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.
These weapons were controlled by American cowboys and fools and by Russian “conspirators” — the European vision of all Russian leaders. Amid profound differences and distrust, U.S. and Soviet leaders managed to avoid the worst. Given their track record, Europe’s leaders might have plunged the world further into disaster. The Europeans think well of the sophistication of their diplomacy. I have never understood why they feel that way.
We saw this in Syria. First, Europe was all over the place. Then the coalition that coaxed the Americans in fell apart, leaving the United States virtually alone. When Obama went back to his original position, they decided that he had been outfoxed by the Russians. Had he attacked, he would have been dismissed as another cowboy. Whichever way it had gone, and whatever role Europe played in it, it would have been the Americans that simply didn’t understand one thing or another.
The sentiment differs throughout Europe. The British were indifferent to the entire matter; they were far more interested in what the Federal Reserve would say. The Eastern Europeans, feeling the pressure of the Russians — both in reality and in their nightmares — can’t imagine why the Americans would let this happen to them. A friendly diplomat from the Caucasus told me that he wondered if the Americans weren’t aware they were in a showdown with the Russians.
The American view of Europe is a combination of indifference and bafflement. Europe has not mattered all that much to the United States since the end of the Cold War. Since the first Gulf War, what has mattered is the Muslim world, with various levels of intensity. Europe was seen as a prosperous backwater, or as I once put it in 1991, all of Europe became Scandinavia. It was quite prosperous, a pleasure to visit, but not the place in which history was being made.
When Americans can be bothered to think of Europe, they think of it as a continent with strong opinions of what others should do but with little inclination to do something itself. As an American diplomat told me, “I always go to Paris if I want to be told what America should do.” The American perception of Europe is that it is unhelpful and irritating but ultimately weak and therefore harmless. The Europeans are obsessed with the U.S. president because, fool or cowboy or both, he is extraordinarily powerful. The Americans are indifferent to the Europeans not because they don’t have sophisticated leaders but because ultimately their policies matter more to each other than they do to the United States. Americans think little of Europe and then really don’t understand what happens there. It’s not clear to me that Europeans get it either.
But the most profound rift between the Americans and Europeans, however, is not perception or attitude. It is the notion of singularity, and many of the strange impressions or profound indifferences between the two stem from this notion. For example, a friend pointed out that he spoke four languages but Americans seem unable to learn one. I pointed out that if he took a weekend trip he would need to speak four languages. Citizens of the United States don’t need to learn four languages to drive 3,000 miles. The dialogue between Europe and the United States is a dialogue between a single entity and the tower of Babel.
The United States is a unified country with unified economic, foreign and defense policies. Europe never fully came together; in fact, for the past five years it has been disintegrating. Division, as well as a fascinating pride in that division, is one of Europe’s defining characteristics. Unity, as well as fascinating convictions that everything is coming apart, is one of the United States’ defining characteristics.
Obsession and Fear
Europe’s past is magnificent, and its magnificence can be seen on the streets of any European capital. Its past haunts and frightens it. Its future is not defined, but its present is characterized by a denial and a distance from its past. U.S. history is much shallower. Americans build shopping malls on top of hallowed battlefields and tear down buildings after 20 years. The United States is a country of amnesia. It is obsessed with its future, and Europe is paralyzed by its past.
Whenever I visit Europe — and I was born in Europe — I am struck by how profoundly different the two places are. I am also struck at how the United States is disliked and held in contempt by Europeans. I am also struck at how little Americans notice or care.
There is talk of the transatlantic relationship. It is not gone, nor even frayed. Europeans come to the United States and Americans go to Europe and both take pleasure in the other. But the connection is thin. Where once we made wars together, we now take vacations. It is hard to build a Syria policy on that framework, let alone a North Atlantic strategy.