Back in 1993, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made quite a stir when, responding to a question raised at a press conference about European reservations concerning an invasion of Iraq, he cheekily remarked, “You’re thinking of Europe as Germany and France.... I think that’s old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east.” Nearly ten years later, as Merkel and Sarkozy struggle to save the Eurozone, Rumsfeld’s comments seem the very opposite of prescient. Of course, his remarks were intended mostly as a thumb in the eye of his critics, but nonetheless they also reflected a deeper reality. The United States was taking the unity and democratic character of Europe for granted, and given that, it felt comfortable playing the states of Europe against each other for the sake of short-term gain. Certainly, the Bush Administration never perceived the real possibility of a divided or fragmented Europe. In 2001, President Bush looked into the soul of Vladimir Putin, found him to be “very straightforward and trustworthy” and was surprised six years later when, sometime during the “war on terror,” Russia had become authoritarian. Years of foreign policy neglect, coupled with the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have helped to direct American attention away from Europe. Recent events suggest that this is a mistake. Thus the time has come to state again why Europe matters.
The shape Europe takes in the next twenty years will exert a significant impact on the shape of international political order for the next century. The next century, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has argued in his recent book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (Basic Books, 2012), will bring greater dispersion of global power. China is the obvious illustration of the new distribution of global power, but one should not forget the emergence of India, nor the continuing economic significance of Japan. In South America, Brazil, while not as far along as China and India, has started to exert global influence. And lastly, in Europe but not yet part of Europe, there is Russia. Each of these states hold or will assume important places among the regional and international organizations that regulate international affairs, and as they do so they will bring their own interests and values to the process of defining the international rules and norms that regulate interaction among states.
Whatever complaints one may have about international institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and so on, or with certain developments in international law (and there are grounds for complaint), the truth remains that the currently prevailing international political and legal order reflects the values of representative democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. This is largely the result of American leadership in the last century, aided by a close cultural and political alliance with Western Europe. Although Americans may gripe about Europe and Europeans may gripe about America, these are two siblings who need each other. An integrated, democratic Europe is the best and most natural ally for a United States seeking to represent democratic values in the international order. A fragmented or divided Europe would become internationally insignificant, leaving the United States largely alone in the international effort to represent its values. Thus whether or not the emerging and more pluralistic international order will continue to enshrine and protect the values of liberal democracy and human rights will depend to a great extent on whether the United States and Europe can continue to represent those values effectively in the theater of world affairs.
To consider how this is so, one might try envisioning how different paths for Europe could impact, for example, different paths for Russia. Imagine first a future in which the European Union breaks up and national competition remerges between different states. This emboldens Russia to reassert its historically rooted hegemonic designs on Eastern Europe. Moreover, weakened by internal competition, Europe’s declining significance kindles Russian ambitions to recover its status as a world power. Russia, after all, is a huge country, extending from Europe to the Far East. Meanwhile, in Eurasia, China and India are competing for regional influence, and Russia perceives China’s dominance as a threat to its own interests in the Far East. Russia thus allies itself with India, whose competition with China manifests itself through competing designs to exert influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This in turn concerns the United States, which feels it cannot ignore Chinese and Russian maneuvering in the region. China, worried that it is being encircled by enemies in Eurasia, becomes more assertive in the Far East, intimidating Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia. Once again, the United States feels it must respond, and this is an unstable and unsafe state of world affairs (see Brzezinski, Part 3).
Second, imagine a future in which Europe recovers from its current crises and continues down the path of democratic integration. Russia, faced with a strong and united Europe comes to perceive that its long-term interests will be best achieved not through confrontation, but through cooperation with Europe. Reform elements within Russia continue to push for democratic reforms, and within fifty years Russia has become a member of the European Union. An integrated Europe continues to cooperate with the United States in expanding an international legal and political regime that protects human rights and the ideal of representative government, thereby helping to mitigate conflict in the Far East, Middle East, and Eurasia. Seventy-five years from now, the world is both more stable and more peaceful than today.
Neither of these scenarios is intended to suggest that the shape of world politics in the coming century rests solely on the fortunes of Europe. But to deny that Europe’s fate will have an impact on the emerging international political order would be foolish. A strong, democratic, and integrated Europe will play a significant role in international affairs alongside China, Russia, India, Brazil, and the United States. Europe not only shares fundamental values with the United States, but also, when all is well, the two have the economic and political power to represent their values effectively. An international order without a European player is an international order less friendly to American interests.
But the Europe of today faces significant challenges. Its success or failure in meeting those challenges is of vital interest to the United States. Greece’s economic problems are well known; however, the danger a Greek default represents to European integration is hard to assess. True, economic crises can create political crises, but political integration and shared democratic institutions do not depend in any obvious way on a single currency. Perhaps a more significant challenge to the project of European integration is emerging in the countries of post-communist Europe, where large portions of the population, still waiting to taste the prosperity of the West, suffer from a democratic malaise. The central European country of Hungary, for example, once a democratic star among former communist countries, and still a member of the European Union and NATO, has shocked observers with a sudden and dramatic turn toward authoritarianism. Through a series of unfortunate coinciding events, the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was able to secure a two-thirds majority in the country’s unicameral Parliament, which it has used to rewrite the country’s constitution and other fundamental laws in ways that change the process of election, undermine the independence of the judiciary, and restrict both freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Should Viktor Orbán succeed in refashioning what was once a democratic stalwart into an authoritarian regime, this would represent a significant blow to the project of European integration.
The integration of Europe is not a finished project, and a democratic Europe is not to be taken for granted. Given the importance Europe must play in realizing America’s global democratic vision, US foreign policy needs to redirect its attention to Europe—not in a way that ignores the rest of the world, but in a way that recognizes our deep affinity with and lasting interest in that continent.
H. David Baer is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.