Several years ago on the bottom floor of a Berlin museum, I met a man who had given up on Europe. He opined about demographic decline and the failures of democracy, all while giving a group of Americans a historical tour of Germany’s rise to power. Europe was somehow doomed to be boring and lumber along under the weight of its own apathy—today’s Zeitgeist being one of discouragement and defeat. The Americans I was with appreciated the self-criticism, but not the sentiment.
On Sunday, Angela Merkel won reelection as Germany’s chancellor by channeling my museum guide’s pessimism. She intentionally ran a boring campaign, assuring voters that she was a safe pilot and assuring non-voters that there were no urgent issues at stake. The campaign slogan could very well have been “Don’t Worry: Germany’s future is secure and Europe’s future has already been written.” The lack of energy Merkel put into her own reelection does not bode well for those who hope to see a more proactive stance on Europe and other international challenges.
Such listlessness is frustrating to Americans. In a parting rebuke in 2011, former Secretary of Defense John Gates criticized Europe’s “dwindling appetite” for sharing risk and costs with the United States and that NATO faced “the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance.” In 2012, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was similarly frustrated with the lack of clear leadership among Europe’s nations, saying that “Even if a telephone exists and even if they answered it, the answer is not always very clear.” These observations suggest how vexing it has been to forge a common Western approach on defense and diplomacy.
Unfortunately, U.S. pundits pile on the overstatement about the West’s woes. A prominent example is the recent book Foreign Policy Begins at Home by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass. He suggests Europe’s future will mimic that of a pacifist, slow-growing Japan and that its “position as a major power in the twenty-first century world looks to be all but over.” This is a strange conclusion to make about a union that, despite the euro crisis, remains the world’s largest economic bloc and is still capable of projecting force across the globe. This past week, The Economist declared that “The Weakened West” is leaving the free world vulnerable to the transgressions of dictators, yet gives only passing mention to the immense undertakings to topple tyrants in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—as if these wars were simply the West’s last gasp in world affairs.
Compared with pundits’ ambivalence, the broader public still thinks Western leadership makes sense. The Transatlantic Trends survey released by the German Marshall Fund this September shows those favoring EU leadership in global affairs has declined since the euro crisis began in 2008 and that Asia continues to be seen as “more important” to U.S. national interests. However, both the European and American publics clearly prefer greater leadership from each other compared to alternatives like Russia or China. They see beyond current political and economic problems and recognize the continuing need for the West to address global challenges.
President Obama’s recent foreign policy speech in Berlin addressed this tension among Western states. He rebuked those who derided Europe’s importance and recognized that the “burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together,” while calling for a stronger European Union that could help the U.S. in “extending a hand abroad.” At the United Nations this week, he pleaded that the United States “cannot and should not bear” the burden of preventing atrocities and protecting human rights alone. But what role should Europe play when the United States itself is unclear of its strategy?
Europe certainly has an important diplomatic role. The Obama administration’s response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons was poorly scripted theatre that needed the deus ex machina of a European-inspired proposal to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons. Neither Russia nor Assad can take much credit for these developments, except for slowing the pace of conflict, which may yet give time for the Syrian opposition to overcome its divisions and root out extremist elements. Neither Iran nor North Korea see much to celebrate, as their own political and economic isolation has become increasingly apparent. A clear United Nations resolution would demonstrate—yet again—Western resolve against the use of chemical weapons.
Simply throwing up our hands in frustration with Europe and trying our fortunes in Asia would be unwise. There is no stronger relationship between two great powers in terms of shared experience or values than that between the United States and Europe. There is also still much to achieve: negotiations on a free trade zone for the Atlantic region; a common diplomatic approach to Russia, China, and the Middle East; and a smarter, more efficient NATO. Even in cases where the five permanent Security Council members and Germany (P5+1) disagree on the use of military force, the combined diplomatic and economic weight of the West cannot be ignored.
Not pursuing these common goals cedes ground to those who would claim the West is moribund. As Winston Churchill made clear in his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, following the ruin of Europe’s last major war, “We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins…If the Western Democracies stand together…their influence for furthering those principles [of the UN Charter] will be immense and no one is likely to molest them.” Instead of blaming one another for failures of leadership, the United States and Europe should develop a common strategy to advance the ideals and interests of a united West.
Parke Thomas Nicholson is the Senior Research Program Associate at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington, DC.