Sisyphus Just Needs a Hand
How Washington can help Europe from slipping back downhill.
Life in Europe these days often feels like a world in which boulders are slowly rolled up steep hills, only to come crashing back down -- no more so than in Greece, where a new leftist government just won elections that European central bankers worry will stall much-needed economic reforms.
Life in Europe these days often feels like a world in which boulders are slowly rolled up steep hills, only to come crashing back down — no more so than in Greece, where a new leftist government just won elections that European central bankers worry will stall much-needed economic reforms.
From the United Kingdom to the Ukrainian border, Europe is at a pivotal and dangerous moment in its history. The acknowledged failure of Barack Obama’s administration to send a senior official to the Charlie Hebdo march in Paris is only the latest symptom of American disengagement from the continent — a lack of focus that is verging on a significant geopolitical mistake. The United States must not let its fundamental strategic interest in a strong Europe be overshadowed by a highly publicized pivot to Asia.
First and most obviously, Europe continues to struggle economically. GDP growth was negligible in 2014 after falling in 2013, and unemployment remains in the double digits. The European Central Bank (ECB) has just embarked on a massive quantitative-easing program, having failed to jump-start the continent to date. While the most likely scenario is that the European monetary union holds together, if this further stimulus does not reignite growth and if confidence is lost in the ECB, the euro’s viability could be threatened, even as its value tumbles on world markets. And alarming demographics — declining birthrates, aging populations — paint a grim picture for continued future prosperity.
On top of this economic weakness, Europe’s military is in decline. European nations have consistently failed to meet even the minimum 2 percent of GDP goal for defense spending, resulting in big cuts in capability and a loss of ability to interoperate with U.S. forces, which currently supply well over two-thirds of the muscle in the NATO alliance. This imbalance is unsustainable, especially when Russian defense spending is rising sharply.
On the political front, the declining confidence in the European project, coupled with significant challenges from far-right parties across the continent and the resurgence of a recalcitrant Russia, have produced a frayed sense of coherence in “Europe” as an international partner.
Taken individually, these are causes for concern. But together, the political, economic, and military decline of Europe should be of utmost strategic concern. Europe is a geographical buffer to Russia and the Middle East, perhaps the two most sensitive areas in the world at the moment. The European Union is also the world’s largest economic bloc, with a GDP of $18 trillion, compared with the U.S. GDP of $17 trillion and China at $9 trillion.* Yes, China is certainly growing quickly. But this is all the more reason to ensure Europe is a strategic focus. The EU and U.S. economies taken together represent over 40 percent of the world’s GDP, an indomitable force if ties are close. A strong transatlantic relationship can balance the growth of China.
Furthermore, Europe shares America’s most important values. While its large regulatory state can seem unwieldy compared with the United States, differences over the appropriate size of government are small in the scheme of international relations. Europe is the birthplace of democracy and the Enlightenment, and it has an exceptionally strong human rights focus. The shared belief in freedom was on bright display after the Charlie Hebdo shootings: Despite Washington’s occasional differences with France, the reaction to the tragedy by the country demonstrated defiance against an attempt to silence speech that would have been right at home in the United States. Shared values are a strong foundation for reliable alliances.
Yet talk of common ideals will not alone solve Europe’s problems. There are a number of concrete steps the United States should take to help Europe toward recovery.
On the economic front, the administration and Congress should push forward with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), currently under negotiation, to further liberalize U.S.-EU trade, which accounts for almost one-third of global trade. Doing so could benefit both parties by potentially boosting growth by billions of dollars and creating millions of jobs.
Given the number of legitimately sensitive issues — such as dispute resolution and certain industry concerns — that would have to be negotiated for a TTIP agreement, Europe may need more immediate help than TTIP can provide. If one of Europe’s weaker countries (like Greece under Syriza) is on the verge of pulling out of the euro, Germany may ultimately have to decide whether to save the day by absorbing the liabilities of others through one type of risk-sharing mechanism or another. For the United States to have influence as these difficult decisions about the future of the euro are being made, the country must ensure that those in its senior leadership spend time nurturing close relationships with their European counterparts, rather than putting Europe on the back burner. And trotting out James Taylor is not the answer.
On the military front, NATO remains the key to European security and is a vital plank in U.S. defense as well. Even during challenging economic times, the United States has to push its European allies to shoulder their share of NATO defense spending, participate in key global missions (i.e. Syria, Afghanistan, the Balkans), and train their forces to operate smoothly with U.S. operators. Will the new Greek government try to take Greece out of NATO, as it has discussed in the past? Highly unlikely, but now is the time to focus the alliance militarily on shared responsibilities, with Syria as the example directly in front of us.
It is easy to assume that Europe will eventually muddle its way through its problems and that the U.S. administration’s focus is best spent concentrating on other priorities. Asia is certainly of crucial importance to the United States. But imagine a world in which the United States cannot rely on Europe, either because it has been dramatically weakened or because the European Union has partially or fully unwound. The United States would persist and navigate the new landscape, but its strategic position would be decidedly more complicated and tenuous. Just because Sisyphus is a Greek myth doesn’t mean that Europe cannot emerge from under the weight of its current boulder. But the United States may have to provide a shove or two along the way.
*Correction, Jan. 28, 2015: The GDP of the European Union is $18 trillion, while the GDPs of the United States and China are $17 trillion and $9 trillion, respectively. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said “billion” instead of “trillion.” (Return to reading.)
Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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