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Europe Keeps Fading Away

Americans have warned Europe for years that cuts in defense spending were turning the great European states of old into military lightweights lacking the resources for even basic military tasks. Europeans scoffed at America’s defense obsession, rejoiced in their soft power, and kept on merrily cutting their budgets.

That policy is coming back to haunt them. The French are chomping at the bit to toss out Syria’s dictator as they did Libya’s, with former President Sarkozy and public intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Levy pushing President Hollande to intervene:

Frustrated by Russian and Chinese vetoes in the U.N. Security Council and President Obama’s reluctance to commit U.S. forces, some French opinion leaders have criticized President Francois Hollande for failing to organize an international intervention even without a Security Council mandate. The implication of their challenge is that a resolute France could persuade Obama to change his mind or that a French-led European coalition could act with neighboring Turkey.

There are good policy arguments for action against Assad and good ones against it. At Via Meadia, we think that quietly but seriously helping the “good guys” among the rebels is the least bad option, but there is ample room for debate. What the French are discovering, however, is that their opinions don’t matter because France is too weak to do anything about Syria. As the Post notes, France’s success in Libya was largely due to American air power and the use of American drones:

NATO’s “lessons learned” studies after the Libya intervention… show that last year’s casualty-free war was possible largely because the United States destroyed Libya’s air defense system and disrupted its command-and-control network with an opening salvo of sea- and air-launched cruise missiles and guided bombs that no European country, or combination of countries, could have mustered.

“The French and British simply would not have had the means to do that,” said a senior NATO officer who helped direct the Libya war. “The U.S. is really the only one with that kind of counter-air-defense capability.” . . .

. . . after-action studies show that, even after NATO assumed command of the Libya bombing, the United States remained the only country with sufficient intelligence-gathering drones to permit NATO officers at their Naples headquarters to get a picture of the battlefield, and the only country with enough aerial refueling tankers to keep NATO aircraft in the air.

Increasingly, the declining military capacity of Europe is reducing its political influence in its neighborhood and in its relations with the U.S. The most important power Europe has right now is not soft power but fear power: The world is so afraid that the European economy will crash, taking other economies with it, that it can’t keep its eyes off the spectacle. Europe is to the world what Greece is to Europe; this is power, but not the kind you really want.

There is little chance that Europe will boost military spending anytime soon. With huge commitments to social spending and declining room for deficits of any kind, the Europeans are likely to fall further behind in military capacity.

Project some trends out a bit and interesting changes appear. Not since the 1600s has Turkey been able to claim a place as the leading military power in Europe. On the present course, the Turks could become the most populous country with the most powerful military on the continent well before the end of the current century.

The further evaporation of Europe’s global weight is not a good development for Europe, the U.S. or the world. Europe has been in steady decline since the start of World War I. Americans have to hope that the Europeans will get their act together, but we have to plan on the basis that they will not. America’s search for new partners in new parts of the world will continue; the post-European age of world politics is well and truly here.

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