Time for a Post-American Europe

PARIS – As Barack Obama arrives in Sweden to collect his Nobel Prize, the celebrations expose an awful truth: Europe’s admiration for its ideal of an American president is not reciprocated. Obama seems to bear Europeans no ill will. But he has quickly learned to view them with the attitude that they find hardest to endure – indifference.

We are entering a post-American world – the world beyond America’s brief moment of global domination. Obama’s administration understands this, and has responded with what it calls a “multi-partner strategy.” Whether it is the Chinese for the global economy, or Russia for nuclear disarmament, the United States will now work with whomever can help it get the results it wants – thus ensuring that it remains the “indispensable nation.”

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No rejection or exclusion of Europeans is intended. Americans understand that Europe, as the other major repository of democratic legitimacy, wealth, and military power, has great potential as a partner. Obama spelled this out during his first trip to Europe as president, at the NATO summit in April. But if Europe fails to respond, Obama will look elsewhere for the partners he needs, unconstrained by anxious European invocations of “special relationships” or “the Atlantic community of values.”

Obama’s approach is self-avowedly pragmatic. His observation that the US-China relationship will shape the twenty-first century was not a statement of preference, but an acknowledgement of reality.

All this is a rude shock for Europe. The late twentieth century worked so well for Europeans. In exchange for political solidarity, the US protected them and gave them the role of junior associates in running the world.

Attitudes formed in such congenial circumstances die hard. Thus, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia spends only half what Europeans do on defense – yet Europe still clings to the notion that its security depends on American protection. In the same spirit, Europeans resolutely refuse to accept that the US might legitimately have different geopolitical interests – so that when US policies diverge from their own, Europeans assume that the Americans simply got it wrong, and that they clearly need Europe’s wise advice to set them straight.

Such a mindset naturally puts a huge premium on close and harmonious transatlantic relations, to the point that, for Europeans, closeness and harmony become the objective itself, without reference to what ends they might serve. Europeans, in short, fetishize the transatlantic relationship.

In relation to Russia and China, the European Union’s member states generally recognize that a more united European stance, however difficult to achieve in practice, would be desirable. But there is no such recognition in relation to the US. On the contrary, European elites seem to feel that “ganging up” on the US would be improper.

So, for most European states, transatlantic relations are primarily about NATO and their bilateral links with the US. After all, it is not just the British who believe themselves to have a “special relationship”; most of the EU’s member states like to believe that they have a particular “in” with America which gives them a special influence. Accordingly, national rather than collective approaches to the US predominate, based largely on strategies of ingratiation – each European state tries to present itself as more useful, or at least more sympathetic, than its European competitors.

From America’s perspective, this can often be advantageous. If Europeans want to be divided and ruled, the US is happy to oblige. America can take its time deciding on a new strategy in Afghanistan without considering European views, despite the presence of more than 30,000 European troops in the country. Similarly, it suits the US that Europe should remain on the sidelines of the Israel-Palestine conflict while paying €1 billion a year to finance the stalemate.

Yet, despite these advantages, America is irked by the constant European clamor for access and attention. Such neediness would be easier to bear if it were accompanied by a greater readiness to take real action. All these different Europeans are able to talk a good game, but few are ready to get their hands dirty. Seen from Washington, Europe’s attention-seeking and responsibility-shirking behavior appears infantile.

If only, then, Europeans could learn to address America with one voice. There is no shortage of ideas about how to encourage this through new processes and forums for US-EU strategic dialogue. But the problem is one of political psychology, not institutional arrangements. It can be addressed only when Europeans take stock of the way the world is changing, decide that allowing others to determine the future world order is less than optimal, and develop the attitudes and behaviors of a post-American Europe.

This requires a Europe that knows its own mind, so that it can approach the US – and the rest of the world – with a clearer eye and a harder head. The EU’s member states will have to learn to discuss the big geopolitical issues – starting with their own security – as Europeans, within the EU. They will not always agree among themselves. When they do, they will stand a better chance of asserting their own interests – and of acting as a more committed and influential partner for the US on the many international issues where European and American interests coincide.

The US would, in fact, prefer such a Europe. But so low are American expectations that they scarcely care. Post-American Europeans need to shake off their habitual deference and complacency towards the US – or reconcile themselves to deserved American indifference.