In an April 2001 letter to the editor of the Washington Post, Senator Jesse Helms, the then-firebrand conservative from North Carolina—irked by what he saw as an uppity and naive European Union—wrote that he was “heartened by the news that EU is willing to step in and fill the security void left by the United States on the Korean peninsula.” But “when precisely,” Helms continued, “did these EU leaders say that their new European Army would be ready to take up the posts of the 37,000 American troops stationed on the demilitarized zone?”
At the time, EU leaders were fretting about the Bush administration’s hard-line stance toward North Korea and voiced publicly their ambition to play mediator and peace maker. These were the days when, in some circles, it was still fashionable to talk about the era of geoeconomics replacing the “outdated paradigm” of geopolitics (Edward Luttwak had first coined the term geoeconomics and introduced the idea of the paradigm shift in 1990). Soft power was in, and hard power was seen by most European partners—and many a U.S. Democrat—as a relic of the Cold War. I recall a senior German diplomat around the time of the Helms letter arguing to me that, while armed conflict would indeed continue in the world, this would comprise “small brush fires” going forward. The real challenges ahead, he opined, would be found in commerce, and competition for resources and political influence in the world. British political scientist Mark Leonard was on this line. He authored the 2005 book Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, contending a decade ago that “the classic 19th century idea of [military] power is coming unstuck in an interdependent, globalized world.”
President Obama has never stopped drinking from this cup. During the 2012 campaign, the President mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia a geopolitical threat (“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” Obama taunted). In his recent UN General Assembly speech, our commander-in-chief sneered at Republican critics for their apparent belief “that the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and shows of military force.” In separate remarks to world leaders in New York on the fight against extremism, the President contended that groups like ISIS will be destroyed not by guns, but rather “by better ideas.” Meanwhile, though, across the Atlantic, Russian aggression in Ukraine has actually been sobering Europeans. “Merkel knows Putin lies, and Putin knows she knows he lies,” a member of the German Bundestag tells me. Henrik Breitenbauch, director of the Center for Military Studies at the University of Copenhagen, says it’s finally dawning on Europeans “that geopolitics is back.” Indeed 2015 might have been the year when Europe’s holiday from history ended and EU foreign policy started growing up.
Enter Europe’s migration crisis. There are several pregnancies within the EU’s current turmoil: the growth of radical Islam in the heart of Germany; the rise of the far right across the continent; the unraveling of the EU itself over the migration crisis coming on the heels of the Greek bailout turmoil. These are all very plausible. One thing appears absolutely certain though: The EU’s deepening turmoil and disarray means the next U.S. president will be dealing with a Europe whose problems and priorities are likely to be very different from ours.
Over lunch in Copenhagen— I’m here for a conference with conservative members of the European parliament organised by EPP, the political umbrella group that comprises pro-Europe center-right parties from across the EU—a young German CDU politician does not conceal his alarm about the refugee crisis and the EU’s challenge. He thinks the migration crisis may well be the tipping point for the UK to opt for Brexit, and that Sweden and the Netherlands are likely to follow. But more pressingly, he worries about Germany
In the month of September, Germany took in 200,000 asylum seekers (unofficial estimates go as high as 270,000). They come mostly from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The rate continues at 10,000 a day. My interlocutor says it’s worrisome—but not at all surprising—that Germany’s initially warm, empathetic welcome and an elated public mood inspired by doing good has already started to sour. An estimated 85 percent of the new arrivals, prominent media photos and footage of mothers and babies notwithstanding, turn out to be young men. Further, Germany’s minister of the interior Thomas de Maiziere says early assessments suggest that roughly 20 percent of the arrivals may be illiterate. This reality is dawning on people. How will Germany’s new Muslims integrate? What percentage currently hold, or will adopt in a matter of time, extremist views? Between now and Christmas the number of refugees in Germany is expected to grow to somewhere between 800,000 and 1,500,000.
The tide of opinion has certainly not turned entirely. A CDU staffer tells me with considerable pride that Germany’s generosity has been wonderful for the country’s image in the world. There’s surely truth in TAI editor Adam Garfinkle’s observation:
Few people say it out loud, but it’s the image of Germans welcoming “others” on in-bound trains from the east—from Hungary, very telegenically, when I was there—that arrests their attention. What a contrast with the pictures of other Germans in an earlier time shipping “others” to the east, on out-bound trains, to places like Treblinka and Auschwitz.
How bitterly ironic it would be, if the unintended consequence of Germany’s current kindness turns out to be another cruelty to Jews? Oskar Deutsch, head of the Jewish community in Austria where, along with Sweden, tens of thousands refugees are also being taken in, has a very clear concern. Radical Islamists aside, “the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria or Afghanistan who are coming to Europe,” wrote Deutsch in a column recently, “were exposed while growing up to decades of anti-Semitism… Terrorism against Israel was celebrated—such as Islamic attacks on Jewish schools, synagogues and Jewish museums in the West.”
Angela Merkel has led German largesse (beaming newcomers have managed to snap a few selfies with the Chancellor and spread the image through social for millions to see). But these admirers are not German voters. Don’t be surprised if Angela Merkel—whose recent bailout of Greece was very unpopular inside Germany—is ultimately driven from power over her handling of the migration crisis. Another irony? If Mrs. Merkel, who supported this summer’s Greek bail out in order to save the European Union, goes down in history as the chief instigator of the EU’s demise.
But first things first. Defense-minded Americans need to know that Europeans will likely have little time for the affairs of NATO in the foreseeable future. Nor at this point is there any appetite for a confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The EU’s participation in sanctions has been part of a Merkel miracle that will likely soon fade. Indeed, there are early indications from last week’s summit in Paris that the Europeans are heaping increased pressure on the Ukrainians to just get along with Putin.
So what should a new President do to restore purpose and vitality to a flagging alliance and shore up tricky transatlantic ties? Here are five brief proposals for starters:
First, don’t arrive with bluster and gratuitous muscle-flexing. Europe will be in no mood for finger-wagging-style leadership. Saber-rattling is often resented by those without sabers.
Second, don’t overestimate European discontent with Obama. Yes, most in Europe have recognized that the President is feeble and feckless. But he’s still, ideologically and temperamentally, a European kind of guy.
Third, don’t underestimate how badly Iraq has damaged the standing of America in Europe. The EU’s love affair with Obama faded quickly, but Europeans revere the pro-business realism of Bush 41, not the neoconservatism of Bush 43.
Fourth don’t expect that the EU to be waiting for an American sheriff to round up its European posse to start restoring world order. In the 1990s, we said, “NATO, out of area or out of business.” The new tag line needs to be, “NATO at home, can’t live without it.” It’s essential we get back to basics with our European allies, and that’s in the first instance defense of the European order that Putin is seriously threatening.
Finally, don’t arrive with schadenfreude and gloat about European disunity and dysfunction. Forget European smugness (we want them to overlook ours, after all). If there are ways we can help Europe with its internal problems, let’s do so. We need a stable, prosperous partner—and if we want to lead, someone has to want to follow us.