The Atlantic Pivot
Brexit or not, Europe remains an indispensable strategic asset for the United States.
WHICH OF these conceptions of Europe’s future does the United States favor? The answer should be obvious. Putting an end to half a century of total wars, an ever-closer Europe has been cause for much satisfaction in the United States, and unsurprisingly, it remains the most desirable path to 2020. (In 2000, a survey of 450 American historians and political scientists singled out the reconstruction of Europe as the most successful U.S. policy since 1945, ahead of the civil-rights legislation and forty-eight other American achievements during the second half of the twentieth century.) Europe as a union, even without Britain onboard, stands as America’s most vital partner to address shared national anxieties and manage global turbulence. Indeed, since the Berlin-plus arrangements signed a decade ago granted the EU access to NATO planning, assets and capabilities, the EU is already a nonmember member of NATO, as in so many ways, the United States (and now Britain) has become a nonmember member state of the EU.
“We are going to stay—period,” President Truman declared during the first Berlin crisis in June 1948. America would stand with Europe. That was clarity. For the next forty years, the legitimacy of U.S. leadership in and with Europe grew out of its capabilities, which were shared with its allies; its intent, which was relatively benign; its methods, which remained generally war-averse; and its efficacy, which helped transform Europe into a community, now a union. That was an era of containment—a third way between the two strategic failures that had defined the first half of the twentieth century: brinkmanship à la 1914 and appeasement à la 1938.
During the twenty-five years since the Cold War, much of that legitimacy has dissipated—America’s reputation for efficacy has been devalued, with its capabilities discounted, its intent questioned and its methods challenged. There is plenty of blame to pass around: to Bill Clinton, who neglected Russia in the 1990s; to George W. Bush, who mismanaged the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; to Barack Obama, who mishandled the Arab Spring after 2011; but also to Europe, where every problem seemed to depend on and await a U.S. solution.
For the first time in seventy years, the geopolitical landscape appears to have no leadership, no balance and no regulated order—a baffling world in mutation in which three rules of engagement prevail. First, no state and no institution, however preponderant, can be decisive without capable allies and complementary partners. Unilateralism does not pay: we are all multilateralists now. Second, no single dimension of power can suffice. Power is not readily divisible and no country can rely for long on one kind of capability, military or otherwise, without access to the others. And third, no issue, however significant, can define the new global order—neither the Soviet collapse in 1991 nor the dramatic aftermath of September 2001, the financial crisis of 2007, the Arab Spring of 2011, or even the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.
Forget, then, about the follies of total wars, the logic of containment, the bipolar duels of the Cold War and the swagger of unipolarity. Early in the twenty-first century, there are three overlapping and cumulative security agendas that provide little room for moral clarity and strategic coherence: postwars, postsecular and postnational.
FIRST, A traditional postwars agenda born out of unfinished territorial and ideological business and clashing national interests and ambitions begins with a restive Russia. In August 2008, the short war in Georgia reignited Russian expansionism. The annexation of Crimea and the dismemberment of Ukraine, followed by an increasingly assertive posture in Syria, have made an unmistakable point. Russia is back—from its humiliating Cold War surrender in 1989 and from the wartime revolution that hijacked its name in 1917.
America and Europe have a shared interest in a stable and united Russia. Russia is not a European power, but it is a very significant power in Europe—too big, too near, too nuclear, too resourceful and too resentful to be either ignored or provoked. Russia’s military spending is an important, but inconclusive, indicator of its challenge to Europe. Moscow’s defense budget more than doubled between 2005 and 2013, improving its efficacy first in Georgia (2008), next in Crimea and Ukraine (2014), and most recently in Syria (2015). Yet, the test administered by Vladimir Putin is not primarily military but political: Russia’s influence in Europe and around the world has grown by default and improvisation no less than by design and vocation.
But a new Cold War is not upon us. While a strong and resolute NATO remains indispensable to deter the Kremlin’s ambitions, a Euro-Atlantic military clash is not a credible prospect so long as Russia stays out of any NATO and EU country. What Europe needs is a moderate buildup of U.S. forces (down to an all-time low of twenty-six thousand), more U.S. support for the NATO (and EU) members alarmed by the Russian imperial relapse and more efficient defense spending from EU countries. Russia, however, is running out of time, as its resources, capabilities, people and security space dwindle. Putin is finding it difficult to sustain his costly geopolitical portfolio. “We should not be thinking about how to cope with America,” a surprisingly subdued Putin acknowledged during his yearly television call-in in mid-April 2016, “we should think about how to cope with our internal problems.”
In short, Europe and the United States should not run out of strategic patience before Russia runs out of actionable capabilities. Au fond, NATO has maintained much of its initial strategic consistency: keep Russia away, settle America in and build the EU up. The stage is being set for yet another reset, and Russia should engage constructively on specific issues, including Ukraine. There, the Minsk Agreement framed a window of opportunity that may not stay open for long after Obama departs in 2017 and before Putin runs one year later. This fleeting opportunity is premised on the EU-based economic incentives for Putin to calm the violence in the second-largest country in the post-Soviet world, and the NATO-shaped strategic interests for the West to end the instability in its closest neighbor (and one of the Northern Hemisphere’s poorest countries).
China is by far the world’s most credible rising power. Unlike Russia, its power fundamentals are strong and durable. Although vulnerable to external conditions beyond its control, the Chinese government can afford to take its time. It is no longer the passive bystander it used to be. Beijing is growing more assertive in the South China Sea, more intrusive in neighboring Vietnam, North Korea and Pakistan, and more active in the greater Middle East, from Iran and Sudan to the Islamic State. Also unlike Russia, for now at least the main concern with China is over financial stability, including an economic slowdown (with growth drifting down to between 5 and 7 percent) and a deepening debt trap (with a weaker currency and a high level of nonperforming loans) to which the Euro-Atlantic economy is heavily sensitive.
There is still much uncertainty over whether and how China will ultimately use its rising capabilities and influence. Politically, China must avoid another of the many epic errors of governance it has made over the past decades, like the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the one-child policy. Economically, China needs more time before it can claim the status to which it aspires. To that extent, it has little interest in undermining a global economic order that is still best managed by and with the West. For that reason, even though Russia will constitute the most immediate security priority for the rest of the decade, it is the geostrategic rise of China that presents the most formidable security challenge.
Neither NATO nor the EU can remain indifferent to this agenda, but neither can address it alone as well as with each other. Germany at the turn of the past century and the Soviet Union during the interwar years serve as reminders of the unintended consequences of strategic neglect and divisiveness. But irrespective of the next U.S. administration’s intent, priorities and resolve, no balanced transatlantic partnership will emerge meaningfully unless the states of Europe assume together the greater role to which they aspire, and which the United States expects.
SECOND, A daunting postsecular agenda has grown out of the most recent shocks in the greater Middle East, including the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State. Like Europe’s “bloodlands” and the Balkans in the past, this is a region where land was allocated and moved at the pleasure of history and for the convenience of geography. Imaginary states created by colonial masters in the Levant are steadily deterritorialized while their lands are destroyed and their people savaged. These phantom limbs in the region’s body politic haunt the new world order and threaten the Euro-Atlantic zone’s institutional stability. Since 9/11, the region has imploded—yes, do blame America. Middle Eastern states are the legacy of an imperial order conceived elsewhere—yes, blame Europe. Everywhere now, self-induced or externally produced civil wars cross the lines between the sectarian and the secular—yes, don’t forget to blame Islam too. With everyone eligible for blame, no one can escape responsibility behind the fallacy of self-serving retrenchment, the illusion of a reassuring time out or the delusion of a bit of “leadership from behind.” For the United States and Europe the strategic choices are narrowing.