international analysis and commentary

Europe First, but at a price

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Change and hope and Yes we can were slogans for electioneering. In real life, the heavy lifting is ahead not only for the US, but also, if they want to count in shaping the world, for the Europeans. Whatever the Europeans will say, Obama will not take NO for an answer.

In the US elections, Barack Obama received well over half of the popular vote. If the Europeans had had a say, he would have gotten even more. Opinion polls suggested that seven out of ten Europeans saw Obama as the candidate of their dreams. They may be in for a disappointment.
It is by no means a given that the new incumbent of the White House will instinctively make Europe his first love when it comes to foreign and security policy. He got into politics as the Cold War drifted into oblivion and his upbringing points to Africa and Asia, their challenges and their promises, much more than to the Old World. The face of the US is changing, and so is the national interest. There is no way that the new president could escape the global content of his “things to do” list.

Indeed, the forces giving shape to the new century can be found in the rise of China, the dynamics of India, the energy riches of Russia, as well as in the vast demographic shifts unleashed around the globe, climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorist furor, failing states, and in short, what the elder Bush once identified as the new enemy: “Instability and insecurity”.

That means that the Europeans, instead of queuing for special favours in Washington, will have to make a conscious effort to be, once again, the strategic partner of the US.  In order to do this, they will have to establish something akin to the transatlantic economic community that Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested before the financial crisis and made even more imperative in the light of the global recession. The Europeans will also have to reshape the security relationship – which is far from anything resembling an equation. And they will have to balance two old American demands: that they get their acts together and that they “Don’t gang up”.

Europe First was shorthand for the strategy that, when faced with the dictators, Britain’s wartime PM Sir Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed upon when the limited European wars unleashed by Hitler slowly and inexorably turned into the Second World War.

Five years on, Europe First was also the strategy that Stalin wanted to impose upon the world as his strategic answer to Churchill’s philosophical question in the cold days after Yalta: “What will lie between the white snows of Russia and the white cliffs of Dover? There is an unspoken fear in many peoples’ minds”. The fear was of course that, once the war against the axis powers was over, the war over the German succession would follow suit, and that the whole of Europe would have to live under the grim shadow of the Eastern Empire.

In today’s world, there is nothing comparable to the situation immediately following V-E Day in Europe. Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union of the past, its conventional power reduced and only its nuclear arsenal remaining. Moscow sees itself fenced in by former allies who have defected and US bases that are too close for comfort.

This can be seen as an ironic – and risky – reversal of the 1945 situation: from the Warsaw uprising and its defeat that the Red Army watched in cold comfort, to the forward strategies that Stalin put in place against Berlin, blocking all land access to the isolated city. The US was quick to develop a strategy of comprehensive containment: economic reconstruction by way of the Marshall Plan, strategic stabilisation through the North Atlantic Pact and the creation of NATO, the resurrection of Germany – the greater part of it – and the encouragement of European economic integration. In the end, this proved to be the winning formula. But it came at a price. With the erstwhile “Soviet Threat” the alliance lost its one-dimensional organizing principle, the Europeans recognized the charms of free-riding, while the US discovered a tool box ready to be used in Brussels where the pinstripes reside,  and in Mons, where the uniforms work. Today’s NATO is three in one: the old NATO of the Cold War, much liked by the once captive nations of the Soviet Union, the new NATO as deployed in Afghanistan and the NATO after next. Article V, once the backbone of the Atlantic system, can now take on any meaning: from a nuclear response, to a postcard with regrets. That means President Obama will have to work on the ever more difficult relationship with Russia, on the new global disorder and on the containment of loose nukes, terrorists and failing states. The new NATO will only succeed if it is a sustainable answer, both in leadership and in real power, to those relentless challenges. The Europeans will have to learn that America is overstretched and overburdened and needs support, while the US will have to recognize once again the charm of alliances. Churchill once said, and the US learnt it in Iraq: “The only thing worse than having allies is having no allies”.

Meanwhile, the new security alliance will need economic, financial and social underpinnings. That is the gigantic task which the EU leaders as well as the EU bureaucracy are slow to recognise, let alone to put into practice. The time for action has come.