That the tide of American might is retreating from its outposts is unmistakable. The US military presence in Western Europe, a legacy of the Second World War, melted away after the collapse of the Soviet empire. In the Middle East, the hegemonic role of the US that emerged as a result of the decline of the old European colonial powers is also disappearing. The Obama regime chose to withdraw from Iraq, despite the sacrifice that American soldiers made to topple the Baathist dictatorship, through its refusal to negotiate an appropriate status agreement. Now it is running to the exits in Afghanistan before any modicum of stability has been achieved. In addition, Washington was conspicuous by its absence in ending the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and it remained willfully ignorant of the post-Gaddafi dangers, as seen in the tragic events in Benghazi.
Clearly, the US is not seeking exposure in the broad swath of geography stretching from Morocco to Central Asia. While America was prepared to mobilize against the Soviet enemy in the Cold War, it has little appetite for the messy business of failed states, Islamist radicalism, and terrorist campaigns. In addition, the declining dependence on Middle East oil simply reduces interest in the area altogether—surely a short-sighted calculation since so many of our allies, Europe and Japan, rely on the Saudi fields. Perhaps this retreat just reflects crude political motives: the Obama campaign wanted to point to the withdrawal in order to support its foreign policy narrative in the 2012 election. In that case, a future administration might reverse the decisions: yet this seems unlikely, not only due to budget constraints, but because strategic leadership once surrendered cannot easily be regained.
Can Europe step into the breach? Much speaks against this unlikely prospect. Europe has been investing at only very low levels in its military; it does not have the hardware to project power effectively. Nor will its welfare state budgets allow it to do much better in the future. In addition, Germany maintains a profoundly pacifist predisposition that makes any overseas deployments highly controversial and politically costly. Finally, to make matters worse, the EU requires unanimity among its 27 members in matters of foreign policy: hardly a structure designed for bold decision-making.
Yet it would be a mistake to count Europe out. The dynamic has shifted since the 1990s when the conflagrations in the Balkans, on Europe’s doorstep, required emphatic American leadership. In the meantime, many European countries have contributed to the ISAF forces in Afghanistan, and they would probably not be departing so rapidly had Washington signaled steadfastness in the enterprise. Moreover it was West European powers that took up the cause of Libya, an example of European action without American leadership. The same holds for France’s current involvement in Mali, part of a region where it maintains interests inherited from the colonial era but which is also a potential hinterland for terrorist threats in France itself. The current debate over support for the Syrian rebels is a further example: England and France are far ahead of the US in calling for support for the anti-Assad forces, and they do so despite resistance from the rest of the EU.
England and France, however, are insufficient as a replacement for American power. A potential game-changer could be the inclusion of Turkey in the security calculus, perhaps through NATO (rather than EU) structures. Yet integrating Turkey as a European power raises plenty of cultural and economic issues—the least of which is Cyprus.
Meanwhile much of Europe, especially Germany, remains susceptible to pressure from Russia. It is not just the legacy of the world wars that makes Germany risk-averse in military matters; it is also the sense of a need to avoid antagonizing Moscow. This is part of the explanation for Germany’s refusal to sign on to the Libya campaign. In the Cold War, the name for this was “finlandization,” one more consequence of the Obama administration’s great retreat.
One last variable in the prospects for the American pivot to turn into the hour of the Europe: the potential break-up of the Eurozone would introduce unforeseeable elements of instability. The political and economic structures of Europe are under extraordinary stress already, and matters can get worse. A reluctance to engage in the greater region could result, a European isolationism. In the end, it remains difficult to imagine Europe as a reliable force for security in the absence of a strong American voice.