I gave a talk in Washington the other day about the future of the EU and transatlantic relations more generally, and
I thought FP readers might be interested in what I had to say. Here's a short summary of what I said.
I began with the rather obvious point that the highwater
mark of Europe's global influence was past, and argued that it would be of
declining strategic importance in the future. The logic is simple: After dominating global
politics from roughly 1500 to 1900, Europe's relative weight in world affairs
has declined sharply ever since. Europe's population is shrinking and aging, and its share of the world
economy is shrinking too. For example, in
1900, Europe plus America produced over 50 percent of the world economy and Asia
produced less than 20 percent. Today,
however, the ten largest economies in Asia have a combined GDP greater than
Europe or the United States, and the Asian G10 will have about 50 percent of
gross world product by 2050.
Europe's current fiscal woes are adding to this problem, and
forcing European governments to reduce their already modest military
capabilities even more. This isn't necessarily a
big problem for Europeans, however, because they don't face any significant
conventional military threats. But it
does mean that Europe's ability to shape events in other parts of the world will
continue to decline.
Please note: I am not saying the Europe is becoming
completely irrelevant, only that its strategic importance has declined
significantly and that this trend will continue.
Second, I also argued that the highwater mark of European unity is also behind us. This is a more controversial claim, and it's
entirely possible that I'll be proven wrong here. Nonetheless, there are several obvious reasons
why the EU is going to have real trouble going forward.
The EU emerged in the aftermath of World War II. It was partly intended as a mechanism to bind
European states together and prevent another European war, but it was also part
of a broader Western European effort to create enough economic capacity to
balance the Soviet Union. Europeans were
not confident that the United States would remain engaged and committed to
their defense (and there were good reasons for these doubts), and they understood that economic integration
would be necessary to create an adequate counterweight to Soviet power.
As it turned out, the United States did remain committed to
Europe, which is why the Europeans never got serious about creating an
integrated military capacity. They were
willing to give up some sovereignty to Brussels, but not that much. European elites got more ambitious in the
1980s and 1990s, and sought to enhance Europe's role by expanding the size of
the EU and by making various institutional reforms, embodied in the Maastricht and
Lisbon treaties. This broad effort had some
positive results -- in particular, the desire for EU membership encouraged East European candidates to adopt democractic reforms and guarantees for minority rights -- but the effort
did not lead to a significant deepening in political
integration and is now in serious trouble.
Among other things, the Lisbon Treaty sought to give the
positions of council president and High Representative for Foreign Affairs
greater stature, so that Europe could finally speak with "one voice." Thus far, that
effort has been something of a bust. The
current incumbents -- Herman von Rompuy of Belgium and Catherine Ashton of
Britain -- are not exactly politicians of great prominence or clout, and it is hardly surprising
that it is national leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of
Germany that have played the leading roles in dealing with Europe's current
troubles. As has long been the case, national governments remain where the action is.
Today, European integration is threatened by 1) the lack of
an external enemy, which removes a major incentive for deep cooperation, 2) the
unwieldy nature of EU decision-making, where 27 countries of very different
sizes and wealth have to try to reach agreement by consensus, 3) the misguided
decision to create a common currency, but without creating the political and
economic institutions needed to support it, and 4) nationalism,
which remains a powerful force throughout Europe and has been gathering steam
in recent years.
It is possible that these challenges will force the EU member-states to eventually adopt even deeper forms of political
integration, as some experts have already advised. One could view the recent Franco-German
agreement on coordinating economic policy in this light, except that the steps
proposed by Merkel and Sarkozy were extremely modest. I don't think the EU is going to fall apart,
but prolonged stagnation and gradual erosion seems likely. Hence my belief that
the heyday of European political integration is behind us.
Third, I argued that the glory days of transatlantic
security cooperation also lie in the past, and we will see less cooperative and
intimate security partnership between Europe and America in the future. Why do I think so?
One obvious reason is the lack of common external enemy. Historically, that is the only reason why the
United States was willing to commit troops to Europe, and it is therefore no surprise that America's military presence
in Europe has declined steadily ever since the Soviet Union broke up. Simply put: there is no threat to Europe that
the Europeans cannot cope with on their own, and thus little role for Americans to play.
In addition, the various imperial adventures that NATO has
engaged in since 1992 haven't worked out that well. It was said in the 1990s that NATO had to "go
out of area or out of business," which is one reason it started planning for these operations, but most of the missions NATO has taken on
since then have been something of a bust.
Intervention in the Balkans eventually ended the fighting there, but it
took longer and cost more than anyone expected and it's not even clear
that it really worked (i.e., if NATO peacekeepers withdrew from Kosovo tomorrow, fighting
might start up again quite soon). NATO
was divided over the war in Iraq, and ISAF's disjointed effort in Afghanistan just reminds us why Napoleon always said he liked to fight against coalitions. The war in Libya
could produce another disappointing result, depending on how it plays out. Transatlantic security cooperation might
have received a new lease on life if all these adventures had gone swimmingly;
unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. But this raises the obvious question: If the
United States isn't needed to protect Europe and there's little positive that the alliance
can accomplish anywhere else, then what's it for?
Lastly, transatlantic security cooperation will decline
because the United States will be shifting its strategic focus to Asia. The central goal of US grand strategy is to
maintain hegemony in the Western hemisphere and to prevent other great powers
from achieving hegemony in their regions.
For the foreseeable future, the only potential regional hegemon is
China. There will probably be an
intense security competition there, and the United States will therefore be deepening its security ties with a variety of Asian partners. Europe has little role to play in this
competition, however, and little or no incentive to get involved. Over time, Asia will get more and more
attention from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and Europe will get
This trend will be reinforced by demographic and
generational changes on both sides of the Atlantic, as the percentage of
Americans with strong ancestral connections to Europe declines and as the
generation that waged the Cold War leaves the stage. So in addition to shifting strategic
interests, some of the social glue that held Europe and America together is
likely to weaken as well.
It is important not to overstate this trend -- Europe and
America won't become enemies, and I don't think intense security competition is
going to break out within Europe anytime soon.
Europe and the United States will continue to trade and invest with each
other, and we will continue to collaborate on a number of security issues
(counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, counter-proliferation, etc.). But Europe won't be America's "go-to" partner
in the decades ahead, at least not the way it once was.
This will be a rather different world than the one we've
been accustomed to for the past 60 years, but that's not necessarily a bad
thing. Moreover, because it reflects powerful
structural forces, there's probably little we can do to prevent it. Instead, the smart response -- for both Americans
and Europeans -- is to acknowledge these tendencies and adapt to them, instead of
engaging in a futile effort to hold back the tides of history.
Mark Renders/Getty Images