Monday

30th Jan 2023

Column

Don't lead Europe by triggering its fears

For a long time, Europe's strategic chattering class has been wondering what would happen if you took the US out of Europe's security architecture.

Optimists assumed that the absence of the great protector would lead to increased European cooperation and a strengthened sense of strategic togetherness.

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Pessimists reckoned that the opposite would happen: take the external stabiliser out of the notoriously unstable European political market and what you get is a return to Europe's normal: a place of distrust, unsustainable national ambition, counterbalancing, and fear.

Europe's normal is what you know from history books: roughly 2,000 years of more or less failed attempts by the Europeans to stabilise their own continent.

Methods to stabilise Europe have ranged from hegemony to terror to balance of power to peaceful integration. Few of these attempts were successful for longer than a few years. By far the most stable, peaceful and economically prosperous period the continent has ever had was the time after 1945, when the Western part of Europe enjoyed democratic peace, only to be joined by the liberated eastern parts of Europe after 1989/90.

The magic ingredient that made this possible was the United States, a largely benign non-European power that implanted itself firmly in Europe, made the old inner-European rivalries irrelevant, and worked as the arbiter of last resort in case old jealousies became detrimental to the joint Cold War effort.

Since 1990, this US presence in Europe has been systematically diminished by reducing both the American political and military footprint in the reunited continent.

Since 2017, Donald Trump's strategic malpractice has put this process on steroids, with the result that the US trust infusion into the European market has evaporated at stellar speed.

Despite a notable military re-investment in Europe that began under president Barack Obama and continues under Donald Trump, this president has destroyed almost all trust in America's role as defender and stabiliser of Europe.

The result is a nervousness and uncertainty that eats like cancer into European stability.

External actors like China and Russia see an opening and invest heavily in splitting up Europe and playing divide and rule. Some countries hope for the best and stay passive, such as Germany.

Others, such as Poland and the Baltic states seek bilateral re-assurance with an uninterested commander-in-chief in the White House. And yet others believe that their moment has come and that some strategic dominance can be achieved in a political market hungry for leadership.

Step forward, Macron

This latter role currently falls to France under president Emmanuel Macron who has announced that his country would lead Europe towards a place of eminence in the emerging world order. To many, however, this ambition smacks of old Gaullism with a new rationale.

Confidence in France's ability to pull it off is extremely limited.

Macron believes that things in Europe are too ossified, that patience will lead to nothing and that disruption is needed to make headway on big goals such as strategic autonomy and European sovereignty.

Even though he might be right on the disruption part, he might have miscalculated on substance.

First, it appears impossible to build a new security architecture that includes a Russia governed by Vladimir Putin. Too brutal have Moscow's tactics been in its 'near abroad' been, too insidious are the Kremlin's attempt to distort the truth and political process in Europe (including in France).

Second, if Macron believes that disruption would bring Europeans closer together, he is almost certainly wrong.

In Europe's low-trust political environment, the instincts of nations under duress have traditionally not been 'let's join forces' but 'everyone for himself'. Integration is not a European instinct, it is an acquired taste.

Take America out of Europe and there are many Europeans who fear only one thing more than a Europe dominated by Germany, and that is a Europe dominated by France.

What this leads to is the old European game: strong leadership by a European power leads to counterbalancing, not bandwagoning. Distrust seeps into the system, malevolent external players feel further emboldened, and the narcissism of small differences becomes the order of the day again.

Silence in Berlin

Political elites in Berlin have stayed largely silent so far, not because of their coveted attitude of restraint but because they are stunned.

They loved to believe that Macron was a genuine European integrationist in the mould of general German pro-European-ness. Now they fear he is an emboldened Gaullist willing to sell out the European spirit at the first convenient America-free moment.

Large parts of the strategic community still console themselves by hoping that, ultimately, he is doing all of this for Europe's greater good and in the name of new European ambition.

But down deep they fear that this could lead to selling out to Russia, throwing central and eastern Europe under bus, alienating Poland and large parts of Europe's north, and going to bed with Trump.

Germany's problem is that it is not at all in the position to complain about Macron's leadership. So few ideas and so little action have come from Berlin that blaming others for leadership sounds stale, to say the least.

Macron should replace the quasi-Trumpian faith in creating turmoil to cure ills with ideas along the line of servant leadership: a forceful offer to fellow Europeans to put French power and French ambition in service of the greater European gain.

Macron could learn a trick or two from the way America led Europe when it was still interested in doing so: the pesky Europeans cannot be led by triggering their fears.

What is needed is sober strategic assessment, generous offers, tough love, and an attitude that does not play the glory of the nation against the need of the whole continent.

And of course it would help greatly if Berlin finally woke up.

Author bio

Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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