An American Perspective on Europe

This approach comes in the form of a thought experiment designed to illuminate, but not predict, possible outcomes. It sketches three scenarios and asks whether they would serve US interests.

In scenario one, Europe achieves all it wants: A robust economy, security, an orderly flow of immigrants, the harmonious evolution of new political parties, and a collegial spirit within the European Union. Europe thinks of itself as a model of global governance. Relations with Russia have turned the corner. The EU accession process is on track.  The Balkans are peaceful. NATO has achieved its objective in Afghanistan. The position of the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy has gained respect. Europe feels good about itself.

Much in this scenario supports US interests. A vibrant Europe can partner with the United States in tackling common tasks. But there is a downside. This Europe may well have a significantly different appreciation than Washington of the challenges and possible ways to address them. An EU such as the one sketched above could want its own way and be headstrong about it.

Since the end of World War II, the United States has exercised leadership with Europeans who, often willingly, have been content to be in the rumble seat. The condition of Europe described above would require a substantial adjustment in US attitudes, which could result in a discordant transatlantic environment.

In scenario two, Europe is stuck. A sluggish economy has triggered beggar-thy-neighbor practices.  Joblessness creates a sour mood. Eastern Europe does not feel secure. Western Europe suffers from the threat of terrorism. Nonetheless, migrants continue to flock to Europe and their assimilation remains a societal problem. Distrust permeates the EU project. Public confidence in the EU—never high in this top-down structure—is at an all-time low.

Domestic politics have become unsettled by voter preference for new parties which, though they appear as if out of nowhere, nonetheless attract substantial support from voters tired of the old political order. Governments are losing their legitimacy in the eyes of the electorate. Governance has become a problem.

EU enlargement has halted, leaving some disillusioned outsiders. Relations with Russia are uneven, given the resentful signals emanating from Moscow. The war in Afghanistan has left a bitter aftertaste. European NATO members have concluded that the Alliance should not be caught again in hostilities far away from home.

It does not take deep research to conclude that the state of affairs described in this scenario would be deeply troublesome for the United States. Washington would find itself without an effective civilian, diplomatic or military partner. Given the intimate interconnection between the United States and Europe, Washington would be bound to safeguard its interests in Europe. However, the US public might not take kindly to the prospect of devoting—once again—US resources to help out Europe. So the greater the failures of Europe, the greater will be the challenge to the United States to help keep Europe together as a viable global partner.

The two scenarios described above are hypothetical. They sketch extreme conditions that are unlikely to occur, but they serve to make one point: both scenarios would negatively affect US interests.

More likely is a third scenario—a situation between scenarios one and two. It is hard to describe what this scenario would look like since it would come about as a result of a mix of infinite variables that could combine in random fashion. Grosso modo, however, it would serve US interests better than the situations described in scenarios one and two.

The EU road is littered with attempts to describe this third scenario, and to offer prescriptions for action. One noteworthy attempt to sketch a US-EU partnership was contained in Shoulder to Shoulder: Forging a Strategic US-EU Partnership, published in 2009 by Daniel S. Hamilton and Frances Burwell. [Burwell is the Vice President of European Union and Special Initiatives at the Atlantic Council.] This comprehensive overview of transatlantic relations recognized many challenges, but on the whole sketched a positive picture, of a glass more than half full.

Now, however, the glass is mostly empty. Europe is in trouble. The list of problems is daunting:  a spluttering economy, security threats emanating from Russia, an avalanche of migrants, an unraveling EU, the rise of populism, homegrown terrorism, and a weakened German Chancellor.

It is a key US interest that Europe remain in a position to partner with the United States to deal with European and global issues. The record has been good, though there is a feeling in Europe that Washington no longer cares. Nonetheless, the United States appears ready to support its European partners and allies where it can.

However much the United States might support the goal of a Europe whole, free, prosperous and at peace, it does not follow that Washington should give unqualified support to the EU, which is the political, social, and economic edifice the Europeans have laboriously built to pull the parts of the continent closer together. European publics are turning away from the EU, which many regard as sluggish, undynamic, unwieldy, and meddlesome.

Many of the problems facing the EU can be dealt with only by Europeans, at times with sympathetic US support. There are a few issues, however, where an active US role now is necessary.

On the calendar, most acute is the June 23 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the EU. Overt US calls for this not to happen would be out of place. However, Washington would be well within its rights to point out the US interest in the United Kingdom staying in the EU.

Another issue where a US role is essential is Russia policy. The Minsk process, in which Germany and France have dealt with Russia about Ukraine, needs strong US participation.

US leadership in NATO is also essential in building up the West’s military posture in defense of the Baltic countries, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Washington also needs to revisit the issue of providing arms to Ukraine.

US persistence in seeking a political outcome in Syria is a crucial ingredient in stemming the flow of migrants, the sheer volume of whom threaten to tear apart the European social and political fabric.

Finally, continued support of European integration remains a matter of US self interest. This does not mean unqualified support for the EU in its present form. Europe will not reach the point described in scenario one for a long time, if ever. Even so, the possible downside of facing an assertive EU is a better alternative than to have to mount another effort to prop up a faltering Europe.

Marten van Heuven is a lifetime member of the Atlantic Council’s board.

Image: German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with US President Barack Obama during the G7 summit outside the Elmau castle in Germany on June 8, 2015. (Reuters/Michael Kappeler)