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U.S. President Joe Biden “absolutely” supports European allies developing their own, stronger military capabilities — but it’s high time for EU leaders to move beyond theory and rhetoric, State Department Counselor Derek Chollet told POLITICO on a visit to Brussels.

Otherwise, Chollet warned, the gap between what the U.S. military can do — and what Europe’s collective militaries can’t do — will only grow wider, especially when it comes to confronting new threats from China.

The push for increased European military prowess, often called “strategic autonomy,” got a boost from Biden this fall after his administration infuriated France by announcing a surprise Indo-Pacific security partnership with the U.K. and Australia.

As part of his effort to patch up relations with French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden agreed to support a raft of joint security and defense initiatives, which they discussed on the sidelines of the recent G20 summit in Rome and detailed in a joint statement.

Critics of strategic autonomy, including some skeptical allies in eastern Europe, often cite the risk of creating redundancy or overlap with capabilities that the U.S. already provides to NATO. But Chollet, in the interview at the U.S. representation in Brussels, said he was far more concerned that European allies once again would fail to take on more responsibility — and pay for it.

“I sat through many, many defense ministerials when I was working at the Pentagon and was here in Brussels, where every defense minister around the table would all be in violent agreement about the need to spend more on defense and have a more modern capable military,” said Chollet, who has spent more than a quarter-century working on U.S. diplomacy inside and outside of 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 advocate for those budgets, and they were not successful,” he added. “And that’s a dynamic that still exists here.”

Chollet said that if European allies were finally ready to get serious, Washington would be more than happy to provide guidance about the types of capabilities to start building up.

“We’re willing — we, the United States — are willing 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 Europe’s militaries after the war in Kosovo from 1998-99.

“It’s in America’s interest for Europe to be more capable militarily. That’s why U.S. administrations, presidents from both parties, secretaries of defense going back the last six or seven, have all talked about the 2 percent GDP as a sort of basic good housekeeping standard for military spending,” he said, referencing a spending goal made by NATO allies.

But he also said European leaders needed to stop talking and start doing, pointing to the promise of French-led anti-terrorism operations in the Sahel region of Africa. Still, he noted, many allies lack sufficient air-lift, transport and logistical operations.

“It’s important,” he said, “to get out of the theoretical realm, the think tank realm of strategic autonomy … and to talk about pragmatic, practical solutions.”

Bosnia trip

Chollet’s stop in Brussels, for meetings with NATO and EU counterparts, came following a trip to Sarajevo, where he urged Bosnia’s three presidents to ease political tensions that have once again raised fears that the Dayton peace accords, brokered by the U.S. and EU in the early 1990s, might fall apart.

Chollet last visited Bosnia 20 years ago as an aide to Richard Holbrooke, the legendary U.S. diplomat who helped get 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 the Dayton signing, and Chollet said he carried a “pretty stern message” from the Biden administration, warning the country’s leaders against provocative language, including some suggesting a breakup of the country.

“There’s increasing rhetoric within Bosnia Herzegovina that’s secessionist, that’s about dissolving the state, you know, withdrawing from common institutions,” he said.

Chollet noted that numerous 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 therefore are really worried about where things are now,” Chollet said.

Chollet noted that throughout the Western Balkans, countries were eager to move forward with their bids for membership in the EU, and he said that progress for countries like North Macedonia and Albania would also raise spirits in Bosnia.

“The impatience is palpable in the region,” he said. “One hears about it every, at almost every turn.”

An eye on Belarus

Other trouble spots in Europe are also on his radar, including the crisis along the Belarus-Poland border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has used migrants for what the EU has termed a “hybrid attack.”

“The weaponization of innocent people … it’s abhorrent,” he said, adding that Washington is in constant contact with Warsaw to offer its support and is also worried about similar attacks on Lithuania. “What Lukashenko is doing … there should be no question or any guessing of what’s happening here and how despicable it is.”

As a State Department counselor, Chollet serves as an all-around adviser to Blinken. Previously, he has 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 veritable in-house scribe of State Department history, he noted the unhappy precedent of having so few of Biden’s ambassadors confirmed by the Senate, partly the result of a Republican blocking campaign, and fueled by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.  

“We don’t have our team on the field,” Chollet said. “And it’s historic of what’s happening right now. … It’s off the charts in terms of where things are, in terms of the number of nominations and those confirmed. I think we’ve got 50-some people pending in the US Senate.”

“There’s consequences,” he added. “You can’t expect to be successful and to use the influence that many want the U.S. to use around the world to try to solve problems, make people’s lives better, serve our interests, if you’re not enabling the president’s representatives to get out and start doing their jobs.”

In the interview, Chollet described the backlog in ambassador confirmations as evidence of the larger political polarization and gridlock that has gripped the U.S. in recent years and worsened during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, which he said created “a lot of uncertainty and guessing about where the U.S. is headed.” Biden, he argued, has “tried to spend the first 10 months resetting a bit.”

Chollet said that Biden, like former President Barack Obama, was wrestling with an ever-more complicated, multipolar global system and trying to repair the damage at home and abroad: “Now, we’ve got the rise of China, we had a pandemic, and that we’re still struggling with, of course, and deeper domestic dysfunction in the United States.”

And Biden must give attention to that dysfunction, he said.

“First and foremost for this administration … is get your domestic house in order, right?” Chollet argued. “We’re not going to get anywhere if our country is going to still be crippled by the pandemic … if our economy is going to be shaky, [if] we can’t get things like infrastructure passed — which the president did — and if our domestic political system is unable to do things like get ambassadors confirmed.”

Traveling around the world, he said he sensed that America had not lost its luster.

“There is still a very strong demand signal for American leadership,” he said. “Whether it’s in Bosnia, where I just was, whether it’s in Southeast Asia, where I was three weeks ago, whether it’s in Libya and Tunisia, where I was six weeks ago: People want more of the United States. They want our presence. They want our leadership.”

And that, he said, he tells friends at home is not to be taken for granted: “The U.S. in that position is unique. There are not many countries that you can say that about, if any actually around the world. There’s not a lot of people wanting more of China.”

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