Europe to Planet America: Stay With Us, But Don’t Stampede Us
As the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign gears up, and conflicts on the other side of the Atlantic multiply, two opposing views of what the United States should do about European security are competing for airspace in the U.S. public debate:
- “Let’s Get Out of There”: The United States no longer has any business being engaged in Europe’s security. It should let the (mild expletive deleted) Europeans deal with their own problems and focus on more urgent concerns elsewhere.
- “We Have to Get Back in There”: Europe will collapse/implode/be invaded by polite green men/the self-proclaimed Islamic State group/migrants, unless the U.S. of A takes the reins again, rides to the front, and saves the day.
Both of these prescriptions are off base. They do not even accurately describe the state of the current transatlantic division of labor.
In reality, the United States and European governments have not worked so closely together on key security issues, nor so successfully, in quite a while. After Ukraine’s Euromaidan uprising in February 2014, Washington together with Berlin, Paris, Warsaw and other capitals on the continent hammered out a consensus on sanctions against Russia. Those sanctions remain in place. They had a substantial effect on the markets, and they came as a highly unpleasant surprise to the government of President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, NATO — the military arm of the transatlantic alliance — is ramping up its capabilities. Several European governments (including Germany) are increasing their defense budgets, sometimes to their own astonishment.
More recently, July’s Iran deal concluded more than a decade of tense negotiations, after some near-disastrous failures, dead-ends, and dangerous brinksmanship. U.S., British, French, German, and Russian negotiators managed to bridge very different interests, attitudes, and expectations, and ended up playing as a tightly coordinated diplomatic tag team — a fact that did not fail to impress the government in Teheran.
Neither the current stalemate in Ukraine nor the Iran deal are perfect outcomes; far from it. But it is safe to say that in both cases, a concerted effort at transatlantic diplomacy averted war. European governments — contrary to popular misconception, at least in the United States — played significant roles, and even took the lead. Indeed, the administration of President Barack Obama gave them the space to do so. Ukraine and Iran are excellent examples of what close transatlantic security cooperation can achieve when the United States and Europe share a sense of threat. But that is also the bad news: it took the very real risk of a major conflagration involving states with nuclear weapons, and possibly willing to use them, to force the allies to focus and work together.
On the “machine room” level of policy implementation and transactional diplomacy, the state of transatlantic cooperation is actually pretty good. It is mostly pragmatic, constructive, and based on a broad set of shared interests and values. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the United States and the European Union have been developing a new appreciation for each other. Europeans have been watching with some admiration as Obama ticks off his foreign policy legacy list (Iran and Cuba recently, but Guantanamo is still work in progress), at the same time finding a much more relaxed and confident voice to talk about domestic concerns such as race. The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court rescued the administration’s healthcare legislation and acknowledged the right to same-sex marriage within a week thrilled many on the other side of the Atlantic. Feelings in the United States about Europe are perhaps a bit more mixed; criticism of our handling of the Greek crisis has been mostly scathing. But European governments’ unexpected readiness to stand up to Russia has left a favorable impression in Washington. As for the Iran deal, it took the United States to get it clinched — but Europeans (and a German initiative) brought it to the table in the first place.
Absent imminent disaster, however, the transatlantic record of cooperation on security risks and threats is a lot less impressive. We are flailing in the fight against ISIS, and seem powerless to stop the disastrous civil war in Syria, or sectarian conflict in Iraq. We are rooted to the ground watching a multi-tentacled Chinese foreign policy that ranges from island-building in East Asian seas to laying transport lines across Eurasia to gobbling up textile factories in Italy and the U.S. South. A Russia crumbling under its own inability to modernize and adapt to globalization is surely a daunting prospect, but one for which we appear unprepared. Our track record in shoring up states and their societies against the risk of disintegration and helping them to transform (Tunisia, say, or Ukraine) is dismal. As for the West’s most noble achievement after ending the last world war in 1945 — building and maintaining the norms and institutions that supported a liberal and open international order for 70 years — we seem today to be doing almost no building and little maintenance.
Our strategic situations are also very different. The United States, with its global remit, has no lack of urgent concerns — but none of those currently threaten its primacy in the international order, much less its existence. Europeans, in contrast, are facing a dizzying array of domestic and external security threats, the worst since the Cold War order collapsed a generation ago. The sovereign debt crisis continues to grip the continent. It has produced a festering North-South divide, with slow growth, high levels of youth unemployment, and badly managed immigration feeding a toxic compound of anti-globalization, anti-EU, and anti-foreigner populist sentiment. Russia is stoking war in Ukraine, intimidating its neighbors from Belarus to the Caucasus, and insistently probing the vulnerabilities of EU members great and small. In Northern Africa and the Middle East, the postwar regional order is crumbling, producing a mass outpouring of refugees. To quote Sweden’s former prime minister, Carl Bildt, Europe appears to be surrounded by a ring of fire. And it is not just the neighborhood, but the European project itself that is under threat.
Under the circumstances, it is hard not to have some sympathy for the Let’s Get Out of Here camp. Americans have every right to expect Europeans to do more to tackle their own problems and those of their neighborhood after providing a security umbrella for the democratic nations (and some undemocratic, but non-Communist ones) of the continent for the better part of a century. The United States has legitimate security concerns elsewhere on the globe, the largest but by no means the only one being the rise of China. Ordinary Americans are understandably tired of war, and wary of new entanglements.
Still, there are compelling reasons for the United States to stay engaged in and with Europe. Executive Summary for the Nervous, Part One: Most of our concerns are your concerns, too. Here are some examples:
- Shale gas exploitation has made the United States far less dependent on the Middle East’s oil. But Israel’s security remains a paramount interest, as does containing Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. The United States needs a stable Egypt and Saudi Arabia as allies. For all this, Europe’s diplomatic heft, its trade power, and, yes, the weapons it supplies to allies, are critical.
- Russia’s cooperation remains important for dealing with burning U.S. regional and global concerns (Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, counterterrorism). According to U.S. “realists” like John Mearsheimer or Stephen Walt, Ukraine (Russia’s victim) is at best a second-order problem for the transatlantic relationship. But Moscow has violated principles — territorial sovereignty, the right to choose alliances — that go to the heart of what the West, and particularly the United States, stand for. Sacrificing these on the altar of expediency is unlikely to gain Putin’s respect, or make him a more amenable partner. Sanctions, on the other hand, have (together with falling oil prices and a declining Russian economy) sent an unambiguous Western message of condemnation and increased the cost of Russia’s aggression. They would be meaningless without European support, which, by the way, comes at a much higher price.
- The United States’ and Europe’s economies have become deeply integrated through mutual trade and investment, creating a lot of wealth and jobs. As the financial crisis showed, it also made us more vulnerable to disruptions and contagion on either side of the Atlantic. Europe’s inability to resolve its sovereign debt crisis would be highly damaging for U.S. business interests, and the U.S. economy. It would also undercut any effort by Europe to carry a greater share of the transatlantic security burden.
- Last but not least, Europe shares many U.S. values and its fundamental preference for a liberal international order. Its support provides legitimacy and leverage to what otherwise would often appear as U.S. unilateralism. The United States would be strong enough to deal with a belligerent Russia and a Middle East in flames on its own. But that would be lonely, costly, and wearying. Sharing the burden is cheaper.
But the We Have To Get Back in There faction does not have it right either — notwithstanding the numerous Eastern Europeans clamoring for the United States to bring back Cold-War levels of troops and armaments to Europe. Executive Summary for the Nervous, Part Two: We need the United States to stick with us, but not to stampede us. These are the arguments:
- In case of a war in Europe, we would need massive U.S. help, and it is hard to imagine that the United States would not come to the rescue. But — like a deliberate, “Article V”-type attack against a NATO member state — it is the least likely thing to happen. Fixating on this scenario is dangerous, because it prevents preparation, and cooperation, for much more likely risks, such as the accidental escalation of a minor conflict.
- Short of major war, we have to assume the United States will not bring tank divisions back to Europe. Not only that, Europeans must come to grips with the fact that their ally might need its assets for more urgent purposes elsewhere. And even if that were not the case, they might face a reluctant or inward-looking administration, Congress, or public opinion. In sum, Europeans should not presume that the United States will continue to supply the backbone of Europe’s defense in all contingencies.
- There can be no question that Europe’s states need to improve their defense and deterrence — particularly if they can no longer free-ride on U.S. capabilities. This requires, among other things, increased defense budgets and a renewed focus on hard power. The United States has a role to play by stopping harping on the 2 percent (defense expenditures relative to GDP) benchmark; simply spending more does not solve problems.
- Instead, the United States should help Europeans figure out how to develop their capabilities, use their budgets more intelligently, and how to create more common European assets and forces. That, and only that, will allow them to deter threats and defend themselves. It will also make them better allies.
- The United States should help Europeans improve the software for their hard power: intelligence, analysis, foresight, doctrines, planning, coordination. It should also help them think through how to create resilience at the national and the EU level. And, yes, Europeans have some governance and leadership problems to resolve in the EU; the United States is not helping them deal with those if it plays its bilateral relationships in Europe against each other. That is one thing one can safely leave to the Russians.
- Europeans (some of them, anyway) understand why some in the United States might want to deliver arms to the Ukrainian government. Ukrainians have a right to defend themselves against aggression. But consider that the impact of such an action will be felt by the Ukrainians and their European neighbors long before the United States ever notices it. Consult with the Europeans, and listen to them: will that scenario create more stability, or escalation?
One thing is certain: Only if Europe resolves its own security dilemmas will it ever be able to join the United States in providing stability and security on a more global level.