President Herbert Hoover is generally remembered as the man who wrung his hands during the Great Depression. It’s often overlooked that he had advanced a sophisticated explanation for it in which the main culprit was Europe, namely European debt.
Hoover’s diagnosis may not have been entirely accurate. But he was right about one thing: blaming Europe for America’s woes – and vice versa – makes sense. It just doesn’t get anybody very far. “Get your house in order” is not the most useful diplomatic message to hear.
Someday people may say this was all for the best: perhaps the Europeans performed yet another magical act of muddling through and strengthened their institutions in the process; or that the Eurozone needed a good haircut; or that it was finally time to move beyond the trans-Atlantic commitment which has come appear more and more like a figment of the 20th century. Commitment these days seems to mean little besides troops and aid packages, neither of which are terribly popular with the American electorate. And getting one’s house in order is not such a bad thing – for all concerned.
Nevertheless, for some months American and other commentators have been diagnosing the Eurozone’s problems from afar, offering solutions and lecturing European leaders on what they “need to do.” Some of the commentary has bordered on Schadenfreude, which is not unexpected (or necessarily unhelpful). What is more surprising, and more
problematic, is the public attitude of the US government.
There have been repeated suggestions that the Obama administration has gone out of its way repeatedly to help the Eurozone, especially the European Central Bank, meet the crisis. This, too, is only to be expected among allies. But it’s hardly enough. Many experts have said the crisis is as much political as economic, and goes to the core faith and trust in the European project. If so, the diffidence of the United States is remarkable given that it has spent the past 70 years investing a great deal in the success of that project.
Investing means more than boosting the mood of bankers, consumers and markets. It means, above all, conveying a message of solidarity, trust, confidence and mutual responsibility. It means not saying, Get your house in order, but instead, How do we solve our problem, together? It means educating citizens and “selling” policies openly rather than doing somersault exercises of limited liability. It means setting the right priorities and standing by them.
The Secretary of State has been practically mute on this topic; in fact, she chose the moment to make a speech about reorienting the US foreign policy for a “Pacific Century“ and another about “economic statecraft” that barely mentioned Europe. The Secretary of the Treasury and the former Secretary of Defense have chastised European leaders for poor stewardship and misplaced policies; the President has even accused them of “scaring the world.” No senior diplomat — not the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, nor the Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs — has spoken meaningfully or constructively about the political stake the United States now has in the solvency of Europe.
It’s about time for a change in tone. The crisis is no longer, as the president’s spokesman put just yesterday, just “a European problem that needs to be addressed… and they have the capacity to do it.” We’re all in this together. Every American official – from the president on down – needs to begin sending that message loud and clear.
Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute and author of “The Atlantic Century.”