international analysis and commentary

Saving the West: the EU’s challenges ahead, from an American perspective


One of my favorite English words is jeremiad, a reference to the fire and brimstone Old Testament prophet. Loosely translated, it means a prolonged lamentation or complaint, a cautionary harangue. Please consider this my jeremiad about the catastrophe that the Ukrainian crisis truly highlights, which is the passing from the scene of the West itself.

For in reality it is very late in the day to save the West. On one hand, we have the weary post-Iraq, post-Lehman Brothers American public eager to do less on the international stage, a startling reality too often brushed aside by both overly-sanguine European commentators as well as the American foreign policy elite. It serves the interests of both to simply ignore this fundamental new political fact, which conditions everything the Obama administration tries to do overseas.

A December 2013 Pew Research Poll found that for the first time in 50 years, a majority of US respondents said America should mind its own business internationally, while just 38% disagreed. Further, a full 80% agree the US shouldn’t think so much in international terms, but should instead concentrate on national problems. Glaringly, support is just not there for an activist, ambitious American foreign policy. The next time an American neoconservative on the right or a Wilsonian on the left talks about doing anything, it is the duty of Europeans everywhere to demand how this is possible, given these dramatic numbers.

This American desire to do less mixes with the European penchant for over-promising and under-delivering, creating a truly toxic brew. For example, immediately following the ouster of President Yanukovych of Ukraine there were actually articles being written pointing to this as the great triumph of the EU, as if President Putin would somehow meekly accept this (from his perspective) utterly disastrous geopolitical setback. But magical thinking will not save either Europe or the West itself; only reality-based reasoning will.

To continue drifting along impotently as we are is a recipe for the continued mummification of an alliance system that was rightly the envy of the rest of the world. Instead of the usual flowery tributes about us all sharing common values, and having worked together so well in the past, it is incumbent upon us to tell each other what we want and expect of the other, to look at how our fundamental interests line up, and then see what can be done to stitch things back together. In other words, as was true for the Old Testament prophet, we need to find the bravery to be honest, speaking the strategic truth, however unpopular.

From an American perspective, the way forward for Europe is as simple to recount, as it is difficult to achieve. Economically a mountainous project looms dead ahead: decisively sorting out the euro crisis. As a just published April 2014 INSA poll for Bild in Germany makes clear, we are far from out of the woods yet. Fully 81% of Germans do not consider the eurozone crisis to be over.

A clear yardstick for the crisis’s end can be put forward: When the afflicted southern states of Europe are growing at a high enough rate that both unemployment (especially amongst the young) and overall government debt numbers decisively trend downwards, then the worst of it will be over. To put it mildly, that is not yet the case in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, or even France. While the demise of the eurozone itself seems far less likely than only a year ago, the crisis has morphed from an emergency situation into a chronic condition, characterized by very low rates of growth and ever increasing rates of debt.

If this gentler but profound decline persists, it spells out the ultimate eclipse of Europe as a serious geopolitical player. If Brussels becomes the Ottoman Empire of the 21st century – imperceptibly declining year upon year until it is merely a shell of its former self – the West itself is at an end.

It is time to throw out economic theologies of both the left and the right, in favor of concentrating on growth in the short term, which will require both tax cuts (hated by the left) and some increase in immediate government spending (hated by the right), along with iron-clad, believable commitments to continue dramatic structural reforms over the medium term (hated by almost everyone, but absolutely necessary). From an American point of view, righting the economic ship is the most important thing Europe can do, as it will allow it to remain globally relevant.

Militarily, tough times lie ahead for Europe as well. An exhausted America will simply no longer put up with European free riding in terms of defense spending. Given the continent’s wealth it is simply no good – as former Secretary of Defense Gates so eloquently expressed it – to ask the American people (worried about the state of their roads, their children’s education, and their own budget deficits) to continue subsidize their complacent allies. This has been the snake in the garden for NATO since the beginning but it is now truly politically unsustainable given the shift in the American public’s mood.

Coupled with this, the Ukraine crisis has underlined that Europe – with Germany continuing to spend next to nothing on defense and with even the UK hollowing out its forces – is fast becoming the Venetian Republic, economically important, but strategically hopelessly out of its depth. Such a stance of having only carrots might work in a world populated exclusively by rabbits. President Putin has helpfully reminded the rest of us that we do not live in such a place.

As such, America is not asking – it is demanding, quietly and in private of course – that all European members of NATO live up to their expressed commitments and spend the agreed upon 2% of GDP on defense. If over the next few years this does not happen, well, we will draw our own conclusions about Europe’s true commitment to our common transatlantic defense.

Lastly, in terms of foreign policy, America would like the EU to do less, and do it better. The obvious need for a common energy policy in the wake of Ukraine should be a priority, allowing Europe to over time have more freedom of maneuver regarding some countries’ dependence on Russian gas. Given America’s pressing concerns in Asia and elsewhere, Europe must take the lead in its backyard, finishing the EU enlargement process in the Balkans, increasing its stake in restive North Africa, and figuring out how to bolster Ukraine and the other non-Russian states to the east over the long term. In other words, it’s your neighborhood, deal with it. We will help, but we will not let your inability to stabilize your frontiers deter us from shifting our attention to Asia.

If Europe can manage these three very big things over the medium term – mastering the euro-crisis, seriously committing to some defense spending, and taking the lead in Europe’s backyard – then the efficacy of the alliance will be plain to all. If this proves true, we committed American Atlanticists can then try to convince our rightfully skeptical public that the West remains something worth fighting for. However, if nothing much happens, this will simply prove impossible. History is made by people, by people making choices. It is past time for Europe to make up its mind.