, in seven charts (Atlantic Council)

The last time the Group of Seven (G7) leaders met in person, Donald Trump was president of the United States and no one had heard of a disease called COVID-19. Now, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to host his colleagues in Cornwall this weekend, the agenda is daunting. Can the world’s advanced economies learn from past mistakes and engineer a strong, inclusive global recovery?

IN BRIEF: Why the G7 summit matters, in seven charts – Atlantic Council


USA – Biden is building a doctrine around democracy. Will it work? (Daniel Fried, Atlantic Council)

Biden is building a doctrine around democracy. Will it work? – Atlantic Council


China/Europe/NATO – China is a present danger to Europe. NATO’s defense plans must respond (Atlantic Council)

John R. Deni

China is a present danger to Europe. NATO’s defense plans must respond. – Atlantic Council



Kyrgyzstan – The gathering threat to the US in Kyrgyzstan (Atlantic Council)

The gathering threat to the US in Kyrgyzstan

Supporters of Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov attend a rally in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on October 15, 2020. The banner reads: “Our President Sadyr Japarov.” Photo by Vladimir Pirogov/Reuters.

Lillian Posner

The gathering threat to the US in Kyrgyzstan – Atlantic Council