Albert Einstein allegedly once said that it is the definition of insanity to do the same thing over and over again, and expect different results. Nothing reflects this more than the foreign policy communities in the two Anglosphere capitals in London and Washington, D.C.
The reactions to the speeches and trip of Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Europe signifies a long overdue change in foreign policy orthodoxy, and the meltdown in commentariat circles has been a sight to behold.
Anne Appelbaum, who never finds a single fault with German Chancellor Angela Merkel or the European Union, whiplashed the vice president and “his unsmiling wife,” and critiques the speech’s “undertone of maudlin religiosity—’I also have that faith, in those ancient words, that where the spirit of the Lord is, there’s liberty,’” which was apparently targeted towards Christians back in the United States, because Europeans are clearly over religion. Perhaps she will write another op-ed on the rise of faith-flag-family parties in Central and Eastern Europe someday, when she has a chance, and where this rhetoric from the United States is increasingly appealing and conciliatory.
Likewise, Nicholas Burns wrote in USA Today on how “European leaders at the conference…believe that Trump has broken with former U.S. presidents in treating the EU as a competitor rather than a friend, his negative leadership of the NATO alliance, and his weakness in refusing to stand up to Russia’s assertive president, Vladimir Putin.”
Again, none of that could be further from the truth. Merkel is despised in Germany to such a great degree that she is stepping down. And comparing the Trump administration’s actual record on Russia––including sanctions and arms supply to Ukraine––to Merkel’s open-armed invitation to Russian gas is sheer intellectual dishonesty.
The most cringeworthy of it all was by one Natalie Nougayrede, the former French editor of Le Monde writing in The Guardian, who said that the E.U. and Trump are locked in an ideological battle of existence. Consider this cunning sentence: “Postwar Europe was able to build itself up as a collective project thanks to US protection and financial support. Today the EU is the target of multi-faceted political offensives from both Washington and Moscow, not just because of what it does, but what it is.” Spot how she said Europe in the first and E.U. in the second, in a subtle effort to equate the two.
At the risk of understatement, these arguments are utter nonsense. The causes of America drifting away from a section of Europe are systemic and structural. Put simply, it is predicated on changing relative power across the globe which results in changing national interests. Pence and Pompeo’s speeches are therefore symptoms of the change, not causes of it. The liberal foreign policy establishment is now so vehemently opposed to Trump that they have forgotten the countries in Europe currently opposed to American isolation were also the very same countries that once opposed American overreaction.
Back in 2003, Germany and France were at the forefront of protests against the United States opposing Iraq, and sided with Russia against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Fast forward a few years, and those same countries are arguing for Russian gas in Europe while moaning about American retrenchment. One might wonder if the only thing that will please Western Europeans is Americans silently continuing to carry the security burden of Europe, while being lectured about morality by their overlords in Brussels. Except that would be unsustainable in the long term, as Bob Gates predicted in 2011.
Sarcasm aside, the simple reason why America and the E.U. are falling apart isn’t Trump, Pence, or Pompeo. It’s time.
Increasingly Divergent Interests and Priorities
Europe is not the E.U., but for the last 20 years or so, the fundamental interests between core E.U. states that are drivers of E.U. unification (such as France and Germany) are opposed to the United States and have steadily grown. For starters, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the threat of Russian tanks rushing through the Belgian meadows have decreased, and alongside that, the chances of Western European countries ever paying their fair share within NATO.
As Professor Michael Desch said, for good or for bad, the United States does not have shared interests with a certain set of countries, or even a set of common values, the way it did 50 years back. Time has changed, geopolitics have changed, and with that, the balance of power is also changing. China is a far bigger threat to the United States than Russia is, and with the terrible cost of nation-building in the Middle East, the relative power of the United States is equilibrated with other powers.
But that’s pure geopolitics. There’s another far more important aspect that is barely mentioned, at least in policy circles. The U.S. grand strategy in Europe has been a continuation of the Anglo-American strategy for the last 500 years: to ensure there’s no unified political union that can be a potential hegemon in Europe, and thus pose any future challenge.
But that was predicated in the idea that nation-states of Europe would be free. The E.U. as an institution was there to help cement peace between Germany and France, but the E.U. as a trade/military hegemon was not part of that American calculation.
Of course, the E.U. military is nowhere comparable to that of the United States, regardless of the Franco-German wish for a European army. But the E.U. is already a trade rival, and E.U. and U.S. interests differ with regard to Russia, Iran, and China. None of those is going to go away anytime soon, and the rift could continue to grow.
That, added with the changing geopolitics of the continent, would ensure that an American government would find natural allies in Eastern Europe who are willing to pay their defense share in return for the American nuclear umbrella. Western Europe, on the other hand, would continue to pay for their bloated social services, while buckpassing security to American taxpayers.
Obama’s Approach Versus Trump’s
The leaders of the European Union are currently dominated by social democrats and green parties, which are substantively former internationalist Euro-Marxists from the Cold War days and somewhat instinctively anti-American. That indicates an inevitable clash with any American administration. Under President Obama, a closeted internationalist, there was a subtle systemic effort to tie up the United States under global governance. Obama consistently mentioned the need to voluntarily reduce and constrain unilateralism and American hard power.
Trump and his administration, on the other hand, take an old-fashioned unilateralist and sovereigntist approach. Pompeo’s tour and Pence’s speech both highlighted a “my way or the highway” approach consistent with the fundamental geopolitics of the region. It reflects the balance of power as it currently is. If America provides security for Europe, Europe would need to side with America with regards to other rival great powers like Russia and China. While that might seem like crude conservative realpolitik in a foreign policy establishment dominated by idealists, in Machiavelli’s words, it is far more prudent in politics to be respected and obeyed than loved.
A certain section of establishment liberals lament for days of the glorious early ’90s, a halcyon world order in which norms seemed more important than strength. Unfortunately, as history teaches us since the days of Athens pummeling Melos for siding with Sparta, values and ethics can only mean so much, as long as you have the raw power to back it up, and time always changes everything.
Pence and Pompeo are correct in saying the world has changed and one should look at it as it is instead of how it ought to be. One can only hope the European heads of states, as well as our Anglo-American foreign policy establishment, understand this simple truth––that everything in life consists of a choice which leads to a consequence, and living under an American order or facing China and Russia on one’s own is a perfectly valid scenario.