Barack Obama's election as president has triggered hysterically high hopes at home and abroad. The frenzied reaction of Europeans to his victory belies the tough issues that he, like any incoming president, will have to address. Perhaps the most fanciful idea for transforming the trans-Atlantic relationship is the European desire for an "equal partnership," in the words of Karsten Voigt, in charge of U.S.-German relations at the German Foreign Ministry.
The European Union already is America's economic equal, though the U.S. retains the advantage of being a nation rather than a conglomeration of sovereign states. But Voigt hopes for equality in "foreign and security policy" as well. This perspective reflects the objective of political leaders like French (and current EU) President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made enhancing EU military power a priority. His ambitions only expanded with his diplomatic efforts to end the Russia-Georgia war.
Europe as a great power sounds good in theory. The 27 EU states collectively have the largest economy on earth and a population exceeded only by India and China. Despite obvious differences with the U.S., the Europeans share with America a more liberal political order, a market-oriented, high-tech economy, and a globe-spanning culture. The world geopolitical summit is bound to get more crowded: Russia demonstrated in Georgia that it is not yet ready to yield and China has started its assent. The EU should be joining them.
But in practice the EU is nowhere to be found. Economic power it has, but little political unity. President Sarkozy and others blame the lack of consolidated government on the EU's relative ineffectiveness, and claim that the Lisbon Treaty -- which attempts to create a more effective continent-wide government -- is the answer. Thus the widespread impatience with Irish voters who said no to Lisbon in a referendum last summer. Just make them vote correctly or override their opposition and the EU will be ready to take its place among the world's leading powers, runs the conventional wisdom in Brussels and national capitals across Europe.
However, the Eurocrats who see process as more important than substance have the relationship all wrong. Europe does not lack political cohesion because Lisbon remains un-ratified. Rather, Lisbon has not been ratified because Europe lacks political unity.
The U.S. Constitution was controversial when proposed. While the states did not hold referenda to approve the new form of government, they did call popularly elected conventions to consider the document. The public got to vote and, after great argument, decided yes.
The EU proceeded in the opposite direction. When the European constitution was originally proposed, Danish and French voters rejected it. So the continent's Eurocratic elite dropped a handful of provisions and called the revised document a treaty, allowing it to be ratified by parliamentary rather than popular vote. The agreement's backers recognized that only by preventing the European people from having any say could continental consolidation continue. Although polls indicate that a majority in every EU member would like to vote, and in half of the countries a popular majority would vote no, of the 27 EU members only Ireland scheduled a vote (mandated by the Irish constitution).
Even if the Irish obstacle eventually is overcome -- some Eurocrats advocate tossing Dublin out of the EU if it won't recant -- Lisbon won't turn Europe into a country. If average Europeans won't vote for a more powerful government in Brussels, how could EU leaders claim to represent people opposed to the new government institution? How many Europeans would view the new system as their own? How many would fight for Brussels? America achieved its greatest single episode of government consolidation in the midst of violent conflict, the Civil War, in which more than 600,000 people died. Consolidation occurred as a natural adjunct to nationalism triumphant. Nationalism did not arise from tinkering with the government structure.
However, the fact that the EU remains more an artificial construct than political unity is a secondary issue. Even if there were a United States of Europe akin to the USA, it wouldn't matter. No one in Europe is willing to do what is necessary for the continent to be taken seriously in security affairs.
Europeans are entitled to spend whatever they desire on the military. And there's no obvious reason to spend a lot. Most of Europe faces no a plausible, let alone significant, foreign threat: the likelihood of hostile armored divisions passing under the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or by Big Ben in London is about the same as the War of the Worlds being played out in real life. For the western Europeans, anyway, the welfare state is more real than any geopolitical danger.
The former members of the Warsaw Pact and republics of the Soviet Union which adjoin Russia understandably feel in greater danger, though conquest by Moscow seems far-fetched. For instance, Georgia's irresponsible and impulsive Mikheil Saakashvili invited Russian intervention by attacking South Ossetia. Moscow appears to be more interested in influencing its neighbors than in ruling hostile territories.
However real the threat, Berlin and Paris, especially, have evinced no interest in risking their relations with Russia by standing up for Georgia, and by implication the other eastern Europeans. Great Britain has been tougher on Moscow rhetorically, but seems no more willing to risk much practically. That's its prerogative, but without meaningful military forces capable of constraining Moscow -- and a willingness to use whatever armed services it possesses -- the Russian government will never take it or the EU seriously.
European military forces have engaged in "peacekeeping" activities. Some EU members, such as the Brits and Danes, really are fighting in Afghanistan. The Germans, in contrast, are more noted for their beer consumption than combat activities against the Taliban. A few EU countries contributed to America's effort in Iraq. The Europeans also have garrisoned Bosnia and Kosovo, though their efforts have yielded at best a cold peace without the ethnic reconciliation that was supposed to occur. Indeed, many of the European militaries, which tend towards conscript rather than professional forces, are best suited to essentially non-military tasks.
Until this circumstance changes, European leaders shouldn't flatter themselves that anyone in America, including President-elect Obama, will take them seriously on security issues. The EU wants power without responsibility. It's great if you can arrange it, but why would Washington share decision-making authority with Europe if Europe won't provide an equivalent share of military resources? The EU and individual European countries contribute much on economics. But their opinions on security won't be of much interest so long as they rely on America for their defense and provide few forces to advance Washington's priorities elsewhere.
Barack Obama's presidency will create opportunities as well as challenges for Europe. But the Europeans should have no illusion that even this incoming president is likely to turn security decisions over to countries unwilling to spend the money for or accept the risks of global leadership. There will be no "equal partnership" so long as the burdens are not equally shared.
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