Discussions surrounding the United States’ Europe policy have become hopelessly polarized by the election of Donald Trump, who has aligned himself with anti-EU figures such as former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and has made Euroskeptic and anti-German statements that are unprecedented for an American President. In an interview shortly before his inauguration, for example, Trump called the European Union “a vehicle for Germany.” It would be all too easy to dismiss such statements as typical Trumpian grousing, except for the inconvenient truth that many Europeans, particularly in the Eurozone “periphery,” agree with them to some extent. For example, while northern Europeans dismiss criticism by Trump Administration officials of Germany’s current account surplus as irrational, southern Europeans such as the former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi have long endorsed them.
While Trump supporters are anti-EU and anti-German, much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, DC remains implicitly committed to a version of European integration that few in Europe, apart from a hard core of “federalists,” still support. These policy hands reflexively believe that “more Europe” is in the American interest and see few problems with the evolution of the European Union since the beginning of the euro crisis. In particular, they seem to be increasingly aligned with Germany and happy with Germany’s increasing power in Europe. Thus there are now two opposing views on the American interest in European integration among American policymakers, and these views are largely a function of partisan attitudes to Trump, with few nuanced positions in between and little discussion of what kind of Europe would actually benefit America most.
It may be impossible to pursue a coherent approach to Europe—or for that matter any other part of the world—while Trump is President. His foreign policy seems to be based not so much on a different view of the American interest than his predecessors than on his own interests—what Charles Blow has called the “parasitic presidency.” But analysts and policymakers should begin to think about a new Europe policy for once Trump has left the White House. That cannot simply mean a return to the Obama Administration’s policies, which did little to help solve the European crisis that began in 2010 and is still ongoing.
After World War II, the United States—uniquely among great powers in history—supported the emergence of a political unit that had the potential to become a rival power center. But what at first glance looks like a seamless story of unqualified and consistent support for European integration turns out on closer examination to be more complicated. The reasons for U.S. support for European integration are not entirely straightforward, many are largely forgotten, and significant shifts have occurred over time.
Washington came to support European integration, Geir Lundestad argues, for five reasons.1 First, European integration was a way to contain Germany by “tying” it to the West—what might be called “containment through integration.” Second, European integration was a way to contain the Soviet Union. Third, U.S. policymakers thought European integration would encourage European self-sufficiency and reduce America’s burden in supporting Europe in the longer term, especially in terms of aid and defense spending. Fourth, U.S. policymakers saw an integrated Europe as more rational and efficient in economic terms. Fifth, U.S. policymakers simply assumed that Europe should follow the American model—in other words, that it should create a large “domestic” market with no internal trade barriers.
In the immediate postwar period it was the need to contain Germany that was the most important factor behind early U.S. support for European integration. For example, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles feared Germany could “play both sides from the middle” using economic pressure to achieve “a mastery of Western Europe which they could not achieve by arms.”2 He began a 1956 memo explaining his reasons for supporting European integration with the “problem of tying German organically into Western Community so as to diminish danger that over time a resurgent German nationalism might trade neutrality for reunification with view seizing controlling position between East and West.”3
This thinking informed the plan for the economic regeneration of Europe announced in June 1947 by Secretary of State George C. Marshall—what became known as the Marshall Plan. In exchange for massive amounts of aid, the United States demanded that European states work together. The European Payments Union, which was launched a few years later, again at U.S. insistence, multilateralized European economic policy by establishing a debt and credit clearing house and thereby limiting the possibility that European countries could restrict imports from each other. These American initiatives set the stage for the Schuman Plan and the first institutions of supranational European governance, the founding of which was again strongly supported by the United States.
The assumption among U.S. policymakers was that an integrated Europe would be an economically successful Europe, which they in turn saw as being good for America. For example, CIA director Allen Dulles said that the Marshall Plan “presupposes that we desire to help restore a Europe which can and will compete with us in the world markets and for that very reason will be able to buy substantial amounts of our products.”4 Even after Europe’s economies had recovered and an economic community that was less open than Washington would have preferred was being launched, U.S. policymakers remained optimistic that integration would lead to “the development of strong, modern economies with higher productivity and consumption levels.”5
However, as the situation in Europe stabilized after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, U.S. support for European integration became weaker and more qualified. The catalyst, Lundestad argues, was President Charles de Gaulle’s challenge to the assumption that an integrated Europe would be aligned with the United States. Rejecting the United Kingdom’s application to join the European Economic Community in 1963, de Gaulle spoke of the danger of “a colossal Atlantic community under American dependence and direction” as opposed to his own vision of “strictly European construction.” A week later, he and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the Elysée Treaty. This came as a shock to U.S. policymakers—President John F. Kennedy saw it as “an unfriendly act.”6
Thus, from the 1960s onwards, U.S. policymakers began to see the potential for European integration as more of a challenge. In 1971, a U.S. government report questioned another assumption of U.S. Europe policy—that European unity would lift burdens from U.S. shoulders. “The truth is not so simple,” it said. “European unity will also pose problems for American policy, which it would be idle to ignore.”7 President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger saw potential tensions: “We have sought to combine a supranational Europe with a closely integrated Atlantic Community under American leadership. These two objectives are likely to prove incompatible.”8
For the United States, European integration was always been a means to an end—or rather to several ends. In particular, U.S. policymakers supported European integration because they thought it was a way to constrain Germany and overcome the problem of balance within Europe. However, since the euro crisis began in 2010, and with it a renewed debate about German “hegemony” in Europe, it is has become increasingly clear that the forgotten problem of balance has returned, albeit in a different form than before 1945: within the European Union relative power now depends on economic rather military resources. The question for U.S. policymakers now is what the United States can and should do about it.
Over the past eight years since the euro crisis began in 2010, Europeans have been intensely debating the European project. It was long assumed that European integration would produce convergence and reduce conflict. The European project was both the product of, and meant to be a validation of, liberal international relations theory. But it is now increasing apparent that the European Union, and in particular the European single currency, has in many ways produced divergence, and is increasing conflict, between member states. As a result, even many “pro-Europeans” have become disillusioned with the European Union. Europe is now deeply divided about whether further integration towards “ever closer union” is desirable, let alone possible.
The question of the future of the European project is complicated by Germany’s increasing power within it. Since the beginning of the crisis, Europeans have been debating whether Germany is becoming a European hegemon, despite the fact that the European Union was meant to overcome hegemony in Europe in general and German hegemony in particular. Some are even wondering whether the European Union is now a kind of German “empire.” In this context, simply calling for “more Europe”—that is, further integration—is unhelpful, because this has in practice increasingly come to mean the further imposition of German preferences, particularly in terms of fiscal rules that entrench German preferences on economic policy—which, even under Obama, the United States opposed. It’s easy to forget today that Obama and Merkel had heated exchanges over Germany’s approach to the euro crisis, and that in 2016 the U.S. Treasury even put Germany on a currency “monitoring list” list” along with China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—a step that foreshadowed the Trump Administration’s focus on Germany’s current account surplus, but that had little impact on German policy.9
For their part, Americans have been slow to wake up to the contours of this renewed debate about balance and hegemony in Europe. They have not engaged much with questions surrounding the limits and dangers of integration in its current form. In particular, they have had little to say about the difficult questions around whether, by expanding the European Union’s system of rules, European integration undermines democracy—one of the main stated reasons why the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in the referendum that was held in June 2016. The United States needs to develop a Europe policy that engages with the issues the Union has faced since 2010—and with which it is still struggling.
What would that look like? I’d suggest a return to its largely-forgotten role as an “offshore balancer.”
In debates on U.S. foreign policy in the last two decades, “offshore balancing” has been used to mean a withdrawal from security commitments and overseas force deployments,or an alternative to engagement or “preponderance.” In particular, realist international relations theorists like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Barry Posen have made the case for “offshore balancing” in this sense.10 However, what I mean by “offshore balancing” is something different. Rather than “pulling back,” the United States needs a more forward-leaning Europe policy. In particular, the United States should once again engage with the problem of the internal balance of power within Europe. U.S. policymakers need to think more seriously about the current distribution of power between EU member states.
The instinct of U.S. policymakers—at least until Trump—has been to encourage Germany to “lead.” In effect, they blithely encouraged Germany to be the European “hegemon.” This is quite a shift, given that throughout the Cold War, one of the United States’ priorities was specifically to prevent the emergence of just such a regional hegemon. This reversal in U.S. policy seems to have happened because American policymakers have internalized European integration as an objective of U.S. foreign policy to such an extent that they have forgotten it was originally a means, not an end. They assumed, along with many Europeans, that European integration would itself solve the problem of balance once and for all, and make the emergence of a regional hegemon impossible almost by definition. As this assumption has shown serious cracks in its facade over the last eight years, U.S. policymakers have failed to re-think.
As Europe has struggled with multiple crises and the fault lines within the European Union have deepened, it has become increasingly clear—if it wasn’t already from European history—that Germany cannot be a European hegemon. Rather, Germany is in a problematic position of “semi-hegemony” in Europe—as it was previously in its history.11 Washington’s pragmatic focus on Germany—in effect bilateralizating the Transatlantic relationship to a great extent—may actually be making the problem of Europe’s lack of balance worse by exacerbating the tendency in Berlin to think it can run Europe. Rather than encouraging Germany to become a European hegemon, the United States should actively prevent it from trying to become one—as it would once have instinctively done.
Operationalizing such a strategy aimed at helping to restore Europe’s internal balance would require careful planning. It may well mean supporting EU member states—and in particular France—against Germany. It may also involve making linkages between economic and security issues. Trump has already done this—but in such a crude way that it has had the effect of uniting Europeans against the United States. Instead, U.S. officials should carefully seek to work with Europeans and facilitate coalitions of EU member states on particular issues, for example the “periphery” on Eurozone issues—and where necessary exert much greater pressure on Germany than Obama was prepared to.
Americans have long viewed Europe—in contrast to Asia and the Middle East—as what Jeremy Shapiro has called a “solved problem.” As the United States seeks to “rebalance” towards Asia, the last thing it wants to do is engage more deeply in Europe’s internal affairs. In fact, U.S. policymakers have not unreasonably expected Europeans to be able to solve their own internal problems. But it is increasingly clear that they cannot—and the only resources required for the kind of “offshore balancing” strategy I am proposing would be diplomatic. Moreover, it is only by overcoming the structural issues Europeans have been struggling with for the last eight years—and in particular the problem of balance—that Europe will ultimately be able to become the partner in solving global problems that the United States wants.
1Geir Lundestad, “Empire” by Integration. The United States and European Integration, 1945-1997 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
2Lundestad, “Empire” by Integration, p. 23.
3Lundestad, “Empire” by Integration, p. 24.
4Tony Judt, Postwar. A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 94.
5Geir Lundestad, “Empire” by Integration,p. 85.
6Lundestad, “Empire” by Integration, p. 70.
7Lundestad, “Empire” by Integration, p. 98.
8Lundestad, “Empire” by Integration, p. 102.
9Under a law targeting currency manipulators passed in 2015, the Trade Enforcement and Trade Facilitation Act, the United States has to launch “enhanced bilateral engagement”—that is, talks—with any country that runs a bilateral trade surplus with the United States of more than $20 billion, has a current account surplus of above 3 percent of GDP, and makes persistent net foreign currency purchases equivalent to more than 2 percent of GDP. If the country in question does not take remedial action within a year, the United States can take steps including denying a country access to development loans, banning it from government procurement contracts, calling for stepped-up surveillance by the International Monetary Fund, and/or excluding it from trade negotiations. See C.F. Bergsten and J.E. Gagnon, “The New U.S. Currency Policy,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, April 29, 2016, https://piie.com/blogs/realtime-economic-issues-watch/new-us-currency-policy.
10See for example Christopher Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: the United States’ Future Grand Strategy,” International Security 22, no. 1 (Summer 1997), 86–124; Christopher Layne, “Offshore Balancing Revisited”, The Washington Quarterly 25, no. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 233–248, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1162/01636600252820252; John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-06-13/case-offshore-balancing; Barry Posen, “The Case for Restraint,” American Interest (November/December 2007), 7–17, http://www.the-american-interest.com/2007/11/01/the-case-for-restraint/; Barry Posen, “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 1 (January/February 2013), 116–129 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2013-01-01/pull-back; Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).
11See Hans Kundnani, The Paradox of German Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).