Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Europe wobbles, but will it fall down?

Since September 11, and even before, a number of commentaries have been written about the faltering US-European relationship. The latest include an excellent piece by Robert Kagan in the June edition of Policy Review, an astute assessment from Victor Davis Hanson at the National Review Online, along with insightful articles by Chris Caldwell, John O’Sullivan, George Will and others in various publications.

In general, each author attempts to explain differing views between the US and Europe on a host of issues, from international affairs to cultural and legal matters. The explanations usually include some account of the differing philosophic and political assumptions, both historical and contemporary, informing these differences. I suspect that the reason these disputes are so important to us is that Europe and the US have a common background and share a common commitment to democracy. As such, transatlantic disputes are more than simple tiffs, but real sources of contention within the modern democratic dispensation.

Now, as much as I love this sort of philosophic debate – and I’ll put in my two bits worth on these issues in the future – my concern today is a bit more practical. My question is simply what will happen if the US goes ahead with an attack on Iraq, how will Europe react?

My initial impression is Europe’s governments will be ambivalent, but guardedly supportive. I say this because on military matters overall, Europe is ambivalent. In their articles, both Hanson and Kagan note that Europeans harbor fears about a US hyperpower (sometimes legitimate, sometimes fantastic), but ultimately most Europeans admit privately that America’s might is not without its global benefits.

Europe today is in something of a limbo regarding military matters. Overall, the European crowd (i.e. the EU) resents American predominance in the world, and truly sees the EU as a counter-balance to the US. In this regard, the EU is not a friend to Americans, but a competitor. However, since the EU’s overriding ideological commitment is to a world without military power, its only means of challenging the US is through legalistic and humanitarian initiatives. But as long as real threats exist in the world – and they always will – the EU can only play second-fiddle to a US that isn’t afraid to use military might. As a result, the EU desperately wants an international role equal to that of the US, but its a role the EU’s own ideology constantly sabotages.

But the EU isn’t all there is to Europe. Europe’s nations still have an individual political will of their own, and its these nations that decide military matters. Certainly Europe’s military forces are much weaker than those of the US, but they have provided active support in Afghanistan and we shouldn’t forget this. More importantly, however, is the fact that the current trend in Europe is toward renationalization, away from EU centralization.

Throughout the 1990’s, Europe’s nations were governed mostly by centre-left regimes whose sympathies lay with constructing the new Europe, multilateralism and international humanitarian organizations like the UN. After the end of the Cold War, West Europeans saw both a new world order on the horizon and the possibility, at last, for a united Europe.

Today, things have changed a bit. Even before September 11, Europeans were growing increasingly worried about national security, immigration and EU expansion. As a result, across Europe, centre-right governments were elected one after the other. This September, the wave will be complete as Edmund Stoiber’s Christian Democrats look set to oust Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats and topple the last major centre-left government in western Europe.

The outcome of all this, on the national level at least, is a Europe far more amenable to the US. Does this mean Europe will unqualifiedly sign-on to an invasion of Iraq? Probably not, but by the same token, we’re unlikely to hear a barrage of criticism from the likes of Chirac, Berlusconi, Aznar or Stoiber when the invasion comes. More likely will be some form of qualified support from the majority of West European governments, including the possibility of limited military support.

There will, once again, be some ambivalence and feet-dragging, but both strategically and morally, Europe’s governments know they can’t be left out in the cold while the US installs America-friendly regimes in the Middle East.

And in terms of the “European Street” I suspect the reaction will be similar. While there may be a marked increase in American-bashing among Europeans, in their more reflective moments, most Europeans see that a change in the Middle East is desirable, and only the US can bring that about. After all, today’s centre-right European governments were elected by Europeans with their own concerns about security and immigration.

Similarly, my impression is that Europeans are not altogether pleased with the EU itself. On the whole, Europeans are in favor of economic reforms, especially in terms of fewer inter-European trade barriers and increased mobility for labor across EU countries. However, it’s not at all clear that Europeans generally support the political aspirations of Brussels’ Eurocrats. Most Europeans see improved economic cooperation as beneficial, but support for further political integration has few strong supporters outside the left-leaning media and political classes.

At the end of the day, Europe, or at least part of Europe will come onside. Centre-right governments, and the people who elected them, will provide cautious, sometimes silent support to efforts in the Middle East, but the support will be there. The left-leaning EU will be more overtly hostile, but it too knows that if the US is determined to act, too much opposition will only reinforce its role as the organization that mops up after the real work is done.

Ambivalence regarding military action continues to plague Europe. The US needs to understand this. While Europe’s identity crisis shouldn’t prevent the US from acting, at the same time, the US should not ignore Europe altogether. Despite some rather tedious sniping, there remains a significant number of Europeans not inherently prone to America bashing. And with so many centre-right governments currently in power, the US presently has an opportunity to work with more hospitable friends on the continent, especially as issues regarding EU expansion are now on the agenda. It’s an opportunity that should not be lost.

But on that note, I would still say one thing: keep up a bit of Euro bashing; it keeps them on their toes!

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