Losing the Continent

Why the Obama administration's neglect of Europe will result in a more dangerous, unstable world.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

With the United States facing what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls "a strategic turning point after a decade of war," President Barack Obama directed a sweeping review of America’s military around the world. On Jan. 5, Obama delivered a statement at the Pentagon to present the administration’s defense priorities for sustaining U.S. global leadership.

Obama prioritized East Asia, calling it a "critical region" and promising a "strengthening [U.S.] presence" unaffected by budget cuts. The Middle East received special attention as a place where the United States "will stay vigilant." Yet Obama neglected to mention Europe. Remember NATO? Obama relegated it to one line in the middle of the speech, damning it with faint praise as a "force multiplier." The government’s 16-page official strategy review allotted just a single paragraph to European matters.

Yes, the Europe of today is no longer the epicenter of global war, hot or cold, that crowned U.S. concerns during the 20th century. But it’s also not a continent of Swedens. The review justifies Europe’s demotion by declaring, "Most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it." Yet as European defense budgets are plunging, fresh threats to European security are rising. Europe will very likely face wrenching internal transformations — at the very moment that its long frontier, wrapping south from Estonia to Greece and then west across the Mediterranean, once again becomes dangerously and problematically porous. Russia remains more than willing to use its control over Europe’s natural gas as a powerful political lever. Fraught Turkish relations with Syria and Iraq augur a tough test for NATO unity. In Libya, a fresh round of civil war could send waves of refugees — if not terrorists — crashing against Southern European shores. And, as Avi Jorisch recently warned in the Wall Street Journal, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb now finds itself flush with arms from Libya and cash from criminal enterprises and kidnapping ransoms. For good reason, European officials are increasingly dismayed.

What’s more, Europe’s economic crisis has revealed a deficit of political authority even more intractable and perilous than its fiscal one. The European Union’s rush to expand to encompass the whole of Europe — a process left awkwardly incomplete in the former Yugoslavia — now leaves "core" member countries in Western Europe with gnawing worries over the possibility of political backsliding in the greater Balkans that would lead to renewed conflict. In Budapest, Hungarian President Pal Schmitt has ushered in a new constitution annulling Hungary’s status as a republic and drawing accusations from Amnesty International that the document violates the rights of the country’s citizens. Greece’s latest talks with its private creditors have collapsed, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has warned his German counterpart that Rome will not tolerate steeper budget cuts. Meanwhile, Britain is stepping back from the continental mess to assume a defensive crouch. That’s to say nothing of the latest round of European credit downgrades issued by Standard & Poor’s. Even if a swift alteration of EU law manages to impose German-style budget targets on struggling member states, European public opinion remains stubbornly and staunchly opposed to German political dominance over the policies of other countries. Memories of Nazi occupation still rankle, and today Germans are viewed by large swaths of the continent as having benefited handsomely from favorable access to markets in countries they now want to force into painful austerity.

Seems like a fine time for Washington to weigh in with a steadying hand. Don’t hold your breath. The Obama administration seems to think Europe deserves to be treated with secondary importance because it is largely cordoned off from world events. But how can such a precarious hodgepodge as Europe remain, as the new strategy review describes it, "our principal partner in seeking global and economic security" now and into "the foreseeable future"? Europe’s ability to maintain its security position, much less project security, is on a precipitous decline.

A weakened, conflict-averse Europe will struggle even to respond militarily to unstable or adversarial neighbors in North Africa, the Middle East, and Eurasia. The deepening terrorist threat will siphon what military resolve there is into a preeminent urge to protect the homeland — an urge most likely exacerbated by austerity-driven civil unrest. Not only will the rest of the world continue to imperil European security, but Europe’s own insecurity is apt to spread like a contagion to surrounding regions.

If there is any silver lining to these dark clouds, it is to be found in France, the only country in Europe poised to exercise joint integrated military and political leadership. While focusing more resources on the continent as a whole, the United States urgently needs to build its relationship with France.

It is France that the British turned to for their austerity-induced defense-sharing plan. It is France that played an indispensable role in NATO’s Libya operation, assuming the lead "role before history," in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s words, while America hesitated and Germany begged off. And it is French attitudes and policies toward fundamentalist Islam — though certainly far from perfect — that stand in stark contrast with the sense of helplessness and passivity on display elsewhere in Europe. While memories of German dominance crush the prospect of Berlin’s leadership today, the French history of democracy and progress remains both powerfully universal and decidedly European.

Unfortunately, Obama has failed to capitalize on the warm Franco-U.S. relationship that Sarkozy has actively cultivated. Obama has declared that the United States doesn’t "have a stronger friend and a stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people," but the cooperation he has sought with the French is at best ad hoc and tactical, whether in Haiti or Libya.

Obama’s hands-off approach means that Europe will drift, if not tumble, into the arms of the French. Europeans could do far worse — returning to the bad old days of multipolar nationalist animosity or succumbing to the political domination of Russia or the economic hegemony of China. But a France that bears the burden of salvaging Europe with a minimum of strategic support from the United States is a France that will indeed draw Europe closer politically to Russia and closer economically to China.

With Germany and Britain sidelined and second rate, France and Russia will find that their traditional strategic affinities leave enough room on the continent for the interests of both major powers. This alignment will also put Paris and Moscow on a much stronger footing in dealing with Beijing. China’s economic muscle intimidates Europeans and Russians alike, but it also offers real opportunities — to be eagerly seized, no doubt, from the position of greater relative strength that Franco-Russian cooperation brings. Will America’s next defense review be ready in time?

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