Partners in Decline

Why the United States needs Europe more than ever.


It’s anti-Europe season again in the United States. Once the season opens (usually in the second year of a presidential term, when the White House most needs a scapegoat), cabinet officials and analysts start taking their shots: "Europeans don’t pitch in. They don’t fight enough."

Andrew Bacevich’s article, "Let Europe Be Europe," is just the latest example. His argument takes on a novel form: The United States should leave a dysfunctional NATO and hand the pacifist Europeans the remains.

Bacevich’s article misses a fundamental point, however, just as all of this seasonal activity does: The United States and Europe are the best allies they’ve each got. Yes, they have similar traditions, share values, and have a long history of cooperation behind them. But most importantly, they are on the same side of today’s geopolitical dividing line: Both are declining powers.

Even if Europeans and Americans enjoy a standard of living enviable to the rest of the world, the reality of the "double decline" is unarguable. Although their respective declines may be happening at different speeds, there is no doubt the United States and Europe will continue to slip into irrelevance. Europe had one-quarter of the world’s population in 1900, around 15 percent in 1950, and only 7 percent today. Its share is expected to go down to 5 percent by 2050. The European Union’s GDP as a percentage of global GDP has shrunk from 28 percent in 1950 to 21 percent today and may be as little as 18 percent in 2050, according to internal EU documents. America’s decline is not as steep, but the rapid rise of countries like China, India, and Brazil mean it will inevitably be pushed to the sidelines. These facts are denied today only by an odd alliance of Hollywood studios, the Republican Party, and romantic Europeans. These groups carry on as before, perpetuating blockbuster myths about the limitless power of the West.

The truth is altogether more depressing. Yet it is the actual facts — and not the number of European troops committed in Afghanistan — that should shape debates over the transatlantic link and NATO’s future.

The fight against the Taliban is important but not endless — voters will not allow it to be. One day U.S. and European soldiers will come home. Hopefully the withdrawal of both sets of forces will come after a victory (however defined), but that clearly isn’t a given. Few people hearing U.S. President Barack Obama’s West Point address last December were left in any doubt that the U.S. commitment is time-limited. It certainly seems that Afghan President Hamid Karzai believes that NATO forces will not be in his country for as long as they have been. Recently, he has consolidated his power over a key electoral commission in the Afghan government, formerly overseen by the United Nations; the move signals his interest in quashing post-American opposition to governmental and electoral corruption and fraud. Put simply, the United States and Europe are leaving sooner or later, and Kabul is already gearing up for the aftermath.

So to judge allies on whether they are willing to join NATO’s fight against the Taliban is shortsighted. Imagine if the United States had in the past chosen its allies exclusively on whether they were willing to fight alongside the 82nd Airborne. That would have meant abandoning an alliance with Britain in 1966 after then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send British troops to the Vietnam War.

Thankfully, U.S. policymakers did not go down that route. Quite the opposite: After World War II they sought to cement an all-purpose alliance, based both on values and interests. They knew the importance of looking beyond the current war. Perhaps the end of the Cold War was an opportune time to kill off NATO, but the Balkan crises of the 1990s and post-9/11 security challenges proved that the alliance was still needed. The same is true today. The alternative — to replace NATO with an ad hoc ABCD alliance (America, Britain, Canada, and Denmark) — may give the United States enough firepower for today’s wars, but less of the legitimacy and flexibility that NATO offers.

Of course NATO has to change, and Bacevich is right to point to the alliance’s many deficiencies. In particular, greater European defense investments are needed if the United States is to remain committed to the alliance. Here the United States should advance, not sound the retreat. The EU’s member states (even France and Britain) have lost and will never regain the ability to finance all the necessary capabilities by themselves. Only cooperation among Europeans can eliminate the massive waste associated with the duplication of resources by EU countries and help transform Europe’s armed forces into modern militaries capable of contributing to global security. The U.S. administration should publicly support such efforts.

If it does back greater EU defense cooperation, the United States is more likely to get the kind of ally it needs. Together, America and Europe can help manage and perhaps even precipitate their collective decline. Alone, however, both are under the gun.

<p> Daniel Korski is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. </p>