The view of Europe from Washington

US policymakers understand very well that Europe is the most important region of the world for the United States.

Until quite recently, the geo-strategic view of Europe from Washington has been extraordinarily consistent since the end of the Cold War. At base, this view holds that Europe is important to the United States. But it also holds that Europe is the most stable, the most prosperous, and potentially the most self-sufficient region of the world. For the last three decades, the US approach to Europe has focused on getting Europe to provide for its own security and even, optimistically, to become an exporter of stability in its broader neighbourhood to the East and South.

This view does not mean that Washington policymakers think Europe is unimportant to US interests, as Europeans often assume. On the contrary, US policymakers understand very well that Europe is the most important region of the world for the United States. This is reflected not simply in statistics that show that Europe is America’s largest trading and investment partner, not just in the fact that Europe is the only other center of democratic prosperity, or that the nations of Europe are America’s most powerful and effective allies. It is also resides in a more ineffable cultural connection.  

Americans see themselves in Europe. Relatively speaking, Americans do not seek approval from foreign audiences, but international legitimacy is still important to the broad American public. More importantly, to judge by the way outside opinion is described in the United States, the source of that legitimacy is clear. Americans look to Europe as the first outside judge of the legitimacy of their foreign policy and even domestic policy debates. It matters little to Americans sense of righteousness how a policy is received in Beijing or Moscow. European judgments, in contrast, contain moral worth and thus political weight in American debates.

Washington policymakers also understand that the United States cannot ultimately stand aside from European conflicts and problems. Europe is simply too important to the United States — politically, economically and culturally. It must be protected — by Europeans if possible, by Americans if necessary. And because European geopolitics is effectively organised around the idea that the US will provide a backstop, the US absence from European security issues would cause instability, as it did after World War One. 

This core commitment to Europe has animated the foreign policy of every American president since Roosevelt. It continues to be a strong bipartisan consensus in the United States, even if Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, appears not to share it.

But it is also true that American strategists (even beyond Donald Trump) have not, relatively speaking, spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about European problems. US attention in foreign affairs is devoted to American wars and terrorism in the broader Middle East and the threat of a rising China in East Asia. In an effort to prioritise among their many problems, US policymakers have consistently looked to move American resources, especially military assets away from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.

There is no inconsistency in the view that Europe is both the most important region to the United States and yet resources should be shifted away from it.  From Washington’s perspective, the United States has an automobile factory and some gas stations. Everyone understands that the factory is the more valuable asset. But even if the factory has occasional work stoppages, several of the gas stations are on fire. Those fires naturally get more attention and resources.

In this sense, President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia is only the latest reflection of the idea that Europe should be capable of leading on managing European problems. From the perspective of Washington policymakers, it is no longer necessary or tenable for the US to provide so many resources for security in Europe. With the emergence of a host of newly powerful competitors and with the continual stream of crises in other parts of the world, the United States simply cannot afford — fiscally, militarily, or politically — to provide security for the (relatively) most peaceful and most advanced part of the world.

Moreover, there is a worry that US provision of security in Europe has enabled Europeans to engage in relatively petty intra-European squabbles and to neglect their own forces. US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, for example, ended his tenure in office in 2011 with a blistering attack on European irresponsibility in defence.

This post-cold war approach to European security has been remarkably consistent. It has over time created an extremely ritualised transatlantic conversation. Americans complain about European lack of burden-sharing in international security; Europeans complain about lack of American attention and withdrawal from Europe. This ritualised tension has, over the long years, made transatlantic conferences spectacularly boring, but otherwise it has served the alliance well. It kept up the pressure on Europeans to export stability as much as possible and served to remind Americans that they cannot take Europe or European security for granted. Europeans have remained America’s most important allies and NATO has remained its most useful alliance tool

The Fire This Time

Alas, this long period of comfortably boring mutual frustration may now finally be coming to an end. The fires are spreading to the automobile factory. This development may make transatlantic conferences more interesting, but otherwise will not improve the world at all.

This is, in part, because the factory fire is encouraging an important change in the view of Europe in the United States. There is a nascent idea in Washington that perhaps the decades-long effort to get Europe to take leadership on its own security has run aground. So some policymakers are beginning to think (and some always believed) that firm American leadership along the model of the Cold War is necessary after all. Europe, regardless of its latent capacity, will never muster sufficient solidarity or political will to address its own security problems. And it is too important to fail, so America must take charge.

This view has not taken hold beyond European experts and certain government officials. It has not been and likely won’t be an issue in the presidential election, but it is slowly gaining strength in policy circles.

This crisis of confidence in Europe has its antecedents in the slow and nearly financially catastrophic European response to the euro crisis in 2010 and in the re-emergence of the Russian military threat to Eastern Europe in early 2014. But it really took shape after the refugee crisis began last summer.

In Washington, the refugee crisis was a shock less because of the million or more refugees arriving on the shores of Europe (though that was certainly not a pleasant surprise). Rather it was because the crisis demonstrated even more clearly the lack of solidarity in Europe and the political fragility of many European governments, including even the Germany government, in the face of growing populist parties. 

This political earthquake of a populist backlash against the idea of Europe, also seen in the UK’s Brexit debate, presents a threat to the very project of European integration. For the United States, the implosion of the European Union would be a deathblow to decades of policy intended to inspire in Europe the desire to take responsibility for its own neighborhood.

The key to avoiding this outcome lies in imbuing in the peoples of Europe the political will and sense of solidarity among its populations necessary to pool sovereignty. The United States has fewer tools available to promote that outcome than it did in the 1950s and 1960s, but it remains an urgent priority. President Obama’s visit to the United Kingdom in April, for example, was intended to carry the message that the United States still cares deeply about European integration. But even after the fact it is unclear whether such an explicit message by an American president helped or hurt the “in” campaign in Britain.

Recognising this, the Obama administration has sought to step up American contributions in Europe, even as it has continued to press for European leadership and burden sharing. It has made the case that the European refugee crisis is America’s problem too. It has supported a NATO mission to cut off smuggling routes into Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean, but pushed Europeans to lead it. Similarly, the administration has looked to find a balance in its response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine that puts principal responsibility on Europeans but also supports them with American power. Toward that end, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently announced that US would quadruple its military spending in Europe in 2017 to counter Russian aggression in the East.

Enter Trump

This is a difficult balance to maintain, because, as noted, every increased American effort to support security in Europe decreases the European incentive to provide for it themselves.

But the more fundamental problem is that it is no longer the 1990s. The necessity of an American solution to Europe’s lack of solidarity does not by itself create an American capacity to provide one. The severe geopolitical problems in the Middle East and East Asia and the relative decline of the United States means that it is simply impossible for the United States to fully play that role again.

And it is not just American capacity which makes it impossible. American domestic politics also seem to be moving in the wrong direction. The long-held bipartisan consensus on the importance of Europe is under threat from America’s own populist uprising. Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, (inconsistently) rejects that idea that European security is critical to US national interests. As noted, previous American presidents have explicitly looked for a more equitable partnership with Europe, but they have not sought to abandon Europe and leave it to its own devices.

Trump, in contrast, believes in walls and in oceans. In this view, America can stand aside from problems in other regions and should not help on the European refugee crisis, for example, because “we have our own problems”. This type of thinking would strengthen US bargaining power on questions of burden sharing with Europe considerably, by demonstrating to the Europeans that the US is willing to walk away. Along these lines, Donald Trump would have US allies believe that he is willing to leave NATO. Who knows if he means it? Consistency is not Trump’s defining characteristic. But just a negotiation conducted on that basis could destroy the transatlantic partnership that has made both sides of the Atlantic so secure and prosperous.

If this seems like a bad deal for Europe (and for America), that’s because it is. But Trump’s view of allies represents only an extreme version of a growing feeling in the United States that, in a time of relative decline, the country is getting a raw deal from allies who can’t get their own houses in order. Trump will probably not be president in 2017 and the transatlantic alliance will likely endure the next US president in something like its current form. But the partnership cannot persist along the current lines for too much longer. 

Currently, the belief in the American backstop makes European incoherence seems survivable. And as of now there is an American backstop. But the American backstop cannot last for reasons of both capacity and US domestic politics. Europeans would be wise to take more proactive measures to visibly assert their capacity for leadership under the next president, no matter who she is. In the first instance, this means meeting existing commitments on defence spending. But probably more importantly, they should be willing to use the forces that result in, for example, taking stronger ownership of reassurance measures in Central and Eastern Europe or coping with instability in Libya. Otherwise, they won’t be ready when Ivanka Trump for President runs in 2024.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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