Last week a gave a talk to students, faculty and visitors at Estonia’s Tallinn Technical University expanding on my earlier blog on this subject. The engagement with a full house of very bright and knowledgeable individuals was invigorating and challenging. So much so that I decided to come back in the future and explore the issue of “An America that Matters.” Meanwhile, I want to share my presentation of last week on this forum. The provocative question I posed and sought to answer was: In today’s global political, economic, strategic and moral environment, does Europe still matter? And more specifically, does it still matter to the United States?
In the interest of full disclosure, let me be clear that I come at this issue with a certain bias. As a U.S. diplomat, I have dedicated a large portion of my career to acting as a contributor to, and a steward of, the trans-Atlantic relationship. As a result of my professional experiences, as well as my own personal story-I was born in Europe – I have always closely followed the relationship between our continents. It was with great interest that I read an op-ed by the president of the highly prestigious American Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, entitled “Why Europe No Longer Matters” in the June 18th edition of one of our country’s most important newspapers, the Washington Post. Richard is a former colleague and a friend and I am grateful that his think piece gives me the opportunity to talk to you about his thesis and my own today.
Richard Haass is a brilliant international affairs expert, who, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has joined other political scientists in seeking to define and characterize the emerging new world order – or disorder as some might call it. An early consensus of sorts was formed among many who believed that as the U.S.S.R and the United States were the two major world powers before 1991, by virtue of winning the Cold War, the United States became the world’s sole superpower. Some went further and characterized the United States as the only hyper-power of the world and a historically unique nation that could singularly exert is might across the entire globe.
However short-lived that last assessment, since 9/11, the wars in the Middle East and South Asia, and the U.S. and world economic and debt crisis, an equally large number of experts today conclude that the uni-polar world of U.S. dominance has rather rapidly transitioned into a multi-polar world of various powers exerting their influence — not unlike 18th Century Europe. It is against this backdrop that I would like to examine with you Richard’s arguments and conclusions and my response on Europe’s status today. For brevity’s sake, let’s call his conclusion “Europe No” and mine “Europe Yes.”
First, let’s put my own perspective of Europe on the table: Europe does matter. That is not to say I fully disagree with Mr. Haass’ arguments. In fact, I actually concur with many of his views about Europe and the way it exercises its role in the world today. That said, however, I arrive at a different conclusion about Europe’s ultimate standing and importance as an international player and as a partner to the United States.
So now to the debate and first the strategic security dimension. “Europe No” posits that if NATO didn’t exist today, no one would feel compelled to create it. The “Europe No” argument cites inadequate European financial and physical commitment to Alliance action as a case in point. It points to the Libya operation, despite the success of NATO support to the Libyan people, as only the most recent example of lack of organization, lack of participation, and lack of capacity. So for “Europe No”, if NATO stands for U.S.-European strategic power, then only the U.S. and a very few number of Europeans actually matter. I believe “Europe No” would concede that Estonia counts among the allies that do matter. In that we would certainly agree, but also concur as I would that not all allies are pulling their weight equally.
“Europe No” looks at divergent attitudes between Americans and Europeans and cites the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan as demonstrating this parting of ways, along with the emerging European cultural norm of not accepting any casualties in the prosecution of a war. Europe No” looks at NATO as a relic of the past, and along with an Asia-centric shift in world power, economic might, and U.S. orientation, sees this as a clear indicator that old alliances and relationships are dead or on their death-bed: “Europe and the United States have changed. The World has changed.” No argument with that last comment: We have all changed. Asia is incredibly important to the United States and the world and our relations with this emerging international economic juggernaut will inform much of the next century. Other players are also increasingly demanding attention and input in a global structure where their economic power and strategic influence are required to make the world go round.
Where “Europe Yes” parts from “Europe No” is in the conclusion that with the entry of other power players into the new international order, existing participants are by definition marginalized or worse, sidelined completely. NATO, if it can muster the political will, still wields an extremely powerful punch, matched by no one. As to trade, 40% of all world economic activity still takes place between Europe and the United States. Hardly an insignificant amount that does matter!
“Europe No” also describes the decline of a common U.S. and European set of interests, in the past, based on historical patterns of American elites that traced their ancestry to Europe. Today’s broader elite in the U.S., Europe No, would argue relates to African, Asian, and Latin American roots and does not share the emotional or intellectual ties to Europe that defined transatlantic relations in the 20th century. The “Europe Yes” response: agreed that American elites are much more diverse today than in the mid 1900’s. But I contend, for instance, that a Chinese-American raised in San Francisco has far more in common with an individual from the town of Rakvere, Estonia or Manchester, England, than he does with a Chinese individual raised in Beijing. The American and European belief in democracy individual freedom and open markets transcends ethnic heritage and will continue to bind American motivations and goals throughout the world with Europe.
Admittedly, Europe is not the singular center of America’s universe. It never really was. America, since its inception with powerful European roots, has steadily continued to develop its global vocation. But our ties to Europe form a critically important partnership – and, by the way – one that has never been one characterized by full harmony or equality of strength on each side of the Atlantic. France kicked out NATO headquarters in 1966 and did not return to the unified NATO military command until 2009. In 1983 Germans threw Molotov cocktails at the U.S. Embassy in protest over introduction of U.S. medium range nuclear missiles in Europe – for the defense of Europe! And yet NATO stands today, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, and is fighting – and winning – in Afghanistan, and just helped successfully to turn the tide in Libya. Pretty good for an irrelevant Alliance.
Does this mean that we Americans are always happy with the security posture of each one of our allies? Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as recently as June of this year, stated that he had long harbored concerns about NATO becoming, “a two-tiered alliance that is split between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.” Doesn’t sound very happy to me. And he was right. Does that mean Europe is now or about to become irrelevant? It does not. Our very disagreements, sometimes loud and in public, bear testimony to the continuing strength of an Alliance not simply based on realpolitik or pure self-interest. Ours is a value partnership, freely entered into by free peoples – a transatlantic bulwark that remains essential not despite an increasingly multi-polar world, but because of it. And by the way, let’s not fall into the trap of characterizing certain opinions in Europe as “the European opinion.” For instance, I would point to our broad agreement with our Estonian allies on the vast majority of issues. Estonian opinion is no less the “European opinion” than is the opinion of any other ally or partner on this continent.
Implicit in “Europe No” is also the thought that Europe is somehow “solved.” There are no more European problems, so why focus on a place that has no issues? Fair enough, not even the most pessimistic among us believe that fighting may erupt anew in the Alsace. But what about the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and the continuing tensions in parts of the Balkans? What about the regime in Belarus? What about energy security concerns? What about the euro crisis and its effect on U.S. debt issues? What about a drop in the NYSE in response to trouble on the DAX? Just like the U.S., Europe will also never be “done.” The challenge, the dynamism, and the capacity of seeking solutions on both sides of the Atlantic continue.
And finally, beyond the security and economic dimensions, Europe plays a determined role alongside the United States on a vast range of global issues from human rights to the environment. Despite occasional disagreements on tactics, the United States and Europe form a critically important policy community. Our combined influence in world events weighs heavily on other countries and actors. That is a powerful tool and a major responsibility we share. Authoritarian regimes risk vital foreign investment and sanctions from Europe and the U.S. Without our combined condemnation of Sudan over the genocide in Darfur and without our further engagement to encourage a referendum in South Sudan, would Khartoum have ever come to an agreement with the South? Without sustained U.S. and European pressure, would the dissident Aung San Suu Kyi ever have been released from her house arrest imposed by the military junta of Burma?And together, Europe and the U.S. are central to cleaning up our environment, developing new forms of energy, and eliminating world hunger. Wherever there is a need for action, we are present.
In contrast to vocal U.S. foreign policy and moral leadership, Europe does not always make the same headlines or dominate diplomatic discussions, but Europe’s voice counts, especially in unison with ours. The example that the peaceful, democratic nations of Europe set for the rest of the world on the issues of democratization, human rights, the environment, conflict mediation, and civil action is unquestionably a major force for good in the world. A force unmatched by emerging power centers in other parts of the globe.
So, the issue for me and for “Europe Yes” then is not whether Europe still matters, but how Europeans choose to exercise the significant power and influence they possess. The American challenge as close allies and partners is to continue to insist that Europe must matter. And that is one of the key lessons of the post-Cold War 21st century: Abdication of global responsibility is no more an option for Europe today than it has ever been for the United States.