Future Perfect Union

Europe is not a superpower -- and that's precisely why it's so important.

"European leadership," a prominent commentator on international affairs observed to me, is an oxymoron, comparable in its inherent contradictions to the English use of the phrase "family holiday." In a world where there are a small number of real powers, Europe is half lion, half lamb — an inward-looking continent that is unable, if not unwilling, to participate fully at a moment of global instability and dramatic risk. Its institutions are stifled by their own complexity; its economy is constrained by a Stability and Growth Pact that the president of the European Commission himself describes as "stupid" and by welfare systems that lead to higher unemployment and higher taxes. Its much vaunted Common Foreign and Security Policy has been reduced to yet another vehicle of internal competition and conflict — a "common" foreign policy simply doesn’t exist.

As a result, the European Union (EU) is frozen in the face of challenge. The continent makes no meaningful contribution to combating the evils of terrorism or resolving the ongoing confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians or narrowing the ever growing divide between the West and the Islamic world. The challenges facing regions such as the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and Russia have been left to the United States to resolve. In the real world, all roads lead to Crawford, Texas, rather than to Brussels. Commissioner Chris Patten and High Representative Javier Solana rack up air miles and express sensible ideas, but their speeches are not backed by policies sufficiently coherent to win them respect or even a serious hearing.

In short, Europe is irrelevant, and nothing marks that irrelevance more starkly than the childish, adolescent anti-Americanism where slogans and point scoring are substituted for the more difficult task of presenting a serious alternative. Especially among the French and Germans, bashing the United States has become entrenched within the political and cultural vernacular. At the precise moment when mature dialogue is needed, Europe is missing in action — an absence that deprives the United States of both the support and the constructive challenge it so badly needs.

Such is the conventional wisdom, held with conviction by many in the Bush administration, in London, and even in parts of continental Europe itself. But there is another perspective.

If Rip van Winkle had fallen asleep 60 years ago and woken up today, he would find in the European space a most remarkable arrangement: A group of 15 countries — which spent the first half of the last century fighting each other in a series of vicious and genocidal wars — have in the last 50 years combined their fortunes into an intricate web of economic and political cooperation. Their union is not a superstate; it has no common army or nuclear weapons. It is, to use an overworked phrase, a postmodern constitutional arrangement in which sovereignty is partially delegated and pooled together for the good of all. Such links could easily become overly bureaucratic, but Brussels is run by fewer civil servants than are many individual government departments in London or Washington.

Of course, to borrow a phrase from the U.S. Constitution, this arrangement is not a "perfect union." The Common Agricultural Policy, for instance, is a mess and badly needs reform. But if the most serious of Europe’s internal disputes are about dairy subsidies and sheep meat regimes, then surely some progress has been made since the 1940s, when about 20 million Europeans died on battlefields and in gas chambers.

When the EU invited 10 other countries to join by 2004, most of them from Eastern Europe, it was a political step of immeasurable importance. After nearly 50 years of division by walls and barbed-wire fences, when border-crossing points were potential flash points for nuclear conflict between the superpowers, the continent is reunited. In Germany, the remains of the Berlin Wall are now a place of pilgrimage for tourists. The next generation of tourists, those now entering their teens, can remember nothing but a united Germany at the heart of a united Europe. Perhaps most remarkable of all, the map of Europe for the first time has been redrawn not by the whims of diplomats or the bayonets of occupying armies but through a democratic process that requires the approval of the people of every country at every stage. From the Middle East to Asia, nations look to Europe not as a simple blueprint for their own development but as a model of how neighbors — even after centuries of enmity — can work together without destroying their unique individual identities.

Europe’s economy is not as strong as it should be, and Europe’s new common currency has yet to be managed in ways that will allow the continent to fulfill its true potential. But the European economy has been robust enough over the last decade to achieve a continuous improvement in living standards and productivity built on a single market that will encompass more than 500 million people by 2004. Collectively, EU member states (led by the United Kingdom) are by far the largest investors in Russia. Meanwhile, for all the talk of the unique personal relationship between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian repayments of U.S. loans still exceed new U.S. investments. European firms are already significant investors of capital outside Europe, not least in the Middle East and Asia, which are closed to U.S. investment by virtue of sanctions and other trade restrictions.

Europe is no superpower. It has no fleet in the Pacific or Indian oceans. By the nature of its evolution, it has not yet found a single voice through which to intervene in world affairs. But it is far from absent. At the United Nations, and in many other forums, one can detect the pragmatic tone of a continent that understands power all too well and that is skeptical of all who claim to have mastered its use. As such, Europe remains the most important ally of the United States — and the most valuable.

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