The concept of European strategic autonomy is increasingly presented as a danger to the West as a political community — the idea being that a Europe that is not dependent on the United States will spiral away from the transatlantic alliance, even as Washington prepares to confront Beijing.
The truth is just the opposite: The West cannot survive without a strong Europe.
The Continent’s future is frequently reduced to one of two scenarios: In the first, the transatlantic alliance continues to thrive and is able to stave off the threats from China and Russia. In the other, the Western partnership withers, leaving Europe too weak to avoid becoming a peninsula of Eurasia, under some form of control from the giants to the east.
But there’s a third, less discussed scenario that’s equally dire for Europe — one that former U.S. Secretary of State and old transatlantic fox Henry Kissinger warned of in a prescient essay: What if Europe loses its independence not to Moscow or Beijing, but to Washington? In this scenario, the transatlantic community falls apart, but the U.S. remains in Europe as a sort of foreign power, if only to prevent its great rivals from moving in.
Some believe this may already be starting to play out. The political philosopher and historian Luuk van Middelaar concluded a recent lecture in Paris with the words: “In our relations with America, we may be moving from the status of partners to that of vassals. Trump gave us an early inkling of that.”
As Pierre Vimont, the first secretary general of the European External Action Service, put it to me this week, Europeans used to be able to say no when necessary. Lack of defense investment and diminished technological and financial clout, however, have made them reluctant or unable to affect American calculations. Vimont fears “the concept of Europe as a vassal is more and more in the open.”
Indeed, it increasingly looks as if the U.S.’s stance toward its allies has become the exact reverse of what it once was. Asia and Europe have swapped places. During the Cold War, Washington wasn’t shy about exercising its power in a more naked fashion when dealing with Japan, Indonesia or the Philippines. It was worth flexing some muscle if it would prevent a Communist coup in Jakarta or Manila.
Today, it’s Europe that looks like a playground, rather than a player. As then U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear in his visit to Paris last November, all Washington cares about is preventing the contemporary version of a Communist coup: a Chinese takeover of European tech companies.
In a recent phone conversation, Richard Grenell, the former American ambassador to Berlin, told me that the U.S. is at risk of “allowing Europe to move away from the Western alliance.” Remarkably, many Americans now think of Europe less as a partner than as a prize.
A number of factors explain why Washington no longer feels it needs to pay attention to European opinions or desires. Justin Vaïsse, director of policy planning at the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs at the time, reminded me that these factors were already visible in 2013 with Barack Obama.
First, as China replaced Russia as the main rival to the United States, Europe is now far removed from the center of the action. By contrast, Japan and India have gained in importance.
Second, as Vimont would point out, Europe has lost both economic and military capacities. If Europe is at risk of being taken over by Russia or China, who is in a position to stop them? Not the Europeans.
Third, Washington feels more vulnerable today than it did during the Cold War. The Soviet Union never exceeded 40 percent of America’s economic output. China is already at 70 percent, and the gap may disappear altogether in less than two decades. The appearance of a peer rival will result in a less generous and much more mercantilist America.
In her last months in office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been seemingly consumed by this question of European weakness and seems increasingly committed to making it a farewell warning to her fellow leaders. When U.S. President Joe Biden met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, she rushed to argue that Europe needs to speak in its own voice on questions where its security and prosperity are at stake.
According to one person present at the European Council summit where this was discussed, she sounded unusually emotional on the issue. And yet, when she joined French President Emmanuel Macron in supporting a summit between the European Union and Russia, the Franco-German proposal quickly floundered in a sea of mutual recrimination between other European leaders.
As a number of Central and Eastern European diplomats put it to me, Biden can meet Putin in a position of strength. The European Union would be in a position of weakness.
With this type of defeatism taking over, the EU should just resign itself to its fate of becoming the political and economic dependent of a new American empire. And if it came down to that, I would join those timorous diplomats in choosing the American master over the available alternatives.
But we should have no illusions: That outcome wouldn’t mean the reforging of the West; it would mean its death. And like many in Paris and Berlin, I cannot shake off the feeling that Kissinger’s forbidden scenario is looming.
In any marriage in crisis, the problems start when the two parts of the couple embark on different life paths. The U.S. seems headed toward a new, exciting Cold War. Europe may be slouching off into a geopolitical sunset.
Content created by Bruno Maçães
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