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America’s persistent European questions

December 12, 2011
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It is no surprise, as the Washington Post reported recently, that American officials are involved in the background to coordinate economic negotiations in Europe. I’m far from an economics expert, but the role of US policy towards Europe is curious in certain respects. Far from being an entirely indigenous European creation, the project of European integration has, at every junction, been subject to US pressure and influence. The very nature of the Cold War made this very explicit at the outset of the unification process, though American influence has dulled somewhat.

That said, I’m reminded somewhat of the quandary of the Multilateral Force negotiations. Eisenhower, whose New Look policy dictated the United States reduce the burden of defending Western Europe from the USSR, simultaneously faced the challenge of getting the European states to take on a greater share of their own defense (does this line sound familiar?),  but without encouraging the proliferation of nationally-controlled nuclear forces (a phrase which generally referred to France more than anything else). America’s goal, in essence, was to reduce the cost of European defense without undermining the project of European integration by overly empowering major states to make them potential hegemons which could destabilize the continent or oppose the United States.

Even before World War II concluded, American policy planners had decided US interests would be best served by a Europe economically strong enough to give America what Lyndon Johnson would later on summarize as a “spacious environment of freedom,” but not so strong as to expel American influence or partner with the Soviet Union in a project of continental domination, should it fall to communist political subversion. Far from being paradoxical, as it often strikes many Americans frustrated with the burden of hegemony, the European reluctance to re-arm was a sentiment encouraged by the United States persistently. Attempts by the United States, such as the Multilateral Force, preferred European rearmament only on American terms, and particularly in a manner which actually reduced the political authority of individual European states – and encouraged the failure of any institutional endeavors to the contrary. After all, in a Europe simultaneously united but without strong national leadership, America could maintain more influence over geopolitical decisions. Additionally, by suppressing French national nuclear ambitions, or by aiding them in such a way they became less national, the US could ward off what many truly feared – a German nuclear force capable of destroying the European system of collective security.

Today, the dilemmas for the United States, and its ability to shape European affairs, is far less substantial. But we are left with its legacy in many ways. In particular, despite calls from former Secretary of Defense Gates, Congressman Paul Ryan, and the expectations of the Obama administration national security team, we are still living with a Europe defanged largely under American oversight and at its very behest. The European Union in its present form is the culmination of what American postwar planners wanted in many ways. It is politically unified enough to promise the suppression of European nationalist identities without being strong enough to challenge NATO as the dominant provider of security. In military terms, the European Union is entangling enough to be less than the sum of its parts, rather than the foundation for a true global strategic power. In economic terms, the EU is again strong enough to suppress nationalist barriers on trade, which America feared deeply during its postwar planning process, but not quite integrated enough to become the sort of semi-autarkic geopolitical realm that some continentals hoped would oppose Anglo-Saxon liberalism.

In pushing Europe behind the scenes, the US will hope to preserve a critical element of the liberal international economic order, and as expected, it is trying to find a way to do so without creating a Europe unified or organized primarily at the behest of a single country – Berlin, now, rather than Paris. This will all be done, of course, with European funds. Whether any American policymakers recognize the contradiction between telling Europe to pay for its own bailouts and asking it to simultaneously pay for its own defense is unknown. From the start, US support of European integration as been premised on the idea that suppressing European nationalism was good for growth, and growth was good for US trade – and an inevitable consequence of this suppression has been reduced European military spending, which indeed helped growth and transatlantic trade. Much discussion of the post-WWII US-led international order has, in European terms, focused on NATO. But the EU, with its pan-European economic community in open trade with America, has been a much older and more universally-desired feature of American global planning. Europe’s financial crisis is therefore not simply a test for Europeans, but a crisis that strikes at the core – whether we’re willing to acknowledge it or not – of the international system America has fostered since the defeat of the Axis powers.

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