The West in Crisis: The Demise of Europe or Transatlantic Renewal?


NATO’s start in 1949 was a hardly a smooth one.

George Kennan, having advocated political and economic containment of the Soviet Union, opposed the formation of the military allianceNorway was reluctant to join the transatlantic defense pact, fearful that accession might provoke Soviet military action. Portugal was similarly ambivalent. The authoritarian government of António de Oliveira Salazar — anti-communist, but also troubled by a rise of American influence — initially refused to participate in the Marshall Plan. The strategic environment was otherwise hardly settled. There was civil war in Greece. The Germans were tiring of occupation. And Washington’s increasingly assertive stance toward the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was causing tension in most capitals across risk-averse Western Europe. The alliance was “held together with string, chewing gum and safety pins,” in those days, as Dean Acheson would later put it.

It may be useful to remember such troubled beginnings as we try to sort out the turmoil of today. Our liberal world order is fraying badly, in part the result of a post-Cold War world not yet settled. There’s been a relative decline in U.S. economic and military strength since the unipolar moment of the 1990s. The U.S. failure in Iraq has badly damaged American credibility and prestige. The emergence of new technologies and the ascendancy of non-state actors have combined to make power more diffuse and more difficult to manage than ever before, as Moises Naim has convincingly argued.

Washington cannot hope to control all this. What it can do is understand that the American-sponsored world order has come under assault and must be adapted and revitalized to forestall dangerous alternatives. The most obvious example of this fraying: The Russians, Chinese, and Iranians, each in their own way, are advancing a competing “spheres of influence” vision. If they succeed, the result will be a planet carved into chunks of authoritarian-influenced or authoritarian-controlled strategic territory and sea lanes. This will mean a curtailment or outright end to the rules-based, market-friendly international order that has served the international community well for over a half century. It will mean that the global democracy recession of the last decade will likely turn into a great depression for accountable government, human rights, and the rule of law across the globe, possibly for decades ahead.

To push back against these trends and the assertive, self-confident authoritarians, the next American president must focus on the U.S. alliance of first resort: NATO. As in the late 1940s, today’s fluid and volatile situation on the continent will force the new administration to realize that the United States will be hard-pressed to hold any kind of strategic alliance together if Europe itself starts falling apart. Washington’s friends on the other side of the Atlantic find themselves in serious trouble today owing to the confluence of deepening internal fissures and sharp external pressure points.

Start with continuing concerns about the finances of so-called southern peripheral countries. The Greek bailout of 2015 created strong and lingering resentments in Germany and other creditor nations of northern Europe. This bailout was the third in five years, and it will not be the last. Some are now forecasting a new Greek default early this summer. Portugal’s sinking economy may also need rescue soon. The Portuguese and Greek governments united recently to denounce what they view as the European Union’s relentless, draconian austerity measures. Meanwhile, Italy struggles to manage its own excessive debt, low growthhigh unemployment, and severe banking crisis. Spain is on the verge of breaching its deficit targets  for the ninth consecutive year. A familiar refrain in Germany goes, “We shovel money south, while they pretend to reform, and we pretend to believe them.”

From the outset, a single European currency—the Eurozone—was a political project at heart. It was seen by its creators as a means to advance union in Europe. Now, paradoxically, the straight jacket of monetary union threatens to choke the life out of Europe. But that’s hardly the only problem. Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis, along with terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, have led to a gradual unraveling of the Schengen zone of passport-free travel within Europe. This had been an important step in the process of deepening integration, an E.U. accomplishment both elites and ordinary citizens alike could celebrate. Austria may be next to re-introduce border controls with Italy. Schengen will not be back anytime soon.

Once upon a time, a possible British exit (Brexit) from the European Union looked like an unfortunate but tolerable development. Yet if the United Kingdom decides in its June referendum to leave the European Union — and the Brexiters have more ammunition for their cause than ever before — don’t be surprised if increasingly Euroskeptic countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark follow the British example. In one recent poll, only 39 percent of Swedes— compared to 59 percent last fall — think being in the European Union is a good idea.

The refugee crisis may well become a serious threat to Europe’s cohesion and security. Amid the hundreds of thousands of displaced and suffering, there are jihadist infiltrators, with the number of suspects now so large they are nearly impossible for authorities to track. German authorities have confirmed that roughly 3,800 blank Syrian passports are in the possession of Islamic State. The probability of fresh attacks in the next few years will remain high.

But there’s another daunting problem: how to integrate such large numbers of Muslim refugees? Germany alone has already taken in roughly 1.1 million homeless from Syria and elsewhere since the summer of 2015. While it’s difficult to obtain precise data, a decent number of refugees are apparently poorly educated; by some estimates, as many as 20 percent may be illiterate. Even if most are able to join the workforce over time, can they become part of European society? It’s foolish and dangerous to deny the fact that many Europeans will not welcome these newcomers, just as it is obvious that many of these newcomers — largely from socially conservative and in some instances militantly illiberal backgrounds — will have little enthusiasm for joining life in liberal, progressive Europe. So far, Europe’s success in integrating Muslims has been mixed at best. A senior Central European politician dubbed the current problem in private conversation with me as, “the land of full mosques invading the continent of empty churches.”

Indeed, “the invasion” is not over and alarming number of variables lie outside Europe’s control. Anytime the Islamic State ramps up its bloodthirsty campaign to create a caliphate, the number of refugees on the move toward Europe will increase. Any moment Russia decides to drop more bombs on Syria, exactly the same will happen. Europe can hardly take solace in the fact that an increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western Turkey is now its indispensable partner in controlling migrant flows. It is hard to fault German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders for their recent deal with Ankara. At a March summit, the European Union struck a bargain in which Turkey would help to stem the flow of migrants into Europe in exchange for 3 billion euros in E.U. humanitarian aid to the Turks and an end to visa restrictions. While it may have been Europe’s best option, it is still a Faustian bargain. Lazy southern European free riders, selfish northern European extortionists, Muslim hordes from the Middle East and Northern Africa, and now Turkish blackmailers who take Europe by the throat — Europe’s rising populist and radical right will feed off these narratives for some time to come.

Turkey is an especially sensitive subject, as the European Union also promised progress on accession talks, the prospect of which is outlandish under present circumstances. Merkel has been widely criticized in German media for kowtowing to Turkish pressure by allowing the investigation of German comedian Jan Boehmermann for reciting a poem belittling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (based on an obscure German law that prohibits the insulting of representatives of foreign governments). Even more recently, Turkish authorities detained a Dutch-Turkish journalist for having posted critical tweets about the Turkish President.

There is one more crucial piece to this puzzle: Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Merkel may be the only European leader who properly grasps Moscow’s motives. No one profits more from Europe’s turmoil than Russia. If Russia wants to build itself up by cutting America down and dividing and weakening Europe, the confluence of factors described above could hardly be more advantageous. Moscow will continue to push and prod and peel off layers of cohesion wherever it can through economic, diplomatic, and military pressure as well as the expansion of its formidable propaganda efforts. For instance, Russia played a role in getting the Dutch to turn against Ukraine in a recent referendum on an E.U.-Ukrainian trade pact.

Russian fingerprints can be found on populist and extremist parties across the continent, and there should be no limit to imagining what might come next. Let’s keep history in mind. In the summer of 1967, a West Berlin policeman shot a peaceful, unarmed student protestor named Benno Ohnesorg in the back of the head. The crime helped to spark the West German peace movement and ignite the rise of the Federal Republic’s violent, radical left, including the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang. It was only in 2009 that researchers working in the archives of the East German secret police in Berlin accidentally discovered that the West Berlin policeman responsible for the murder was in fact a Stasi agent. This milieu is ex-KGB Vladimir Putin’s world, his culture, and his roots. It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the methods or ambition of Russia’s current government, or the damage that can be done by an aggressive, nationalistic power, even by a power in many ways in decline.

Historical analogies are always imperfect, but they can help to guide and warn us. Much like today, the years just before World War I were marked by a spirit of imagination, innovation, and entrepreneurship. British scientist Harry Brearley was creating stainless steel. Ford Motor Company was introducing the assembly line. The suffrage movement was succeeding on both sides of the Atlantic. New gadgets were ubiquitous: the bra, the Brillo padthe zipper and the modern x-ray tube were invented in 1913. This was the time of Einstein and Freud, of Mahler and Klimt.

Much like today, contradictory trends crowded the vitality, dynamism, and sense of progress of those years. Malign nationalisms were starting to erupt. The Austro-Hungarian empire showed signs of pulling apart. One could sense the deepening turmoil in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks, the story of a German merchant family over four generations. Buddenbrooks is a tale of decadence and decline, of deteriorating finances and disintegrating ideals. There was social and political turbulence in the United States as well. In 1913, the trial of Leo Frank bitterly divided the nation. Frank was a well-to-do Jewish factory owner from New York accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl named Mary Phagan in Marietta, Georgia. The case pitted north against south, urban against rural, wealth against working class, blacks against whites, Gentiles against Jews. Leo Frank ended up kidnapped from prison and lynched by a mob.

Today, both Europe and America run the risk of losing themselves in their respective anguish and funk. In the United States, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are as much symptom as cause. There’s clearly a sense among a not insignificant part of the electorate that America’s governing class has been failing the governed. There’s a debt crisis, worsening income inequality, the growth of an American underclass, and a feeling among some that the American Dream is in danger. Trump and Sanders may disappear, but the mood and root causes of Trumpism will not. Yet the raw nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism of the moment cannot be allowed to prevail. The United States will never be able to overcome our challenges at home if foreign threats continue to mount and instability spreads around the world. Nor do Americans have the luxury of waiting. Nothing will be repaired or restored — with Europe, the alliance, or in the world — without American leadership. There’s simply no other alternative today.

So what’s to be done with that first building block of the America-friendly world order?

First, Washington needs clarity in purpose for its alliance of first resort. After World War II, despite initial bumps and blunders and detours, Americans and Europeans eventually coalesced around three large strategic goals: to prevent the re-emergence of destructive nationalism on the continent; to contain the spread of Soviet communism; and to create new conditions under which prosperity could flourish.

Today, start with the threat that’s most visible and manageable: the threat emanating from Moscow. Vladimir Putin’s Russia must be contained. For one thing, NATO needs to do more to bolster its frontline states. This includes establishing new bases and stationing permanent forces in the Baltics and in Poland. It includes drawing the clearest of red lines not only against trans-border aggression, but also against all manner of threats that fall below the Article V threshold. Each and every place Russia pushes forward, NATO must push back vigorously. That Moscow has been permitted to revise borders by force in Ukraine sets a dangerous precedent. How disappointing and bewildering it was recently to hear the U.S. Ambassador to NATO declare any further NATO expansion now off the table, not for fear of offending Russia — the usual default position of the accommodationists — but rather to avoid an acceleration of Russia’s internal weakness and decline. A new administration must demonstrate clarity, confidence, resolve, and preparedness to set its own agenda, rather than always being captive to an agenda set by the Kremlin. Part of this agenda ought to be telling the story to ordinary Russians — through the accurate, reliable reporting by Radio Liberty and Voice of America — of the looting of Russia by Vladimir Putin and his cronies. It’s also time to shine a spotlight on how Russia’s kleptocratic regime thrives through theft and conceals immense wealth aboard — with the assistance of western enablers.

Washington will need to work closely with its European allies on all of this. They’ll need to be convinced that that having the Russians pushing in and the Americans fading out is the most certain path to keeping Europe down.

Second, a new administration will need quick and relatively easy wins. Let’s remember how important and effective gestures can be. It was a missed opportunity last November, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, when President Obama went ahead with a trade mission to the Philippines. The President should have been walking the streets of Paris side by side with his French counterpart, demonstrating to the French people — and to all Europeans — that America stands by them at a time of need. Similarly, the heads of state of Germany, Great Britain, and Israel joined a unity march through the streets of Paris in January 2015 after the deadly attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. President Obama and Vice President Biden opted not to attend; Secretary of State John Kerry stayed on schedule in India, where he attended an entrepreneurship summit. Even worse, after the terrorist attacks in March in Brussels— a coordinated, multi-target assault that left 32 dead and more than 300 injured — President Obama could be seen on television sunning himself in the stands at a baseball game in Havana. The next administration should look for each and every opportunity to affirm transatlantic solidarity.

Why not start with something highly relevant? Help Europe, however modestly, with its refugeecrisis. The United States has been fretting and squabbling over the paltry number of 10,000refugees it agreed to receive. Of course, security concerns are real. Vet the male relatives of military age. But otherwise, take Charles Krauthammer’s advice and get the elderly and women and children onto American shores as soon as possible. It’s the right thing to do for people in need, and it shows Europeans that Americans have skin in the game.

Third, the United States needs leadership willing to resist the anti-free trade fever of the day. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will expand jobs and increase prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic. It has strategic value in that it will help to some extent to bind America and Europe more closely together. TTIP also can help underscore the U.S. commitment to free trade more generally at a time when the pitch forks of the protectionists are out in increasing numbers on both sides. This will be not be an easy sell with restive publics, and not all questions raised by TTIP opponents are unreasonable. Advocates need broader buy-in for transatlantic trade to move ahead sensibly and without further backlash. But the U.S. cannot turn its back on those things it knows to be crucial to the transatlantic relationship, and vital to American and western economic health and dynamism.

Finally, the United States must find answers to growing populism in Europe and the United States. There’s no room for schadenfreude on either side of the Atlantic. The European Union has been ignoring its democracy deficit for years. It turns out now that the United States has one, too. There’s no simple fix to any of this, but America and Europe will never be able to respond to the strategic challenges of the day if our democracies become increasingly dysfunctional, with significant numbers of voters feeling ignored on the issues they care most about. If ever there were a time for an intensive transatlantic dialogue on an issue of common concern, this would be it.

It’s time for transatlantic renewal in more ways than one.


Jeffrey Gedmin is senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and a Senior Advisor to Blue Star Strategies.