September 24, 2013
I am writing this from Greece, having spent the past week in Europe and having moved among various capitals. Most discussions I've had in my travels concern U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to move decisively against Syria and how Russian President Vladimir Putin outmatched him. Of course, the Syrian intervention had many aspects, and one of the most important ones, which was not fully examined, was what it told us about the state of U.S.-European relations and of relations among European countries. This is perhaps the most important question on the table.
We have spoken of the Russians, but for all the flash in their Syria performance, they are economically and militarily weak -- something they would change if they had the means to do so. It is Europe, taken as a whole, that is the competitor for the United States. Its economy is still slightly larger than the United States', and its military is weak, though unlike Russia this is partly by design.
The U.S.-European relationship helped shape the 20th century. American intervention helped win World War I, and American involvement in Europe during World War II helped ensure an allied victory. The Cold War was a transatlantic enterprise, resulting in the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the European Peninsula. The question now is: What will the relationship be between these two great economic entities, which together account for roughly 50 percent of the world's gross domestic product, in the 21st century? That question towers over all others globally.
A Fluid Concept
The events surrounding the Syria intervention, which never materialized, hint at the answer to this question. The Syrian crisis began not with the United States claiming that action must be taken against al Assad's use of chemical weapons but with calls to arms from the United Kingdom, France and Turkey. The United States was rather reluctant, but ultimately it joined these and several other European countries. Only then did the Europeans' opinions diverge. In the United Kingdom, the parliament voted against intervention. In Turkey, the government favored intervention on a much larger scale than the United States wanted. And in France, which actually had the ability to lend a hand, the president favored intervention but faced a less enthusiastic parliament.
Most important to note was the division of Europe. Each country crafted its own response -- or lack of response -- to the Syrian crisis. The most interesting position was taken by Germany, which was unwilling to participate and until quite late unwilling to endorse participation. I've talked about the fragmentation of Europe. Nothing is more striking than the foreign policy split between France and Germany not only on Syria but on Mali and Libya as well. One of the central drivers behind the creation of the European Union and its post-war precursors was the need bind France and Germany economically. French and German divergence was the root of European wars. It had to be avoided at all costs.
Yet that divergence has returned. Their differences have not manifested as virulently as they did before 1945, but still, it can no longer be said that their foreign policies are synchronized. In fact, the three major powers on the European Peninsula currently are pursuing very different foreign policies. The United Kingdom is moving in its own direction, limiting its involvement in Europe and trying to find its own course between Europe and the United States. France is focused to the south, on the Mediterranean and Africa. Germany is trying to preserve the trade zone and is looking east at Russia.
Nothing has ruptured in Europe, but then Europe as a concept has always been fluid. The European Union is a free trade zone that excludes some European countries. It is a monetary union that excludes some members of the free trade zone. It has a parliament but leaves defense and foreign policy prerogatives to sovereign nation-states. It has not become more organized since 1945; in some fundamental ways, it has become less organized. Where previously there were only geographical divisions, now there are also conceptual divisions.
Differences between the United States and Europe were made clear in the Syrian crisis. Had President Obama chosen to intervene, he could have acted in Syria as he saw fit -- he didn't necessarily need congressional approval but sought it anyway. Europe could not act because there really isn't a singular European foreign or defense policy. But more important, no individual European nation has the ability by itself to conduct an air attack on Syria. As Libya showed, France and Italy could not execute a sustained air campaign. They needed the United States.
Cowboys and Naifs
Here in Europe, Obama is criticized for his handling of the Syria intervention. There is also a general belief that Putin's foreign policy is a failure. But I am old enough to remember that Europeans have always thought of U.S. presidents as either naive, as they did with Jimmy Carter, or as cowboys, as they did with Lyndon Johnson, and held them in contempt in either case. (Richard Nixon's being honored by the French is an interesting exception.) After some irrational exuberance from the European left, Obama has now been deemed naive, just as George W. Bush was deemed a cowboy.
Europeans obsess much more over U.S. presidents than Americans obsess over European leaders. They have strong opinions, most of them negative, about whomever is in office. My response to such criticism has always been a tricky one. Imagine the fine sophisticates of 1914 and 1939 with nuclear weapons. Do you think the ones responsible for entering two horrible wars could have resisted using nuclear weapons? It is the good fortune of Europe that when leaders were wont to use nuclear weapons, the Europeans didn't have their fingers on the launch buttons.