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The 60-Year Itch?

JERUSALEM – “Europe is boring: thank God, for you and for us,” my interlocutor told me. “Today, drama is in the Middle East, growth is in Asia, hope is in Africa, and proximity to the United States is in Latin America. Europe is nowhere – it has become the lost continent.”

There is, of course, a little provocation and a lot of irony in these remarks. A few years ago, their speaker occupied important positions within US diplomacy; he is now a key figure of the New York establishment. And his provocation highlights a sad reality that Europeans must accept and confront: Europe no longer interests America.

Yes, the European Union’s enlargement since 2004 was preceded by NATO’s eastward expansion. But that has not made a real difference; at the end of the day, America is also losing interest in NATO, which turned in a not-fully-convincing performance in Libya and a downright poor one in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, I gave a talk in Washington, DC, entitled “Hollande’s France: A Year After.” The audience members’ average age was significantly higher than mine (and I am 66). The complexities of French politics do not interest young Americans – and why should they? Would I have had a younger and larger audience if my talk had been called “Merkel’s Germany on the Eve of the Upcoming Election”?

Whereas young Europeans look for jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in America, young Americans go to Europe as tourists. For them, Europe is a continent undergoing museumification – a place to "do," not a place to be.

This disinterest in Europe is not recent, but it has deepened over recent years. Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has no longer been the first line of defense of the United States. And, since the end of the Balkan wars, the continent’s security problems have disappeared (except at the margins, as in Georgia, or potential threats stemming from its near-abroad, particularly the Arab world).

Many American scholars who were once interested in Europe’s social model have moved on to other research interests or retired, with no new generation to replace them. Learning European languages is no longer popular in American schools, with the possible exception of Spanish. To some extent, Mandarin has become the new French, but with a major difference: The language of Molière was a cultural tool, not (or not entirely) an instrument of economic success.

Of course, it would be wrong to overemphasize disenchantment and push self-flagellation too far. Europe still exists in the US, though probably more among the Washington administrative and political elite than within the world of New York finance and business, despite the fundamental importance of transatlantic trade for both economies.

But is the US interested in Europe or only in parts of it? In Washington – as in Beijing, for that matter – the temptation to approach Europe in a bilateral manner is strong and growing. President Barack Obama’s America, rendered prudent by the costs of the country’s military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, is only too happy to count on the interventionist traditions of Great Britain and France. From Libya to Mali, France and Britain are largely seen as the extended arm of an America that is increasingly reticent to commit its own troops – or even weapons. Similarly, for the US government, as for China’s leaders, Germany has become Europe’s key economic actor.

Of course, faced with the Chinese economic challenge, America would be happy to forge a united front – especially in matters of trade – with the continent that is still the world’s leading commercial power. But Europe’s interest in successfully concluding a proposed EU-US free-trade agreement may be even stronger. Without America by its side, Europe would be more vulnerable in the face of a rising China than America would be without the EU.

So America needs Europe, but now at the margins. Europe, given its current divisions and the growing gap between its northern and southern economies, still needs America. In security terms, Europe would be quite lonely without the US, whatever the nature of the threat.

Of course, the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations of the global reach and the extent of America’s Internet and telephone surveillance are, to say the least, unpleasant. But America’s questionable means of satisfying its legitimate security concerns are certainly less damaging for Europe in the long run than is Chinese industrial espionage. America is taking risks with the rule of law, but China has a long way to go before it becomes a country ruled by law.

In the immediate aftermath of Snowden’s revelations, the French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné ran a headline that said: “For once, Obama is interested in what we are saying.” Europeans should be pleased – and relieved – that they are no longer America’s first line of defense. But if they want the US to listen to them, they need to have something to say, and they need to say it together.