In 1945 Europe was a broken and isolated continent. Its grand traditions of openness and invention had seemingly been shattered forever. It was a civilization without a strategic purpose, other than to regain stability. For the past six decades Europe has defined its strategic choices from this starting point. Even two decades after the collapse of communism, Europe still seems burdened by a trauma from the past. Its primary political roadmap is a 20-page treaty which outlines its internal bureaucracy. Economically, Europe has risen far beyond even the most optimistic predictions of sixty years ago. But its political life seems to be frozen in time. In a world of radical change, the debilitating effect of this stasis on political leadership has been severe. European leaders find it hard to deal with new challenges because they have forgotten how to think strategically… Europe is, in a very real sense, a strategy-free zone.
In today’s Europe, as Marshall McLuhan put it : “the message is the massage.” Raised on Europe’s mantra of peace and stability, many Europeans actually feel a sense of superiority from the success of what they see as their innovative “peace policy.” They believe that their multilateral institution-building has “erased the threat of war forever,” and that this method can be applied across the globe. Even the euro was sold not as a tool for a dynamic financial future but as a guarantee that Europe would never fight another war.
John Kay noted recently in the Financial Times : “From its inception, the guiding philosophy of the EU was that if you took every opportunity to promote the mechanisms of integration, political and economic reality would eventually catch up. But such a policy was always risky, because if institutions did not match aspirations then the resulting strains would jeopardize not just future progress but the gains already made.”
Exactly this happened in two post-Cold War crises—the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the current financial instability. In each case, European leaders were unable to deal with situations created by outside players who wanted conflict rather than peace. Neither Slobodan Milosevic nor financial markets gave one hoot about the august ideals of the European Union.
One often meets Europeans these days who say their belief in Europe was nothing but an illusion. The EU is experiencing a serious crisis of confidence among its citizens. Equally worrisome is the growing loss of confidence by its essential protector, the United States. America is effectively also a European power whose interests are deeply integrated across the Atlantic. Even today, without the support and presence of the United States, the EU as we know it could not exist. But continuation of this active support is anything but certain. America no longer sees its own identity reflected in global structures of multilateral diplomacy. It judges partners by performance rather than historical ties. In this race, Europe is bound to lose.
During the Cold War, Europe enjoyed a strategic advantage of the first order—its territory constituted the front line of East-West military confrontation. Europe’s most important strategic goal after 1990 should have been to offset the loss of geographic advantage by defining a new post-Cold War global strategic relationship cementing America’s presence in Europe through NATO. Instead, European NATO allies committed one of the most dramatic blunders of modern diplomatic history. Rather than expanding their horizons, they contracted them, attempting to outfit their new “European Union” with a separate military and security identity outside of NATO. Europe turned dramatically inward, with lasting consequences, not just in the field of security. The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) as it is now called, has done little to increase Europe’s defense contribution but it has reduced European influence by progressively severing the strategic link to American global thinking.
As a result, Europe and the United States have reached a defense policy stand-off reflected dramatically in former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent valedictory speech. America is consumed by global crises and cares little for Europe’s preoccupations. With publics schooled on the mantra of the EU, European leaders have been unable to communicate a credible strategic narrative to the United States. Talk with American military planners these days and you learn that Europe is no longer a part of their strategic calculations. America’s next generation will care even less.
For nations dedicated to expanding their global economic and cultural influence, Europe’s declining ability to protect its security interests is cause for major concern. If current trends continue, Europe’s central geographic position, highly developed infrastructure, and commercial skills should lead to growing engagement across the globe. In order to protect these interests, Europe desperately needs an updated defense concept and a revitalized alliance with the United States. Luckily, Europe is not without options. Despite its current weakness, Europe still maintains an amazing advantage not available to anyone else—it is tied together with the greatest military power in the history of mankind in a formal military alliance. The United States is committed to defend, militarily if necessary, European security interests within the area defined by the treaty.
Events since 2001 have demonstrated that the United States is now willing to expand NATO’s reach beyond the area originally covered. This is a bounty unprecedented in history. In a more rational world, Europeans would run, not walk to re-consecrate this bargain. Drastic increases in defense budgets are probably not necessary. More important would be an open dialogue which seeks new strategic unity. An initiative for a “crisis dialogue” with a broad agenda for a new “Atlanticism” would likely receive a positive response in Washington. What Americans want is a sense of strategic consensus and a willingness to take political risks in support of joint interests. Europeans are engaged in many parts of the world and could offer important insights. America’s withdrawal from military conflicts and its need to cut its defense budget offer an excellent opportunity to define a new global Atlanticism.