The European Alliance That Never Was

Thursday, January 17, 2019
Image credit: 

The notion of an Atlantic alliance consisting of Europeans and Americans as full partners was once a useful fiction. Today it is a dysfunctional one, an obstacle to all sides’ understanding of what useful cooperation may yet be possible.

Thoughts of Europe’s role in its own military defense against the Soviet Union were incidental to the alliance’s 1949 founding. The European Defense Community, a failed treaty between West Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries brokered by the U.S. between 1950 and 1952 was supposed to have been NATO’s “European pole.” The treaty failed, but the alliance prospered, because of a truth that became ever truer as the years passed, namely: European nations were unwilling to muster serious military forces. Instead, they yearned for the most unequivocal commitment that Americans might muster to respond to any Soviet attack on themselves by massively devastating the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Thus did the alliance’s heyday last, from 1949 to 1961.

In April 1961, when the newly elected Kennedy administration informed the Europeans that massive nuclear response was no longer U.S. policy, the alliance began its unending crises. Thenceforth, the U.S. would help fight a Soviet invasion on the ground, and would require substantial increases in European military forces. Endless arguments about nuclear thresholds and triggers followed, as well as between insufficient European commitments of conventional forces and “uncertain trumpets” on the U.S. side. The 1960s and 70s also saw unseemly and dysfunctional mutual diplomatic leapfrogs with regard to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Ronald Reagan’s Helmut Kohl’s and Margaret Thatcher managed a fruitful though brief exception in their time. But Europe’s foreign policy devolved into back-seat driving America’s. “The Europeans” became one of Washington’s lobbies, before melding with the U.S. ruling class’s left wing.

Europeans and Americans today inhabit political worlds more alien to each other than they have been for more than a century and a half. The Soviet threat’s demise had convinced Europeans, unlike Americans, to imagine dwelling in an endless, beneficent age in which their “soft power” holds sway. While Americans continued to live in the real world of purpose and force, Europeans had slipped into a dream. But dreams do not obviate reality. The internal political cohesion of all of America’ major European allies has collapsed. Their traditional parties are discredited, and their ruling classes are under siege by disaffected populations, especially the young. Their very capacity to marshal people for any common purpose whatever has well-nigh disappeared. Their inability to control their countries’ invasion by people from the Middle East and Africa is not least of the efficient causes of a debility for which no end is in sight.

The common sentiment of American and European elites against their countries’ rebelling voters is the Trans-Atlantic alliance’s principal vestige.

The political, diplomatic, and bureaucratic structures and issues of Euro-American relations are far less relevant for our purposes than who is who in Europe now, and what they mean for us. Germany’s level of military expenditures, Angela Merkel’s vicissitudes, concern us less than the character of the opposition forces that are overshadowing them. What do they portend for Germany’s role vis-à-vis Europe and America? France’s body politic is torn between historic alternatives, as much as it is occupied by the West-wide revolt against the last half century’s ruling class. Spain’s main issues, as always, are centrifugal. Italy’s, as always, are about the scarce compatibility of its North and South. Britain’s muddles may be decided by the rise of England. In today’s Europe, there are no Adenauers, de Gaulles and de Gasperis, and none are being produced. It behooves Americans to get to know what movements and people are rising, and what they mean to us.

To what extent can Europe maintain a European identity in the face of migration? What do Europe’s rising political forces portend for relations with Eastern Europe and Russia? To what extent are they capable of geopolitical engagement? What is their image of the United States, and what are the areas in which they might wish to cooperate with us?

In the past, American discussions concerning Europe have focused on what we might do for them, of for matters that concern them more than they do ourselves. It is past time to consider how, if at all, Europeans might be able and willing to contribute to dealing with problems that are of primary concern to us. For a half century, for example, European governments have subverted America’s interests in Cuba as well as elsewhere in Latin America. Might they reverse course? Might they coordinate policy toward China?

The problems of the several “Atlantic crises” are extraneous to the present and future problems toward which we must direct our attention now.

Get the new issue of Strategika

What will China look like as an economic and political superpower after the coronavirus pandemic—and what does it mean for the future of America? The new issue of Hoover Institution's Strategika provides important insight into these questions. Get your free copy now.

Get your free copy now »