Elephants in the Room
Europe Is Thinking Harder About Divorcing America
European leaders are flirting with the idea of going it alone—but Washington should be willing to call their bluff.
This year’s Munich Security Conference convened under the rubric of “Westlessness.” The implication was clear: Not only are the United States and Europe staking out separate, clashing positions on everything from telecommunications to energy, but they have issued sharp disagreements on the basic building blocks of foreign relations—namely, how the international system should work. French President Emmanuel Macron seized the spotlight, and sent the hearts of European federalists aflutter, by calling for “a European way” while raising the possibility of a French-led European nuclear deterrent, a precondition for any true independence from the United States.
It is an axiom of international relations that democracies do not go to war with one another. What is less clear, however, is the conditions under which they might separate into competing strategic blocs. History is full of examples of democracies banding together into strategic alliances, but few examples of such countries decoupling and transforming into political rivals. Are the United States and its closest allies in Europe nevertheless on the path to a historic divorce?
If opinion polls are to go by, we are already separated. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in Germany, the most important country in Europe. In January, Pew Research released a poll showing that 57 percent of Germans hold an outright unfavorable view of the United States. A few months earlier, in September, the European Council on Foreign Relations reported that 70 percent of Germans want their country to remain neutral in any conflict between Moscow and Washington.
Germany’s anti-American impulses are a hydra-headed phenomenon rooted in both social and political life. For some Germans, Anglo-Saxon capitalism is seen as ruthless and rootless, mowing down the social order in the service of individual greed. For others, the United States’ dominance of the West breeds resentment, especially in an era of globalization, when even the slightest shocks from across the Atlantic hit Germany’s bottom line or derail its diplomacy.
Most of all, however, Germany is dismayed that the United States, and especially the administration of President Donald Trump, does not share its reverence for the central ambition of the Munich Security Conference: multilateral diplomacy. In fact, even liberals in the United States are skeptical of European-style multilateralism. As the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright put it recently, the American left prefers “a values-based approach of the like-minded to uphold a certain idea of international order” rather than “a convening project to bring everyone—including countries such as China and Russia—together.” That approach may be more welcome to Germany than the Trump administration’s focus on outcomes over process, but it is still a blow to Germans, whose technical expertise thrives in the rarefied air of global governance but bogs down in the grimy lowlands of geopolitical competition. At Munich, German officials proudly trumpeted their recent conference on Libya, which managed to win an endorsement from the United Nations Security Council, but conceded that their efforts have done little to slow the actual conflict on the ground.
With Germany frustrated by the United States (and the United Kingdom consumed by Brexit), France has identified an opportunity to press its Gaullist dreams. At every turn, it has sought to empower the EU while limiting NATO. As one U.S. official told me recently, “France wants NATO as a simple 911—an emergency line for the unlikely possibility of a five-alarm fire.” This has produced tensions between Paris and Washington, which would prefer a more active NATO.
But those frictions have remained mostly at the technical level for a simple reason: the United States’ political class is sure that Europe will not actually walk out on it. This is true for three reasons that were on display at Munich last week.
First, Europe remains divided amongst itself. At Munich, EU High Representative Josep Borrell drove this point home during a contentious dialogue with Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, who spent the balance of his remarks pressing for transatlanticism. “You live in freedom because of the Vatican and the United States,” Borrell countered. “But I lived under dictatorship for forty years because of the Vatican and the United States. I cannot say I see the United States the same way.”
Even the supposedly closest of allies, Germany and France, betrayed sharp differences during the conference. Macron has employed a frenetic style and launched a whir of disruptive initiatives recently, all of which clash with the steadier, more predictable approach preferred by Berlin. As Macron has staked out new positions, including strategic outreach to Russia, Berlin has blanched. From the western Balkans to Libya, the two most important countries of Europe have been at odds.
Those differences extend to the political architecture of Europe. In his typical grandiloquence, Macron swept into Munich to give a speech but also to work the German press and meet with the country’s opposition party—all in the service of his vision for Europe. “If the German leadership acted this way in Paris,” one attendee remarked to me in a jab at Macron’s sideline events, “there would be outrage.” Instead, Merkel has registered Macron’s plea for more Europe with stony silence. For the Americans, the lesson seems clear: Complaining about the United States is one thing; forging an independent European order another altogether.
Second, based on virtually any indicator of power, Europe is in the process of weakening. Its hidebound economy lacks the risk-taking culture that produces innovation, and its demography is going from bad to worse. Western Europe’s military capabilities are the stuff of jokes. “What’s the point of holding a security conference in a country whose army is smaller than France’s?” one American expert said to me after the conference. Even the continent’s reliable mainstream is splintering. No one can say that centrist parties are surefire bets to win the 2020s; even Macron may struggle to carry the day and remain in the Élysée past 2022. As a result, when Americans look to Europe, they see a flagging continent in need of U.S. support rather than an EU on the cusp of liftoff.
Third, Americans recognize that Europe lacks attractive power. Today, there is no other bloc in the world that is more European than American. Put another way, if Europe truly separated from the United States, it would struggle to find third parties that would choose it over the United States. From Jerusalem to Tokyo, Europe’s natural partners all maintain closer relations with Washington than Brussels. To be sure, there may be roving coalitions available for European initiatives to, say, keep the lights on at the World Trade Organization. But overwhelmingly, the world’s major power centers neither share Europe’s affinity for supranationalism nor its particular brand of multilateral diplomacy. As a result, Americans realize that Europe is far more likely to separate on an issue-by-issue basis from the United States than adopt an independent strategic posture.
Nonetheless, the world is full of suitors with seductive offers of cooperation. In particular, the two most powerful illiberal states, China and Russia, are encouraging Europe to drift from the United States. Both are offering low-priced alternatives to the liberal international order on telecommunications and energy. Most notably, Germany’s growing economic dependence on China is pushing it away from the United States and ever closer to de facto neutrality on key security issues. That trend is only likely to increase in the coming years. Instead of pushing back on Russia’s strategy of energy blackmail or China’s dominance of national-security technologies, Germany may very well transform into a supersized Switzerland. This will provide cover to other Europeans eyeing economic opportunities in China. At Munich, for example, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio offered a lengthy defense of Italy’s decision to join the Belt and Road Initiative.
If there is something to Westlessness, therefore, it is how quickly some Europeans have forgotten how unattractive the world looked before Pax Americana. Rarely has the West had it as good as it does now. The United States may be demanding a more balanced relationship on everything from trade to security, but that is a small price to pay for what a U.S.-led international system has to offer. The United States may not be a cheap date, but unlike China, its affections for Europe are genuine—and enduring.