As the United States tore up the Iran deal, Angela Merkel lamented that Germany (and by extension the European Union) cannot rely on the United States anymore “for protection,” and said Europe needs to “take its destiny into its own hands.” The French finance minister echoed her sentiments. This from a continent with an economy 15 times that of Russia.
Keep in mind, this perpetual hunt for a new leader of the “liberal world order,” which in reality is a sort of “hegemonic peace,” comes at a time when the German Air Force has just four combat ready Typhoon fighter jets. Germans revolutionized submarine and armour warfare, but now don’t have enough tanks and submarines that are force projection ready, and German youth prefer deep house music over defense. The two great powers in Europe, Britain and France, would need a couple of months to put division-sized troops in Latvia.
Similarly, in Israel the violent protests that have been going on over a planned Hamas push towards Israel’s borders further expose this growing rift between the United States and the EU.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia formerly backed Hamas, but are quiet, given that they face their own geopolitical realities. Egypt faces Islamists and Saudis are busy aligning with Israel to balance Iran. The media is spinning the violence as a protest against the U.S. embassy opening in Jerusalem, although there were Hamas terrorists who were killed, in between armed military age men in the process of breaching a border en masse, with a declared goal to rip out the hearts of Israelis. Still, the EU protested against Israel.
But focusing on the Iran deal or Jerusalem is missing the point of a greater trend in geopolitics. This isn’t about the United States, Israel and Iran.
There is considerable difference of opinion about Iran, even among conservatives. A section of conservative foreign policy realists opposes further U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Other conservatives feel that protecting Israel should be the primary consideration. U.S. sanctions would primarily target European business companies doing business with Iran. Just like sanctions on Russia divided Germany and the U.S., this would exacerbate the similar divisions already evident.
The bigger consideration, however, is the growing transatlantic rift between the United States and the EU. France and Germany wanted the United States to stay in the deal, as was evident from the repeated parlay attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron and Merkel, in vain. Now the biggest liberal German magazine has called for joining the “resistance” against Trump.
By every measurable index, that would be a mistake. Europe isn’t a solid entity, and the Eastern European states would rather be under the American nuclear umbrella than ruled by Brussels/Berlin imperium. The difference of interests between the United States and the EU has never been so stark and will only continue to grow.
The simple reason is structural. The EU started as a platform through which the United States can manage the conflicts of Europe, a continent infamous for inter-state rivalries flaring up. It was not a flaw, but the design of the arrangement, which benefitted both European powers that received generous American security subsidies, as well as the United States, which continued erstwhile British imperial grand strategy, ensuring there’s no single hegemon in the Western hemisphere. NATO was an instrument in maintaining that status quo.
The reason independent European military capabilities atrophied was that Europeans knew they could count on American taxpayers to provide security for Europe, the cost of which when tallied with the benefits seems exorbitantly harsh for Washington, D.C. The EU could afford a social security paradise, due to those American subsidies, and the EU started to take on the character of an empire, and commensurate with that started to chart a foreign policy independent of Washington’s approval. And, just like any empire in history, the EU started to suffer from opposing centrifugal forces within, simply because the interests and ideologies of independent nation-states within Europe (especially the Christian, social-conservative East) continue to differ from the attempted continental liberal imperialism of Brussels.
Consider the evidence. The EU has repeatedly taxed and fined American companies like Apple and Google, while blaming the United States for a trade war. Brussels and Berlin continuously rail against American sanctions against Russia, while preening about human rights and Russian interference. There’s a considerable difference between American and European interests in Israel, as evident from the Jerusalem move.
European states joined China’s AIIB and OBOR, despite American misgivings. The EU consistently refused to pay its minimum due share to NATO. Bob Gates, Chuck Hagel, Ash Carter and Tillerson all failed in persuading Western Europe, particularly Germany, to take on a greater security burden in the region. The result was PESCO, which attempts to duplicate the NATO bureaucracy, without any substantial addition to the NATO budget and hardware, thereby infuriating the Pentagon.
In sum: The EU followed what we call in international relations a narrow realist strategy of Buckpassing, while continuing moralist utopian rhetoric.
This presents a paradox. It is understandable that over time, structural realities change, which reflect a difference in strategic interests, and relative power, which in turn, results in differing policy. But there’s a lack of debate in the Washington foreign policy circles, (or for that matter, Washington’s closest foreign policy ally in London) about what should be done about Europe.
If Europe wants American security, it needs to follow American foreign policy direction, but it has been clear lately that neither Brussels nor Berlin is interested in that anymore. On the other hand, if European powers do not want to be treated as vassals, they need to step up their security.
That approach, however, has two problems. The security interest of Eastern European states differs from that of Western European states. And if — against all trendlines — the EU crushes all internal ideological difference and dissent, and turns to a security hegemon with a single coherent foreign and military policy, history might repeat itself.
Every time there’s a hegemony in continental Europe throwing its economic and military weight around, there is some possibility of a conflict of interest with the largest maritime powers in the region. Previously it was the British empire. Now it is the United States of America.
The rift between the EU and the United States over Iran isn’t the whole story, but rather a symptom of a greater, more fundamental shift in geopolitics. The debate over grand strategy needs to urgently reflect that shift.