Why the US Needs Europe

Today, by any number of measures, the EU and the U.S. are drifting apart. Support for the transatlantic alliance is at a post-World War II low. There are many manifestations of what has been termed “continental drift”: inwards turns by both the U.S. and the EU after the economic crisis, an America increasingly focused on the Pacific, tensions over the Snowden revelations, the absence of U.S. leadership on Syria and Ukraine, and lastly, divergent views within Europe of the critical importance of the U.S. The potential future effectiveness of the alliance has been put into question by weakening European defense capabilities and a U.S. President determined to shrink America’s footprint abroad. In short, the Atlantic Alliance is in crisis.

Presidents Clinton and Bush undertook historic efforts to bring critical parts of post-Communist Eastern Europe into the Alliance. By contrast, President Obama’s lack of engagement in European affairs seems to signal to Europe that it is no longer a major American strategic concern after the end of the Cold War.

This crisis notwithstanding, the U.S. needs closer engagement with Europe on crucial defense and foreign policy matters. The U.S. under President Obama may be turning inward; but the fact remains: Europe is vital and irreplaceable to us.

History and culture bind the U.S. and Europe together; Europe discovered us, shaped our thinking, and forms of government. But there is more than just cultural affinity that unites us. There is a deep moral scope to the alliance. It was, after all, in the West that concepts such as limited government, individual rights, freedom of worship, free markets, and equal rights for women arose. The moral basis of our alliance embodied in these concepts was critical to our heroic joint efforts leading the fierce external opposition to totalitarianism that helped bring down the Iron Curtain.

The common defense threats we face in the 21st century—almost all on the periphery of the U.S. or the EU—are different in scope and kind: conventional challenges such as Russia bent on dominating its near abroad or China’s increasing assertiveness in territorial matters and growing military prowess; others are unconventional, including the spread of radical Islam and terrorism in the Middle East and beyond, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to countries such as Iran and North Korea. In an age of extremist ideologies, non-state actors with increasingly widespread technological capacities could pose the greatest threats of all to international order.

Other challenges that arise from the “arc of instability” to the south of Europe—including migration and unruly political transitions in the Arab world—require a mix of hard and soft power. The diplomatic flexibility that approaches by a multiplicity of states in Europe can afford— combined with the potential threat of hard power when necessary—offers the most diverse set of tools to handle such crises.

Our moral message and policy prescriptions are much stronger when unified; we are able to achieve far more together than alone. But to achieve unity, as the last decade has shown, we really have to work at it. This means more than occasional consultations, after the fact, as has often been the case during the Obama administration.

Strong U.S.-European relations require regular consultations, give and take, even blunt conversations— not just lectures from Washington or from Brussels or European capitals—to give Europeans a stake of ownership in policies. This ownership will allow them and us to make the case for shared sacrifice to their and our polities—a case that needs to be made in politics since the choices officials face in security policy are often less than optimal. The failure of American leadership since 2009 to make such arguments at home has weakened our ability to expect our allies to make the same kinds of cases to their publics, thereby harming the alliance.

American cannot “go it alone.” Europe offers America an invaluable tool: a key multilateral dimension to policy. With it, comes greater credibility in the international arena and a greater capacity to undertake complex missions. America has to lead, but Europe has to be our partner, willing to be vocal when we are unwilling to meet out responsibilities. Without it comes the excessive swings of American foreign and defense policy that have led us, in recent years, to shirk our global responsibilities.

Europeans contributed in crucial ways to the US-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and were absolutely central to the intervention in Libya. France’s willingness to intervene in Mali and the Central African Republic with assistance from the U.S. and the E.U. at a time when the U.S. is less willing on new anti-terror interventions is a very positive sign. But French interventionism, as welcome as it is, cannot make up for shrinking defense budgets and reluctant leadership from both Germany and the U.K. The U.S. needs to encourage its allies to assume their responsibilities.

Although Europe’s armed forces are less strong and less well equipped than desirable, European armed forces are, in fact, well-trained, technologically sophisticated and also geographically closer to the regions that are likely to be critical in the 21st century—North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The manpower and cost efficiencies from potential joint operations cannot be overstated.

Europeans can bring unmatched sensibilities in their own backyard, but need to assume their responsibilities. Their knowledge of history and culture is essential. This knowledge and willingness to use “soft power” has to be joined to a sense of the importance of burden sharing, especially as American forces are overstretched in a time of declining American defense budgets.

Increasing isolationism in both American political parties should serve as a wakeup call to Europe that we might not always be there to help police Europe’s periphery as in Kosovo or Libya.

The greater distance we are assuming from Europe should make us all the more sympathetic to European defense initiatives. Given the deeper challenges we face, it is time to leave aside “theological” debates over whether NATO or the EU should be the prime focus for the future of European defense. Instead, we need to focus on how best to meet common strategic challenges with the array of resources, diplomatic and military, that we can muster.

When Europeans and Americans work together for shared purpose, the partnership enhances us both and makes our complex and simultaneous missions much easier to accomplish.

Kenneth R. Weinstein

is President and CEO of Hudson Institute. He has written widely on international affairs for leading publications in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is an expert on U.S. foreign policy and international affairs who comments on national and international affairs on television and in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, Bungei Shimbun (Japan), Le Figaro and Le Monde.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 03/2019

Saving Europe?

Judging from the recent election to the EP, Europe seems to be increasingly fragmented. However, Czechs and Slovaks, the two most Eurosceptic nations in Europe, elected the two most pro-European delegations to the European Parliament in the region. Perhaps we should not panic.

Download PDF