For a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the United States had a clear aim for Europe: to bring the former communist world into the liberal international order and build a Europe whole, free, and at peace. After containing the Soviet threat for four decades (and intervening in two World Wars before that), the United States and its allies focused on enlarging the community of market democracies eastward to eliminate sources of conflict that had bedeviled Western leaders throughout the 20th century.
In November 1999, when President Bill Clinton spoke at Georgetown University to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed the United States and its allies were well on their way to accomplishing these goals. America began the decade supporting Germany’s unification, with a united Germany remaining fully in NATO. In the mid-1990s, the United States began pushing for NATO to include a first wave of new members from the East and supported the European Union’s steps toward enlargement. The United States, bilaterally and multilaterally through international financial institutions, provided Russia billions of dollars in the 1990s, as Clinton’s top adviser, Strobe Talbott, put it, “to help Russia complete the destruction of one system and the building, virtually de novo, of a new one.” Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin made clear that NATO expansion created political headaches for him at home, he had sought integration with the West from the start of his presidency. In 1997, he went along with plans to create a formal NATO-Russia framework (the Permanent Joint Council) for dialogue with the West. The Group of Seven advanced industrialized countries added Russia to their membership roster in 1998 to further enhance relations. NATO conducted airstrikes that paved the way for the Dayton Accords to end the war in Bosnia in 1995 and engaged in a 78-day bombing campaign in 1999 against Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia without suffering any NATO combat casualties. And as concerns emerged about the threat from radical Islamic extremists, the United States pushed Europe to take more seriously the idea of Turkish membership in the European Union in the hopes that the country could set an example for the Middle East as a secular Islamic democracy.
It was not an understatement when Clinton remarked in 1999, “Now we are at the height of our power and prosperity.” After 40 years of containing communism during the Cold War, it seemed the first ten years after communist regimes began collapsing in Eastern Europe had gone about as well as they could. The idea that any country could challenge America’s global leadership was laughable. Europe seemed on its way to overcoming its historic divisions.
Since then, however, America’s ability to promote the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace has eroded considerably. After the Iraq war and the global financial crisis, the United States lost not only its standing but also its self-confidence as global leader. Although the Eurozone economies are growing again, structural problems continue to cast doubt on the Euro’s future. The United Kingdom is negotiating its exit from the European Union, and authoritarian populism has surged in Central Europe. Russia has emerged as a power intent on undermining the Western order: It invaded Ukraine in 2014 and has launched information operations designed to disrupt electoral democracy across Europe and in the United States. And then came the election of Donald Trump, whose attitudes toward Europe have created tremendous uncertainty since he entered office.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Brexit vote, the rise of authoritarianism in Central Europe, and the continuing challenges of maintaining the Eurozone, the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace no longer serves meaningfully as a framework for America’s Europe policy. The optimism underpinning the 1989 strategy — that the West won the Cold War and could set the terms for the integration of the East, including Russia — has given way to pessimism now that Russia is bent on undermining Western institutions and populist politicians in Europe are doing the same.
Formulating a new U.S. strategy for Europe takes place in a Washington much less Euro-centric than it was during the 20th century. That was a time when the United States viewed Europe — the source of conflict in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War — as the region most vital to American strategy.
But it would be wrong to believe Europe is no longer central to American prosperity and security. The United States should reconceptualize its strategy for and with Europe along two tracks. The first has formed the core of its approach since 2014 and echoes America’s Cold War strategy: working with European allies once again to contain Russian aggression. This cannot consist of only reassuring NATO allies they will be protected against military attack, but should also include the development of serious U.S.-European collaboration in the face of Russian propaganda operations.
The second requires a true understanding of America’s foreign policy needs as it looks toward Asia. Under President Barack Obama, the United States rightly sought to respond effectively to the rise of China, the greatest geostrategic challenge facing the United States in the coming decades. But the more time, energy, and resources America focuses on the China challenge, the more it requires a Europe capable of managing threats and challenges in its own neighborhood. The new transatlantic agenda’s second track, therefore, should focus on developing a collaborative division of labor that allows the United States to continue turning its attention toward Asia. Europe, under the leadership of France and Germany and with the participation of the United Kingdom, should develop greater capacity to respond to challenges in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and North Africa region, all the while cementing the transatlantic alliance through a strong NATO.
A Spent Strategy
It was on a visit to Mainz, West Germany, in May 1989 that George H.W. Bush articulated the strategy to promote a “Europe whole and free.” Communist regimes were beginning to collapse in Eastern Europe and Cold War-style containment of the Soviet Union was no longer necessary. The goal of overcoming Europe’s historic divisions and conflicts was not only for the continent’s benefit but to enhance American national security. U.S. strategists had learned from two world wars and a Cold War that the United States should actively promote European unity. As Bush put it in Mainz, “The Cold War began with the division of Europe. It can only end when Europe is whole.”
The Clinton team evolved that approach to promoting “a Europe whole, free and at peace,” primarily (but not only, as noted above) through the enlargement of NATO. George W. Bush continued his predecessor’s policies, bringing much of the rest of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO, but it was crystal clear that Western policy was in trouble with the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. The Obama administration put on hold the idea of promoting NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia in the hopes of resetting the relationship with Russia, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the imposition of Western sanctions in response spelled clear doom for the post-Cold War hopes for an undivided continent.
The enlargement of Western institutions in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War was made possible due to four key features of that era. First, the United States enjoyed complete global military and political superiority in the wake of the Soviet collapse, and the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations viewed NATO as the primary instrument for maintaining U.S. dominance of European security affairs after the Cold War ended. Second, in a period of uncertainty, Western European countries believed in the importance of ongoing U.S. commitment to their security through NATO and established processes to enlarge the European Union to the east to promote greater European unity. Third, for the first time in centuries, Russia was unable to shape events in Europe. Finally, Central and Eastern European nations sought protection from the United States in case the Russian (or German) threat reemerged and committed themselves to implementing political and economic reforms in order to join NATO and the European Union.
The United States undermined its global standing and legitimacy as the world’s leading power by shooting itself in the foot going to war in Iraq in 2003 and creating a global financial crisis in 2008. Russia, disillusioned and resentful over the direction of American leadership and what it saw as offenses against its core interests, began to push back on many fronts. Britain voted to leave the European Union. Poland and Hungary, two countries that had entered the Western fold, began to take on an authoritarian character. NATO and E.U. enlargement have run their course, and those countries in the gray zone between the West and Russia, such as Georgia and Ukraine, have no foreseeable prospect for membership. Nor are good relations with Russia on the horizon.
The Steady Decline of American Influence and Russian Opportunism
With the 9/11 attacks, the world and American power entered a new era. The conventional wisdom at the time was that it would be defined by the “War on Terror,” but looking back, an important part of the story was the clear erosion in America’s ability to sustain its post-Cold War vision with its European allies. A variety of factors contributed to this. First, the United States undermined its own standing and legitimacy with the invasion of Iraq and the associated chaos and human rights abuses associated with it. Second, the “own goal” of the U.S. financial crisis, which eventually afflicted the whole world, left many disillusioned with American leadership, undermining the “Washington consensus.” The financial crisis also exposed longstanding problems with the Eurozone and a debt crisis flowered throughout southern Europe. Third, Moscow became more and more angry over Washington’s leadership of the international order. The Kremlin was especially displeased by Russia’s place in the global pecking order as well as what Russian leaders saw as a disregard of their country’s interests and its status as a great power. Russian President Vladimir Putin came into office determined to reverse the humiliation of the 1990s and set about ensuring that Russia had the ability to prevent Western institutions from penetrating into the non-Baltic territory of the former Soviet Union.
There is no small irony that Iraq, where America displayed its unrivaled hegemony in defeating Saddam Hussein in 1991, became the symbol, over a decade later, of America’s eroding power. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the United States and its partners under U.N. authorization responded in 1991 with a spectacular show of military power demonstrating American domination of the global stage. For the next dozen years, U.S.-led patrols of no-fly zones over Iraq kept Saddam contained.
But in the aftermath of 9/11, those in the George W. Bush administration who had long argued for regime change in Iraq seized the chance to promote their agenda. The Bush administration took America to war without an international consensus to eliminate what turned out to be a nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program. France and Germany, two staunch American allies, vocally opposed this use of American power.
Coming just four years after NATO’s bombing campaign in the Balkans that — in Moscow’s view — encroached on Russian interests, Vladimir Putin was enraged at what he saw as the U.S. effort to unilaterally force its will onto the rest of the world.
America’s standing took a big hit not just with Russia but globally when the Iraq War turned into a quagmire. The world was aghast when photos were released of the torture that took place at Abu Ghraib, and Europeans argued vociferously that the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay should be closed. America lost tremendous credibility through both its incompetent occupation and its defense of waterboarding.
Meanwhile, Russian grievances against the United States and NATO grew increasingly bitter. They were rooted in a certain narrative of the 1990s. Many Russians (and many American scholars) believed the West had provided assurances to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the discussions over German unification in 1990 that NATO would not take advantage of Soviet weakness to expand into Central and Eastern Europe. Since the late 1990s, Moscow saw Washington doing exactly that. In 1999, the United States led the NATO air war against Serbia. It was fought without U.N. authorization since the Clinton team knew Russia would veto the operation. Fearing NATO might send ground troops, Yeltsin warned of another possible world war.
Putin turned his anger at the ties between Western institutions like the U.S. Agency for International Development and domestic civil society groups that, in his mind, fomented the so-called “color revolutions” that ousted pro-Russian governments in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan from 2003 to 2005. While he exaggerated the amount of outside influence on these domestic events, Putin feared the West was further encroaching on what he deemed Russia’s sphere of influence and even had designs on regime change in Russia.
At the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy, Putin made clear his unhappiness with U.S. global dominance, arguing that a unipolar world, a “world in which there is one master, one sovereign…is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.” And he expressed particular ire for NATO:
I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?
Then came the 2008 financial crisis, which began in the U.S. housing and banking sectors. The world had come to expect the United States to solve financial crises, not start them. In the winter of 1994-95, the Clinton administration intervened to stave off a currency crisis in Mexico. At the end of the decade, Time’s Feb. 15, 1999, cover dubbed Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers as the “Committee that Saved the World” for their role in managing the financial crisis that began in Asia in 1997 and soon engulfed countries across the globe. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had developed what was known as the “Washington consensus” — prescriptions for building a successful market economy. Now, given the U.S. role in creating the financial crisis (in large measure a result of the deregulation policies promoted by the “Committee that Saved the World” — Greenspan, Rubin and Summers), along with the continued economic rise of China, the United States no longer seemed to have all the answers.
Although the Iraq War and the financial crisis weakened U.S. standing, America in the Bush years did not give up on a Europe whole, free, and at peace. In advance of NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit, Washington even lobbied its allies to provide Membership Action Plans (established for earlier NATO aspirants) to Ukraine and Georgia. But too many allies feared Russia’s reaction, particularly given Putin’s angry, headline grabbing remarks at the previous year’s Munich Conference on Security Policy regarding NATO expansion. Failing to achieve its objective, the Bush administration successfully fought to include in the summit declaration a statement that Ukraine and Georgia would become members someday. As Ivo Daalder and I argued at the time, stating that countries would become members before they showed they could fulfill a Membership Action Plan made a mockery of the enlargement process. Even more importantly, it signaled to Putin that he had to act.
In August of that year, Russia went to war with Georgia and recognized two breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin had enforced a red line with respect to the non-Baltic former Soviet countries joining Western institutions.
When Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012 after a term as prime minister, he was obsessed with what he believed was an American effort to foster regime change in Russia. He blamed the United States, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, for fomenting street protests during Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2011. But unlike the closing years of the George W. Bush presidency, Putin was now dealing with a U.S. president who sought a “reset” with Russia amid a broader effort to emulate the realism of George H.W. Bush rather than the more expansive interventionism of his son. Barack Obama made clear in his first year in office that NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia was off the table, and relations were much improved during his first term. By the start of his second term, however, the relationship was headed into a downward spiral once again.
Beginning in 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, tried playing the European Union and Russia off one another, but after raising hopes at home and in the West that he was flirting with closer ties to Europe, he reneged under pressure from the Kremlin, leading to street protests that toppled him from power. Russia moved quickly, invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and supporting the Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine in what became a bloody civil war.
Cold War containment was born of necessity in the face of the Soviet threat, and the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace was a response to the opportunity provided by the Soviet collapse. Yet by 2014 the United States and its allies were no longer thinking about expanding the zone of European democracy and once again refocused on containing the threat from Moscow. The West imposed economic sanctions on Moscow elites close to Putin, and NATO began increasing its capabilities in the East, first by stepping up air and sea patrols in the Baltic and Black Sea regions, later deploying troops on a rotating basis to the territory of NATO’s eastern members, and ultimately creating a European Deterrence Initiative.
Europe’s Internal Fracturing: Less Whole and Less Free
A Europe whole, free, and at peace never depended on the United States alone, even if it was the lone superpower, and neither was it simply about America’s relationship with Russia. The strategy depended on Europe’s own success in promoting a more unified continent to create greater peace and prosperity and potentially to develop a common foreign and security policy. While tremendous progress was made, inspiring heady rhetoric, dreams for what Europe could achieve faltered early in the 21st century due to the Eurozone debt crisis; the emergence of authoritarianism in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey; and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
In the early 1990s, France and Germany led the way in transforming the European Economic Community into a closer European Union, and Central and Eastern Europeans responded to Western incentives to foster democracy, the rule of law, and market economics hoping to join not just NATO but the European Union.
From the start, there were signs that the path ahead might not be so easy. To calm fears over German unification, Chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the creation of a common currency for Europe. But as economists feared at the time, without a European finance ministry to set fiscal policy across the continent and thus lacking the ability to implement necessary redistributive policies, problems were bound to emerge.
By 2010 a full-blown crisis had erupted, as southern European countries demonstrated the system’s vulnerabilities to overloading on debt. The Euro crisis was exacerbated in 2015 as Greece missed a payment due to the International Monetary Fund and found itself in a showdown with its major creditor, Germany. The austerity programs the European Union imposed on debtors like Greece hammered their populations, increasing anti-E.U. populism, which threatened to undermine the European project.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, populist politicians in Central and Eastern Europe complained that newly liberated states were preparing to trade one form of imperial control (the Soviet military) for another (the European Union bureaucracy). Slovakia took a non-democratic, anti-E.U. turn under Vladimir Meciar as early as the mid-1990s, causing a delay in its accession to NATO and almost derailing its bid for E.U. membership before it returned to a democratic path. More recently, populist sentiment across the continent has been fueled by politicians seeking to take advantage of the refugee crisis that emerged from the wars in Libya and Syria. While Germany initially welcomed these individuals with open arms, others in Central Europe were not as hospitable, and politicians have used the threat of immigration effectively to stoke fears of loss of identity and to clamp down on democratic institutions.
Viktor Orbán returned as prime minister of Hungary in 2010 openly touting his goal of creating an illiberal state despite his country’s membership in NATO and the European Union. Orbán shut down the main opposition newspaper and targeted the Central European University, which received its initial funding from George Soros and symbolized the West’s embrace of the former Soviet bloc countries. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015, seeking to restrict press freedoms and taking an attitude toward the constitution and judicial system that belied the party’s name. Recent elections in the Czech Republic and Austria have brought to power governments that, like those in Poland and Hungary, are stoking anti-immigrant sentiment and undermining the European Union’s democratic values. The growing success of nationalist politicians makes it far easier for Putin to make mischief in the heart of the European Union.
Turkey, the object of America’s dream in the 1990s to showcase a secular Muslim democracy, is under the boot of an authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While not an E.U. member, Turkey is a NATO ally. Its clampdown on the media, jailing of university leaders, and government purge in the wake of the failed 2016 coup are leading many to wonder if the alliance needs a provision for expelling a member country to complement its provisions for including new ones.
Finally, in 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union. The loss of sovereignty inherent in E.U. membership had long been a political issue in the United Kingdom, which never joined the Euro, and pro-Brexit politicians used the migrant issue to convince a majority of voters that their country should set a new course. But the Brexit vote also highlighted another new feature of European politics: Russia’s use of information warfare to undermine democratic institutions. Since Brexit, there has been more and more evidence of Russia’s brazen interference in Western elections, from France and Germany to Catalonia. And of course, Moscow’s efforts on behalf of Donald Trump created an explosive political issue in the United States.
The Trump Effect
Trump himself does not seem to care whether Europe is whole and free. At the time he was elected, Europe was already becoming less whole, less free and had a war in the East. His electoral victory meant a new presidential attitude that strikes at the heart of the European Union’s efforts to unify the continent. During his presidential campaign, he supported the British referendum to leave the European Union. Early in his presidency, Trump had kind words for French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who sought a similar path for her country. Speaking in Poland in July 2016, despite paying lip service to the notion of a “Europe strong, whole and free,” Trump put forth a vision for Europe consistent with what he has long favored for the United States — an approach that emphasizes the divisive nationalism the European Union was founded to overcome.
Since Trump’s inauguration a year ago, European Council President Donald Tusk has called the United States a threat to Europe, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has argued that Europe can no longer rely on the United States. For the first time since the development of its Cold War containment policy in 1947, the United States has no clear strategy for what it wants in Europe and with Europe.
How has the Kremlin seen all this? Putin likely hoped Trump’s election would signal greater accommodation in U.S. policy toward Russia. With respect to the U.S. response to Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, Trump has given the Russian president what he wanted. While Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation in 2017 to impose new sanctions, Trump has stalled on implementation. On Ukraine, however, while Trump appointed a special representative for Ukraine negotiations, Washington’s terms for solving the crisis have not changed. Furthermore, the president signed off on the sale of lethal military assistance to Ukraine, something Obama was reluctant to do over fears that it might only lead to an escalation of the war in that country. The United States has continued to stand firmly with its NATO allies to counter the threat of aggression from Russia, and the sanctions regime already in place remains so.
Overall, though, Trump’s foreign policy attitude is a radical departure from his post-World War II predecessors. Frustration with the bureaucratic, often sclerotic, European Union is nothing new for American elites. But actively seeking to undermine European unity is. Speaking in Warsaw, Trump did refer to the importance of a Europe whole and free, but it was overshadowed by his broader articulation of the nationalist vision Stephen Bannon helped him promote — a vision Trump adhered to again when laying out his National Security Strategy in December. The president has similarly undermined European unity in favor of nationalism, arguing that the United Kingdom and United States would emerge with a stronger relationship once Britain left the European Union, and praising Le Pen, who campaigned on an anti-E.U. platform for France.
Regarding Russia, Trump has often spoken of his admiration for Putin’s strongman tactics at home, and has sought publicly to downplay the threat Putin poses to the United States and Europe. Trump accepts the Russian leader’s denials of meddling in the U.S. election and rejects any effort to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his own victory, including the work of the U.S. intelligence community to expose the danger of Moscow’s information warfare operation.
Concerns existed before Trump entered office. But now the United States has a president who has made clear he does not believe in the value of the liberal world order Washington created, sustained, and then enlarged after the Cold War — an order that the Europe whole, free, and at peace strategy rested on.
Was There Another Way?
Was this all an inevitable result of overly ambitious U.S. policy, and particularly the effort to bring Central and Eastern Europe into NATO, as some have argued? A number of Western analysts, led by legendary diplomat George F. Kennan, opposed NATO enlargement from the start, and critics such as John Mearsheimer have argued that the policy is the root cause of the breakdown of relations with Russia over Ukraine. Enlargement certainly created tradeoffs: Using NATO to promote greater stability in Central and Eastern Europe made any cooperation with Moscow that much more difficult. But a failure to enlarge would have come with its own costs, something critics of enlargement generally do not address. Most notably, Russia, which has defined its security through the insecurity of its neighbors, would have been tempted over time to interfere in the affairs of Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltics, as it has in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, creating instability and insecurity across a wider swath of Europe.
As I have previously argued, Russia’s self-image since the end of the Cold War and particularly since the rise of Putin has played a key role in the tensions that have emerged. From the days of Gorbachev’s notion of a “Common European Home,” Russia has envisioned itself playing a co-equal role to that of the United States in managing European security. But the Central and Eastern Europeans were looking for protection, not renewed influence, from Russia, and the United States, viewing itself as the Cold War victor, was not prepared to treat Russia as an equal. As Kimberly Marten has stated:
Russia mourned its lost status more than it feared a new security danger, and no realistic alternative to NATO’s geographic enlargement would have restored Russia’s status in the system, especially given the expansion of NATO’s mandates and the growth of US unilateralism….As long as Russia was not getting into Western security institutions, as long as those institutions were not subsuming themselves to the CSCE/OSCE or the UN, and as long as Russia was denied the right to veto the use of US and NATO force, Russian elites would not be satisfied.
The United States in the Clinton years believed it could use NATO as the primary driver of its European agenda while still maintaining good relations with Russia. Yeltsin seemed to go along with enlargement even while making clear it was hurting him at home. In May 1995, eight months after explaining to Yeltsin that NATO would be moving forward with enlargement (after the Russian elections in 1996), Clinton convinced the Russian president to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and the following year, Russian forces served alongside NATO forces in the military implementation force in Bosnia.
The United States was right to be ambitious for Europe, and with Europe, after the Cold War ended. Bringing Central and Eastern Europe into Western institutions in order to provide opportunities for those populations to live in peace and prosperity was a worthwhile goal after decades in which security eluded large parts of Europe due first to German and then to Soviet military invasion and occupation. The problem was less the strategy for countries like Poland and Hungary, but rather the lack of a meaningful plan for including countries like Russia, Ukraine and Georgia in the European security framework. Clinton and his top advisers spoke to Yeltsin about the possibility of Russia joining NATO someday and sought to ease Russia’s pain regarding enlargement through invitations to join the World Trade Organization, the Paris Club of Creditors, the OECD, and the G-7 (which became the G-8). At the end of the day, however, neither the United States nor the Europeans nor Russia figured out how to create an acceptable place for the latter in the post-Cold War European security framework. Partnership for Peace proved short-lived as a solution. Enlargement provided security for most of Central and Eastern Europe, but the NATO-Russia Founding Act (and its successor, the NATO-Russia Council) were insufficient mechanisms for cooperation between the West and Moscow. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was too weak, and once it began serious election monitoring and oversight of human rights abuses, it clashed with Moscow’s interests.
While the United States had a stake in promoting a united Europe (one that included Russia), and still has a stake in promoting a strong and democratic Europe, the future of the continent will be defined by Europeans. Some of the seeds of Europe’s current challenges were sown in the 1990s, such as the creation of a common currency absent a European finance ministry. Others arose more recently, such as the failure to recognize soon enough the impact of the war in Syria on European security. The United States has little role to play in helping Europe solve its internal problems, but it can at least refrain from fostering further divisions within the European Union.
A New Strategy Based on a Transatlantic Division of Labor
Containment as an organizing principle for American strategy arose after World War II as a response to the threat posed by European weakness and potential Soviet aggression against Western Europe. By 1989, a stronger Europe and a weaker Soviet Union offered an opportunity to pursue a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Now, America has come full circle, responding once again to the threat posed by renewed Russian aggression. In a December 2017 speech on “The U.S. and Europe: Strengthening Western Alliances,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson focused almost exclusively on the threat posed by a “recently resurgent Russia.” He reminded his audience that NATO was defending its eastern members against Russia as it did during the Cold War.
Responding to Russian aggression, while a necessary pillar, is not a comprehensive Europe strategy, and it does not provide the kind of positive vision that fostering a Europe whole and free did in the heady days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The United States needs to recognize that Europe, for so many decades an object in itself for U.S. strategists, can serve as a means to enable the continued rebalancing of American foreign policy.
And while containing Russian military aggression is important, the United States and its European allies should focus far more on thwarting Russia’s non-military means of realizing its aims and specifically Moscow’s efforts to sow chaos among Western democracies. Russian information operations aimed at undermining Western democracies and transatlantic unity should be galvanizing more cooperation amongst allies to enact real and resourced policies that can protect foundational democratic institutions. To date, this has not occurred. Obama largely ignored the threat in his last year in office, and Trump does not even want to admit the threat exists.
Mustering the political will to counter Russian behavior in the information warfare space will be hard, particularly given Trump’s aversion to confronting the facts and the difficulties of finding meaningful ways to respond. But even so, building a Europe strategy around countering Russian aggression is insufficient. The greatest geopolitical challenge the United States will face in the coming decades is the rise of China, which is the only country that could threaten the United States as a peer competitor in that timeframe. And America’s ability to focus more resources and attention on the rise of China depends on Europe taking on a larger role vis-à-vis Eastern Europe and the Middle East and North Africa.
The United States and Europe have a stake in a rule-based democratic order that limits the ability of countries like China and Russia to undermine that order. A greater division of labor between the two, with the United States focusing more of its attention on Asia, while Europe steps up to manage places like Ukraine and Syria, would be in the interests of both sides of the Atlantic.
America’s unipolar moment has passed, in part because of self-inflicted wounds and in part from the natural rise of the rest. A forward-looking strategy would recognize that the United States needs to work with Europe to maintain and strengthen a liberal order built on a belief in the importance of democracy, markets, and respect for the rule of law. Over the long run, the more significant challenge to this order will come from an illiberal China rather than from an illiberal Russia given the former’s likelihood of becoming a competitive global power.
Though most associate the “Asia pivot” with the Obama administration, the effort to rebalance U.S. foreign policy toward Asia began long before. Clinton came into office believing in the need to do so, but he became embroiled in the Balkans. Bush and his team entered office recognizing the need to respond to China’s rise, but Sept. 11, 2001 forever changed their focus. Obama recognized that U.S. foreign policy was weighted too heavily toward Europe and the Middle East and publicly promoted a rebalancing, but Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the rise of ISIL led him to increase America’s commitment in Eastern Europe, including the deployment of additional troops and more training exercises, and to return to Iraq after believing the United States had accomplished its mission there.
An underappreciated reality about the long-sought Asia rebalance is that it will be much more successful if the United States can coordinate a division of labor with a stronger Europe that can better address the challenges to its East and South. As the name implies, rebalancing means shifting some time, energy, and resources away from areas America has heavily invested in previously toward new challenges. If the United States has to lead the response to Russia in Ukraine while also serving as the primary country investing in Middle East stability, it will be less able to devote time and resources to the Asia-Pacific region.
America’s new long-term Europe strategy should seek a strengthening of relations with a more capable Europe to support a division of labor that upholds the liberal order (a strategy consistent with that called for by a group of German security analysts in a “Transatlantic Manifesto”). The United States would continue to rebalance toward Asia to counter the threat from China, while Europe develops the capacity to better manage the conflicts arising with Russia and to help stabilize the Middle East. This does not mean the United States would “leave” Europe but would rather seek to work with a more capable Europe to uphold an order that serves common Transatlantic interests. Several colleagues and I provided an example of this “division-of-labor” approach in a 2011 report for the Transatlantic Academy:
The division of labor will entail a new pattern of commitments. …[T]he EU should assume the leading role in engaging Russia to resolve conflicts in its neighborhood. In pursuing these objectives, Europe should employ and enhance a full panoply of instruments, ranging from economic associations and assistance for the development of civil society and democracy to peacekeeping forces. Europe should also build on its Mediterranean presence and past efforts in places such as Cyprus and Lebanon to advance economic, political, and social development in societies undergoing rapid transformation.
The United States will remain NATO’s leading military power, and there will be times when those capabilities are required. But as Daniel Hamilton and Stefan Meister have suggested, the European Union has a variety of institutional mechanisms to foster stability and peace to the East and South. They note that this could include a revamped Eastern Partnership that, for example, invests in institution-building efforts such as border management to address separatist conflicts.
A division-of-labor strategy depends above all not on America, but on Europe. We have seen Europe work toward this in recent years: The United Kingdom and France took the lead in the war in Libya (although unfortunately no one took the lead after the war ended), while France and Germany have been key players in attempting to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine. The President of France Emmanuel Macron has sought greater involvement in the Middle East, and his government has announced its ambition to develop the capabilities to play a more important role in the region. The German Transatlantic Manifesto is a healthy sign that security analysts in that country are thinking along these lines. Though Merkel emerged from Germany’s recent elections in a weaker position than many had hoped, she remains a formidable force in shaping the future of her country and the continent. The recent coalition agreement forged with the Social Democrats, suggests former German government official Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, “signals to President Macron in France that we are ready” to tackle the kinds of E.U. reform necessary to rejuvenate the institution.
A more proactive Europe is not simply about spending more on defense, but rather about formulating the common foreign and security policy that has eluded it over the past two decades. The beginnings of another such effort has emerged recently through the European Union’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), as well as Macron’s proposed European Intervention Initiative, which would include the United Kingdom. Europe will not replace the U.S. militarily, but it doesn’t need to. The European Union should continue to build the capacity for small-scale operations and can use its leverage as an economic institution to invest in stability in fragile states along its periphery. Any efforts the European Union undertakes should complement what NATO does, and allies should make this a central feature of the July 2018 NATO summit agenda.
The European Union will have to sort out its relationship with the United Kingdom and manage the authoritarianism, secessionism, and backsliding emerging across the continent. The United States should encourage Macron and Merkel as they pursue the reforms necessary to address Europe’s political and economic challenges. And when America encourages more European defense spending, it should do so not, as Trump often argues, to get allies to pay back the United States but to more proactively promote European efforts to provide stability and security in the broader region.
While it may be hard to imagine Europe being more able to step into this role in the face of many internal challenges, Charles Grant and his colleagues at the Centre for European Reform argue that this is in fact a propitious moment for European reform. They suggest that continental European solidarity is more likely to finally emerge with the Eurozone in its current period of overall economic growth and because of the reaction to the illiberal policies of Trump, Putin, and Erdoğan. In this scenario, the United Kingdom and the European Union will manage to reach a satisfactory agreement on the terms of Britain’s departure, and Macron and Merkel will successfully work together to move Europe forward, including making the necessary adjustments for the Eurozone. Critical to the success of European reform, however, will be the ability of France and Germany to stem the tide of rising authoritarianism in countries like Poland and Hungary. And while a serious European effort to build greater capacity could be a positive result of the Trump presidency, a coordinated division of labor to manage global challenges is preferable to the two sides of the Atlantic pulling away from one another.
A 21st Century Case for a Strong Europe
The United States needs a stronger Europe not for 20th century reasons of preventing conflict arising in the center of the continent, but for 21st century reasons of managing the threat posed by a rising China. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations all sought to focus on the challenge from Asia but they continued to get dragged into (or in one disastrous instance, initiated) conflicts in Europe and the Middle East. While the United States will always play a key role in those traditional areas of American interest, a stronger Europe can and should take on more of the load in its neighborhood. The United States and Europe both have a stake in a rule-based democratic international order. A greater coordinated division of labor would enable the West to continue to promote its common interests in the face of the illiberal challenges arrayed against it.
Nearly 30 years after George H.W. Bush spoke at Mainz, the European project of the last several decades appears to be faltering. The continent today is in many ways neither whole, nor free, nor at peace.
This is no time for the United States to encourage Europe’s divisions. The United States should hope that Brexit is managed in a way that does as little damage to the United Kingdom and Europe as possible, and that France and Germany are more successful promoting European democratic values than Poland and Hungary are in espousing illiberalism. It’s sad to see the West back to containing Russia after the high hopes of the early 1990s, but the United States still has a stake in a strong Europe successfully limiting its internal fracturing and taking on more burdens to its East and South, so that the United States can turn more of its attention toward China and the rest of Asia over the course of the 21st century.
James Goldgeier is Professor of International Relations at American University and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on Twitter @JimGoldgeier.