It’s not that Europe no longer matters, it’s that it will matter differently

It’s not that Europe no longer matters, it’s that it will matter differently

On Friday, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article in the Washington Post titled, "Why Europe No Longer Matters." Today, Monday, the headline in the Wall Street Journal was "Europe Wrangles Over Greece," the top two headlines in the Financial Times were "Medvedev rules out poll tussle with Putin" and "Greek PM’s plea for unity to tackle crisis," the top headline in the Washington Post was a story about NATO entitled "Misfire in Libya kills civilians" and the lead story in the New York Times was entitled "Companies Push for a Tax Break on Foreign Cash" which dealt with a key challenge in the age of global companies.

Haass, one of the canniest and most thoughtful U.S. foreign policy analysts around, was responding to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s valedictory jabs at Europe concerning pulling their weight within NATO. The point of the Haass article was that Gates’s comments were not just a coda on his time in office, but the end of a "time-honored tradition" which involves Americans tweaking our allies for shirking their global responsibilities. The piece made all the usual points: Europe’s influence beyond its borders will decline, Asia is rising, the threats NATO was established to address have vanished to be replaced by new ones it is not very well-suited to meeting, etc.

The problem with the piece is that while Haass is right in terms of each of these points, I think he comes to the wrong conclusion.

The headlines in this morning’s papers attest to the fact that Europe still very much matters today. In a tightly integrated global economy, Europe’s economic fate impacts ours dramatically. An economic meltdown there around Greece or Spain could easily create a global economic crisis and send the United States into a precipitous and uncomfortable double dip.

Further, while NATO is certainly bumbling in Libya and a challenge to work with, the fact that the United States saw it as the right vehicle with which to collaborate in North Africa and in Afghanistan suggests that the alliance is actually evolving in important ways. It hasn’t been pretty, but as the United States recognized in both instances, there really is no effective Plan B for a United States that is reluctant or unable to go it alone in key circumstances. Further, as indicated by the U.S. focus on the Europeans as key partners with regard to economic development in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, not only is the alliance not just military but the United States recognizes that the Middle East is Europe’s Mexico. Problems there are European problems in terms of immigration and terrorism more than they are U.S. problems. What’s more, the response of European leaders in both instances indicates that despite historical Euroreluctance to get involved, current leaders see no choice.

Europe will play a key role in the U.S. strategy for dealing with the Palestinian statehood vote in the United Nations, is still the United States’ most reliable ally in most international fora, is still a vital trading partner, and of all the other major powers in the world, is still the one most likely to collaborate with the United States on key economic, political or security initiatives.

Is Asia more important than ever? Absolutely. But the political paralysis in Japan, its limits on international involvement, China’s role as a sometimes adversary, and India’s state of development, regional concerns and inclination to remain aligned with other blocks on key issues suggest that even after the sun has set on the primacy of the Atlantic as the world’s geopolitical center of gravity, an evolving trans-Atlantic alliance will remain vitally important.

Perhaps it was just an overzealous headline writer that put Haass on the record as suggesting Europe no longer mattered, but the substance of his text suggests that he is mistaking relative change for the more absolute kind. We are well past the Cold War realities that dictated that NATO was the most important international mechanism of U.S. national security, our most vital partner in a bi-polar world. But in the emerging multipolar world in which shifting alliances among major powers will tip the balance in all international affairs and in which a chastened, economically-strapped United States will require true partners to get anything done and in which our strong natural affinities and common interests are with Europe, it is short sighted and a mistake to write off what will remain an absolutely central relationship to the United States for decades to come.