IN A recent speech at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Konrad Adenauer Foundation), German chancellor Angela Merkel said that Europe has a special strategic interest in maintaining cooperation with China. Ahead of Germany’s coming assumption of the rotating EU presidency, Merkel hinted at what might come as a surprise to a number of American policymakers, but really should not: “We Europeans will need to recognize the decisiveness with which China will claim a leading position in the existing structures of the international architecture.” This was inevitable, and despite what the majority of Atlanticists in London and Washington might prefer, it followed a pattern. EU foreign policy, under the leadership of Germany and with the support of France, is showing signs of putting European interests first. This rift will only continue to grow, and sooner or later, it will force Washington and Berlin to make an uncomfortable choice.
DESPITE POST-COLD War mythmaking, Europe and the United States never saw eye to eye, and were always destined to have differences in interests. During the early Cold War, the United Kingdom and France pursued independent nuclear deterrence, with France having an independent grand strategy, even quitting NATO’s integrated command. The Vietnam War marked a decisive shift in relations between Europe and America. Suddenly, the nimbus of moral superiority that had surrounded America was brutally stripped away. A radical Left emerged that viewed America with deep antipathy, particularly in Germany where anti-Americanism provided a convenient way to assuage lingering guilt over the crimes of the Second World War. From Suez to Falklands, Grenada to Iraq, from German Ostpolitik to Soviet-funded anti-nuclear protests, there were severe ideological differences between the leading powers, and the only broad systemic unity among NATO members was due to the existence of two factors. The first was the enormous existential threat of a rival power bloc led by the Soviets. And second, although no less important, was the design of the alliance. American Atlantic hegemony was not a flaw, but by design. The reason European muscle atrophied was because Western European powers were in no position to unilaterally challenge either Soviet or American primacy, and they chose to exist under the relatively benevolent American order. It decreased even further after the primary threat subsided in 1989. Germany, which boasted one of the largest land armies even in 1991, now has problem fielding division level troops, a submarine armada, or a Typhoon squadron.
This state of affairs created a paradox which has flummoxed American policymakers to this day. The United States was not a classical colonial power, and, therefore, hegemony was hard to theoretically justify to the citizens of the republic, especially after the Soviet collapse. In turn, that led to these contradictory instincts, wherein Washington wanted Europe to be subservient while simultaneously martial and, at least nominally, independent. In a curious irony, one reason why President Donald Trump is assailed by some liberal theorists is due to his instinctive desire to have a détente with Moscow while balancing Beijing—something not thematically dissimilar to his predecessor’s desire to “Reset” and “Pivot.” Both Presidents Barack Obama and Trump have called Europeans free riders.
The logical contradictions of American grand strategy are also coming to the forefront. There has been a simple logic to British foreign policy and grand strategy for the last five hundred years, at least until the end of the Second World War: playing the role of an “offshore balancer.” Europe, united under one flag, would have enormous aggregate power—enough to dwarf British maritime power and to throw its weight behind potential adversaries against British interests. This had to be prevented at all costs, and, therefore, “divide and rule” was an exceptional policy. While Great Britain never interfered in Europe nor dictated how European powers would rule themselves, it was ready to interfere the moment Europe was on the verge of being united under one flag. Forgetting the last five hundred years of simple Anglo-American realpolitik, a section of American policymakers thought that “institutionalizing” peace in the European continent would mean one flag, one polity, and one union, which would also be forever aligned to the United States and subservient to U.S. military hegemony. However, with greater European unity came greater European desire to be independent, both in foreign and military policy and alignments.
SPEAKING AT the last Munich Security Conference, former Vice President Joseph Biden assured the gathered audience that current American disengagement is only a temporary disruption, claiming that “we will be back.” But that is a chimera. American disengagement isn’t just due to a random administration—it has structural roots. If there was ever any doubt that Europe is slowly yet increasingly moving apart, with a utopian strain of Left-liberal leadership, the tweets of the European Green party politicians in the same conference should put those ideas at rest. Hannah Neumann, a member of European Parliament for the German Green party, giddily tweeted a meaningless platitude from none other than Anne-Marie Slaughter: “If they say the EU is the vegetarian in a world of carnivors [sic], I tell you in the world of the future, vegetarians will be far ahead of others.” The statement demonstrated a complete obliviousness to the natural law that green eaters are often ahead of others because they are fleeing for their very lives, being chased by carnivores. Another German Green MP, in a rather more cynical way, equated the “US announcement of up to $1 billion into [the] Three Seas Initiative to Chinese investment in Greek infrastructure.” This false equivalence is only slowly but surely starting to be understood, and is taking Americans—who are still not used to the idea that most Left-Green politicians in Europe are essentially Euro-Marxists who used to oppose nuclear power in the 1980s, a number of whom changed jerseys after losing their Soviet patronage—by surprise. The venue for all this pernicious nonsense, the Munich Security Conference, is ostensibly the world’s biggest annual global security conference, which in recent years has increasingly started to resemble a combination of a Victorian village bridge club and a “girl power” band of the mid-1990s.
Nevertheless, two broad and interconnected themes were observable. One is the rise of France within the EU, post-Brexit to the point where the French are trying to test the waters for a French hegemony within the EU—a position of power that has been denied to them ever since Otto von Bismarck’s forces ran through Paris in the late nineteenth century. With an isolated Britain, a potentially disdainful and retrenched America, and a neutered Germany, France is the only great power with nuclear weapons and a semblance of historical far-sightedness. Two years ago, France and Germany spearheaded (in the face of British and American opposition) independent military programs as PESCO and the European Defense Fund, as well as a mobility initiative. These demonstrate long-term strategic rifts, duplication of resources, and a difference in priorities. But the bigger story from that was the growing distance of Europe from the United States. The conference started with a speech from U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo, which, while a decent political speech in an election year, was hurried and touched upon a lot of points without elaborating much on any of them. The general theme was a smiley-badge version of Western unity, which was then immediately ripped to shreds by Germany and France. One of the most vocal critiques of the current European inertia came from French president Emmanuel Macron, who blamed Western weakness on the lack of a common culture—a theme that resonated in other French speakers. The chink in the armor, so to speak, was there for everyone to see. The Germans, on the other hand, kept rambling about soft power and ideas and values while simultaneously complaining about French reticence to share or spread their nuclear umbrella. One could sense a rift brewing that could test EU unity to its core: whether or not the French can share operational control over their own nuclear deterrence. But none of that mattered in the face of the larger structural issue: Europe, without the UK, is planning to consolidate. And with that comes defiant independence, which is not just visible in European defiance over Iran or Palestine, but more interestingly, over China.
This rift will only grow wider. It may even become a chasm. The rise of China is already changing the calculus of several European states. If realist theories are correct, the Western European states, which face no direct military threat from either Russia or China, will be reluctant to join an American-led balancing arrangement. Germans, for example, see China and the United States as equally comparable threats. Italians, in fact, see China as a more favorable great power when compared to both the United States and the EU . Merkel quite properly reminds us how Europeans need to take their own fate in their own hands, a sentiment shared by Macron as well as the EU ’s foreign policy chief. Other EU honchos, like antitrust commissioner Margrethe Vestager, are notoriously anti-American. Vestager, in particular, has a history of issuing fines on American companies in the tens of billions of dollars while being soft on Chinese enterprises. Leading Western European liberal leaders such as Guy Verhofstadt often speak in imperial terms, and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen is determined to transform the EU to a centralized financial entity while essentially ignoring the American role in European unity.