Goodbye to Europe?


"It is more than a little ironic that NATO has committed itself to defining a new strategic concept at precisely the moment the transatlantic relationship counts for less than at any time since the 1930s."  So begins an FT op-ed by CFR president Richard Haass.

Is he right?

The notion is enough to send chills down the spine of an Atlanticist.  And Haas isn’t some random observer.   In addition to seven years heading up what is arguably the most prestigious and important foreign policy forum on the planet, he has spent numerous years at high levels of government service and written nearly a dozen books on international politics.  Indeed, I assigned one of them, Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post-Cold War World, in my teaching days.

That said, Haass conflates urgency and importance.

While Europe was the central arena for much of 20th- century history and a principal theatre for both world wars and the cold war, it now is mostly at peace. The Franco-German rift has been replaced by a broader integration of the continent inside the European Union, with France and Germany at its core. Europe is to a large extent whole and free. What happens within it will not determine the arc of the 21st century.

But this, we can all agree, is a good thing!  And it also means that Europe, rather than being a challenge in its own right for U.S. foreign policy, has the means to work with the United States in addressing today’s global challenges.

The next several paragraphs — which I largely agree with — address the travails of the European Union and its common currency.  But it leads to this conclusion:

Behind this drift is the stark reality that Europeans have never quite committed to Europe, largely because of the continued pull of nationalism. If Europeans were serious about being a major power, they would trade the British and French United Nations Security Council seats for a European one. This is not about to happen.

Well . . . sure.  But so what?  First, Britain and France are already major powers.  Indeed, much more so than Russia, which also holds a seat.  Second, by upending the UN Charter in this way, they’d solve one problem but create a much bigger one:  opening the Pandora’s box for others to demand a seat of their own.   And, aside from the ridiculously complicated matter of where one draws the line, we’d doubtless make the Security Council even more unwieldy and useless than it already is.  At least Paris and London tend to be on the same sheet of music on matters of international security.  Do we really want to add, say, New Delhi, Brasilia, and Abuja to the mix? 

Europe’s drift also manifests itself militarily. Few European states are willing to devote even 2 per cent of their budgets to defence; and what they spend their money on makes little sense. National politics and economics dictate expenditures, so there is much replication of what is not relevant and little investment in what is needed. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Americans have been lamenting this issue since at least the 1970s.  Could Europe do more?  Probably.  Would I prefer that they did?  Absolutely!  But, while we share common values and interest with our Allies on the other side of the Atlantic, they have every right to decide their own interests.  They’re mature democracies and their publics have every bit as much right to decide how to spend their treasure as ours.

Beyond that, our NATO Allies, especially the wealthier, older members, have more modern military capability than anyone we could conceivably fight.  

Afghanistan is a case in point. The European contribution there is substantial, with more than 30,000 soldiers from EU countries. But the involvement is uneven, with nearly a third of the troops coming from the UK. In many cases the roles are diluted by governmental “caveats” that limit missions, a lack of equipment and commitments of uncertain duration. European political culture has evolved in ways that make it harder to field militaries willing to bear the cost in blood; the US secretary of defence describes this as “the demilitarisation of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it”. All this limits NATO’s future role, as NATO mostly makes sense as an expeditionary force in an unstable world, not as a standing army on a stable continent.

And, sadly, I agree with all of that.   I have little confidence that NATO, especially an expanded NATO, will ever be a unified global expeditionary force.   The new Strategic Concept should simply recognize that fact and allow it to evolve in ways that are plausible.  The unanimity requirement should go away, allowing willing Allies to form task forces to handle given missions, and member militaries should organize and equip in ways that their political circumstances allow them to be best utilized.

But it’s not as if, absent NATO, the United States would have eschewed fighting in Afghanistan.  Or that the presence of NATO has kept a long line of eager contributors at bay.  So, while it’s worthwhile to, as Lord Robertson argued in his Makins Lecture, take "a less gentlemanly approach to capabilities" and to "be honest and brutal" about defense budgeting, it’s absurd to discount the value added by the admittedly flawed current structure.

The combination of structural economic flaws, political parochialism and military limits will accelerate this transatlantic drift. A weaker Europe will possess a smaller voice and role. NATO will no longer be the default partner for American foreign policy. Instead, the US will forge coalitions of the willing to deal with specific challenges. These clusters will sometimes include European countries, but rarely, if ever, will the US look to either NATO or the EU as a whole. Even before it began, Europe’s moment as a major world power in the 21st century looks to be over.

Nonsense.  "Europe" remains an aspiration rather than a reality.  But the countries of Europe, and especially the Big Three of the UK, France, and Germany, remain among the most important players in the world order.

The aggregate economy of the Eurozone, even in its current frazzled state, remains, depending on the momentary conversion rate and who’s doing the figuring, either slightly ahead of or slightly behind that of the United States.  The next nearest competitors, Japan and China, aren’t even in the discussion.  And they’re closely followed by:  Germany, France, the UK, and Italy.

And, who, exactly, is going to replace NATO and its constituent members as "the default partner for American foreign policy"? 

China?  Certainly, they’re the rising power with the most potential to be a peer at some point in the distant future.   But there’s the slight matter of shared values and interests.  We have those with the pesky Europeans.  Not so much with China.

Russia? Please.

India?  Again, another major power and one with which we’ll no doubt pursue closer ties in the coming years.  They’re a significant economic player and on the rise.  And they’ve got a modern military, too.  And, with some important caveats, a pretty strong democracy.  But are they really more likely than NATO to fight with us in coming wars?  

Japan? Brazil?  South Korea?  Closer ties seem likely but, again, they’re not going to replace Europe.

There’s always the Aussies and Kiwis, of course, but they’re by all rights part of NATO in all but name as it is.  It’s easy to imagine them joining a coalition of the willing that excluded formal NATO but not one that didn’t include Britain, Canada, and France. 

No, Haass is frustrated because the fantasy of a United States of Europe — which would have seemed utterly ridiculous twenty years ago — has yet to fully materialize.  If that ever happens, Europe will be a peer superpower and in union more influential than its constituent members are separately.   But, until it does — or even if it doesn’t — Europe and the transatlantic relationship will nonetheless continue to be the most important one for the United States.  There’s simply no plausible alternative on the horizon.

It’ll, of course, continue to be frustrating dealing with that many capitals and overlapping institutions.   But when hasn’t it been?

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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