Today Europe is adrift, its politics mired in a reactive mode—a political stasis that at times looks more like “anticipatory paralysis” than leadership and governance. Its exhausted elites seem unable to offer much beyond crisis management. And with key elections in Europe upcoming, including a referendum in the United Kingdom slated for 2017 (as well as the U.S. presidential election in 2016), there is little appetite on the Continent for bold strategic thinking. And so Europe is poised for a year-plus of political drift at a time when the pressures rapidly building up along its southern and eastern flanks require a strategic rethinking of how Europe will ensure its security going forward. Needless to say, this is not an encouraging prospect for Washington as it looks for allies and partners to shoulder more of the security burden.
Germany, in particular, increasingly looks like a dimming star in the European firmament in terms of leadership (notwithstanding its hardball negotiating position on the Greek crisis). Berlin is now retreating rapidly into the comfort of its traditional political modus operandi, even as its leaders continue to insist that it is in fact “leading from the middle.” Notwithstanding punditry in Europe and the U.S. on how the Germans are leading the Continent, the best Berlin seems able to offer are managerial moves. Saying “no” to Greece’s Tsipras and hanging tough is one thing; offering a strategic vision for Europe for the coming decade that goes beyond the mantra of “more Europe” is quite another.
Perhaps it is unfair to blame the Germans and Europe’s elites overall for seeking some respite. In a short time-span, Germany was thrust into the lead on the Ukrainian crisis as the Obama Administration chose the step back, and all of this came on top of Berlin’s quarterbacking of the Greek bailout. The frenzy of late 2013–14, when the story of the Euromaidan, Crimea, and the Ukrainian crisis first unfolded, has since been replaced by the Eurozone anxiety, with a near-Grexit having drained whatever precious adrenaline there was in Brussels and in the majority of European capitals, especially Berlin. Now that immigrant waves from the Middle East and North Africa have begun crashing on Europe’s shores, fatigue has yielded to a mix of resignation interspersed with occasional flare-ups of anger, as when the Channel Tunnel was besieged by migrants seeking entry into the UK.
Today it seems to matter less and less that bloodshed along the Donbas demarcation line has continued unabated, that there is little confidence that the current Greek bailout deal will hold, or that boats and trucks continue to ferry immigrants from MENA (along with the accompanying and all-too-frequent human tragedies). Europe’s “watchful waiting” is now the signature formula in Germany and beyond. European politics is treading water in part because Vladimir Putin crashed what was supposed to be a rules-based security environment, in part because the Eurozone project, as conceived by the original Franco-German tandem, has proved no match for the politics of indebted Greece, and finally because throughout the years of the Obama presidency the United States has been pulled away from Europe by internal and external forces unlike any since the heydays of the Vietnam war.
Germany has no strategy for dealing with Russia beyond sanctions and efforts to “freeze” the conflict in Ukraine. The Merkel government seems to have no idea what to do next if Putin moves yet again, exposing the vacuity of the mantra that “there is no military solution in Ukraine.” The war in Ukraine has forced upon Berlin the tough task of reevaluating the tenets of its Russia strategy. If it accommodates Moscow’s demands for special security prerogatives in Eastern Europe, Berlin risks losing ground in post-communist Central Europe. Each time Berlin acts in line with Moscow’s expectations in the region, the prospects for deepening cooperation with Poland and those of a “second grand reconciliation in Europe” become more remote. Hard as it may be for diplomats to stomach, Vladimir Putin has forced an “either/or” proposition on German Ostpolitik in the 21st century.
Europe’s default response—looking to the Americans to backfill in a security crisis—has yielded mixed results. The United States faces a growing threat of a larger conflict in three distinct yet interlinked theaters: MENA, Asia (China), and Eastern Europe, for the cycle of accelerated Russian military exercises continues to test NATO’s response time and the decision-making processes of the alliance. These are threats that register with different levels of intensity in Europe, but in Washington they are acutely felt. ISIL makes the headlines by virtue of the sheer ferocity and human misery it has unleashed in the region. China has become a perennial staple of policy and academic discourse as the “other superpower rising over the horizon.” Russia, however, increasingly registers with the U.S. as a rapidly escalating threat. What often escapes the Europeans as they watch these debates is that a robust response on their part is a sine qua non if America is to effectively reinforce NATO’s northeastern and southeastern flanks. The Obama Administration has shown that it will engage in shoring up Europe’s security, but there are limits to what the United States can do if the Europeans fail to take up more of the burden. It is borderline naive to expect, as I often hear when I am in Europe, that somehow the arrival of a new U.S. administration will herald a massive reorientation of U.S. policy and recommitment of resources to Europe. Rather, changes to U.S. deployments in Europe will occur in an environment of constrained resources and multiple concerns. Once again, the United States will help, but only if Europe is ready to step up on its security.
A couple of years ago I pressed a senior German diplomat on how his country would respond to the deteriorating situation in Europe. He said that Berlin’s approach was to hold on and work the crises. Arguably, not much has changed since then, whether in Germany or in Europe as a whole. Tactics substitute for strategy, and muddling through is touted as vision. The problem is that crisis management is not enough in the face of the devolving security environment along Europe’s peripheries and, increasingly, in Europe itself.