Donald Trump has exposed the extraordinary weakness of the Europeans. The French president, the German chancellor, and the British foreign secretary all came to Washington at the beginning of May of 2018 to plead for the Iranian nuclear agreement. In order to butter him up, Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary, even proposed Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. Nothing made a difference. On May 8, Trump went ahead and abandoned the Iran Deal as he had long said he would. He was obviously more interested in his militant supporters than in the arguments of the Europeans. And to top-off the humiliation he announced immediately afterwards the most severe sanctions on Iran, knowing full well that they would hit European companies more than the American ones. In the face of this affront, the European leaders have met on May 15 to decide on their next move. They duly issued a statement deploring the American action– but did little more. The truth is that they are too weak for anything else.
How different from the beginning of the twentieth century when the Europeans ruled the globe. Their empires and colonies made them rich and important. They still led the world in technology and science. But then they took viciously against each other in the war of 1914-1918, the conflict that the British still like to call the “Great War” as if it was something to brag about. In reality, the British came out as losers just as much as the other European nations. The real winner was the US which, for the first time in history, intervened decisively in European affairs. Twenty years of economic and political turmoil followed. Dictatorships sprang up all over Europe like poisonous mushrooms after the rain. Then came the second round of the European civil war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. By its end, the global power of Europe had dwindled to nothing; its colonial empires were in tatters, the continent was divided between America and Russia and in the West the Americans set themselves up, politically and economically triumphant. Fearful of Soviet expansion, the Europeans agreed to become American vassals and this is essentially where they find themselves still today with the American sphere of influence expanded now to the doorstep of Russia.
The only European leader who ever stood up to the Americans was General Charles de Gaulle who told the American troops in 1966 that it was time to leave France. De Gaulle also withdrew from NATO, to the chagrin of the Americans. Since then, a weaker generation of French politicians have meekly returned to the American-led alliance. Dependence on American military power is one the elements that keeps the Europeans in check. Stoking again and again first the fear of Communism and since then the fear of Russia, the Americans have made themselves indispensable on the European continent. In addition, they have done their utmost to prevent the development of an independent European military force. Not that the Europeans were ever determined enough to regain their military independence. But there was, at least, one moment when they could have done so. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European Warsaw Pact, NATO had, in fact, outlived its mission and should have come to an end at this point. But through American guile and European timidity it never happened and now it seems impossible to envisage. NATO has, in the meantime, been given the veneer of an alliance of equals even though the American military commanders still have the last word in it. If it was really an alliance of equals, why are there no European military headquarters in the US?
European submission to American rule is due not only to military weakness. The Europeans remain divided, mutually antagonistic, and unable to overcome their self-mutilating belligerent history. The British still dream of their empire and are willing to forgo real power as an equal in the European Union for the imagined power of a resurrected Commonwealth or as junior partners of the US. The European Union itself proves unable to settle its economic, financial, and political differences. Its leaders are timid and having been brought up in the shadow of America prove unable to think in other categories. The French president Macron may be the only one with sufficient freedom of mind. But one man cannot turn the political wheel around. It will require a new, more independence-minded generation to do so.
Trump’s recent threats of tariffs on European goods have exposed how vulnerable a merchant power can be. If he goes ahead with those threats, Europe will face a dramatic economic downturn with the possibility of deep political troubles. Trump has certainly made it clear that he has no liking for the European Union and is trying to drive its members apart. In this he is following Vladimir Putin’s example. Both aim at weakening the Europeans for what they consider their own advantage. Newly emerging nationalist parties in Europe
Here are some of the things that the Europeans need to do, if they are to maintain themselves in the global environment of the 21st century:
1. They will need new and younger leaders not in the thrall of America. This holds, in particular for the Germans. I have never been an admirer of Angela Merkel but she has definitely now had her day. Her rash action in the migration crisis should really have led to her downfall. It is a sign of Germany’s political stagnation that she is still in office. Needed now are leaders – perhaps like Emmanuel Marcon – who can act with a view to the future. Merkel’s talent has been in a different direction, that of maintaining the status quo with all its costs and benefits. But this is no longer enough. Merkel must go and the sooner, the better.
2. The Europeans will have to bring about greater military and economic independence (and self-sufficiency). They can’t just play at being global merchants and leave their security in the hands of others. NATO must eventually be replaced by a new European military order, but this will take both time and money and determination.
3. The Europeans need also to develop a stronger sense of commonality which will require at the same time a shared re-assessment of their past quarrels. Every existing European nation has been formed through the unification of smaller, regional kingdoms. In this process, many age-old hostilities had to be overcome. The same must be possible on a European scale.
4. The Europeans will need to recalibrate their relation to Russia. They may have reasons to be wary of Russia’s ambitions, but the same is true for America. European interests in Russia are different from America’s. A cool, rational, and clear-sighted policy is necessary with respect to this important neighbor. Some modus vivendi has to be found not least as a counterbalance to America.
5. The Europeans will have to work on minimizing the effects of Brexit in order to keep the UK close to the continental system. They need to convince the British – or, rather, the English – that their best hope in the new global constellation is to maintain close association with their historical neighbors. The English have been less successful so far than their continental neighbors, the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese, in overcoming the loss of their empire. They are caught in a time-warp in which they see themselves at the head of a new global commonwealth when, in fact, no one pines after them. The need to work though their historical loss and come to see that they are, after all, only a midsize European nation whose influence will be greatly diminished once they seek to walk on their own. Perhaps there will be a day when some formal system of co-existence can be re-established.
6. The Europeans also need to combat the emerging nationalist forces among them. They are, in effect, handmaidens of American power. That’s why Donald Trump and the advocates of “America First!” are so keen on supporting these parties. For the sake of an imagined national sovereignty these parties are willing to forego the power of joint action. Absurdly they maintain: Divided we stand, united we fall. These so-called “populists” need to be exposed for what they ultimately are: traitors to their own interest.
But there is, of course, a gap between what needs to be done and what will or what can be done. The 20th century was, in fact, a period of political decline for Europe even though the Europeans came out, at the end, as economically prosperous. It’s not obvious what will become of them in the new millennium.