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Why Europe Still Matters

"The nations and people of Europe are closest to the United States in their values...and their willingness to work with us on behalf of our substantial common strategic interests," writes Alberto Coll.

By Alberto R. Coll


Wikimedia Commons

Over the past decade it has become fashionable to write off Europe and downgrade its importance to American interests. The arguments are familiar.  Supposedly, Europe is an economically declining and politically dysfunctional entity of increasing strategic irrelevance in a world where the likes of China, India, and Brazil should be accorded a much higher priority. The implication is that the United States should pay less attention to Europe and reduce the diplomatic and political resources it allocates to our transatlantic relationships, including NATO, even as we look for closer alliances with the new rising states. Europe’s current economic woes have only reinforced this view. The post-1945 vision in which Europe was America’s vital ally—and in which the United States actively encouraged closer European integration—has given way to a mixture of indifference, skepticism, and outright bipartisan condescension toward Europe and its apparent inability to get its act together.

While Europe’s relative global standing is gradually shrinking as the new emerging economies of Asia and Latin America grow, it would be a mistake for the United States to neglect a group of closely connected countries—members of the European Union—whose combined GDP equals that of the United States and whose population numbers close to half a billion people. Geopolitically, Europe also happens to sit right next to three important countries and regions that are capable of generating serious security and economic complications for the United States: Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa. When the Obama administration launched its "reset" of relations with Russia, it found European policy toward Russia highly supportive because of Europe’s own interest in a stable, peaceful Russia that is drawn closer, however slowly, to the West. Throughout the Arab Spring, and especially with regard to Libya and Syria, the United States has found Europe tremendously useful and its policy in full agreement with our own. As President Obama has grappled with the question of how to deal with an Iran bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, no bloc of nations has been more supportive of American strategy than the European Union. Whether in tightening oil sanctions against Iran, cutting off Iranian financial institutions from the vital Europe-based SWIFT financial network, or increasing the pressure on Iran at the UN Security Council, Europe has been more valuable to the United States than anyone else. Indeed, on issues of grand strategy and global governance, Europe is closer to the United States in its outlook and long-term interests than anyone else in the world.

President Obama has had to learn this the hard way. Early in his tenure he tried to bridge the substantial gap between China and the United States by proposing what his predecessor also attempted: a “strategic partnership.” The Chinese rebuffed Obama, as they rebuffed President Bush. While China wants stable relations with the United States, the two great powers do not see eye to eye on most major issues of international relations, including the United States’ policy of balancing Chinese power in the Asia Pacific, threats posed by North Korea and Iran, the rules of global trade, human rights, climate change—you name it. India, Brazil, and South Africa, all of them robust democracies, are not much closer to us than China on most of these vital issues.

It is true that the world is changing as new power centers emerge, and that Europe will be relatively less powerful in 2030 than it is today. But that will be true of the United States, too. (China’s GDP is expected to surpass that of the United States sometime between 2018 and 2025.) How should a relatively less dominant United States seek to shape and influence the international order of the 21st century? One path, attempted by the Bush administration a decade ago, is for the United States to strike it on its own. It did not work in 2003, no more than it worked at the height of America’s power during the Cold War when the United States understood it needed allies. Unilateralism will work even less today, when the United States is unable by itself to alter any significant strategic outcomes. Another option, dear to the Europe bashers, is to find a new strategic partner to replace the Europeans, but neither the Chinese, nor the Indians or Brazilians are the least interested. That leaves us with Europe. In a world of seven billion people and vastly different cultures and civilizations, the nations and people of Europe are closest to us in their values, their preferred rules for global governance, and their willingness to work with us on behalf of our substantial common strategic interests.

In spite of its limitations, Europe remains our single most useful and most important ally. To ignore this is the grandest form of strategic self-delusion.