The Coming Erosion of Europe?
Adjunct Professor and Senior Fellow, International Security Program; Director, Project on U.S.-China Relations, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
My esteemed colleague Stephen Walt has consigned the European Union to the trash heap of history and asserted that the US should no longer take it seriously. Europe is in decline; NATO is in decline. The United States should focus on Asia or go it alone.
As a proponent of the Balance of Power—where he has made fundamental contributions — Walt has overlooked the very essence of the problem. Asia is rising, the West, apparently declining, and the question is what to do about it. Europe is critical in these calculations.
England faced a similar question in 1897. At the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Britain relished that it had just acquired another 2,600 miles of imperial territory from Cairo to Mombasa. After the Boer War, its territory stretched all the way from the Cape to Cairo. Today the United States stands astride Mesopotamia and the Afghan nexus between Russia and India. The worldwide breadth of US bases replicates British coaling stations and imperial connections of the 19th century.
Yet, each power’s “splendid isolation” was crumbling. The British needed a continental ally to reduce their imperial exposure and turned to France. Today, the US needs a whole continent as a counterbalance to the rising East led by China. Direct approaches to China will not suffice. Vice President Biden’s entourage was hustled out of the meeting with Xi Jinping this week, and Georgetown’s basketball team got into a fight with a Chinese team. The matches were then cancelled. No other Eastern power will stand up to China.
The European Union, however, is the strongest economic unit on earth with a GDP larger than that of the United States. It houses among the most important technological industries and its exports dwarf those of America. Walt rightly complains that its common currency, the Euro, does not have common political institutions to back it up. But neither did American institutions in the early days of the continental and then dollar. A little perspective would demonstrate that common currencies provide for a very large area of unhindered growth and that they increase investment over a wide free trading area. That area should be extended with the construction of an Atlantic-wide free-trading network, as recommended by Angela Merkel several years ago.
Today, economics largely determines politics. The economies-of-scale industries which determine the fate of economic development for the world as a whole reside largely in the West, Europe and the United States. China does not yet have one such industry, consigned as it is to perform the nether operations-links of the production chain for Western and Japanese companies. Further, Europe is continually adding strength by laterally expanding into what was once the Eastern Bloc and the old Soviet empire. It will soon add seven more states to its existing 27. This lateral power is a huge offset to the vertical power of a rising China. Not only this, the leading governments in Europe are all pro-American. Financial integration has proceeded as American banks help out their European colleagues and invest in Greek and Spanish bonds.
Looking at Europe today, Walt sees a sclerotic and blocked Europe of 1965 when General de Gaulle governed the pace of integration. After 1968, integration began again and it will spurt ahead once more, following the financial crisis. As Chinese GDP rises above American, for good Balance of Power reasons theUSA needs to be associated with this Europe. It is the only bulwark against the growing Sinification of world politics. Once Europe is on board, then, from a position of strength, the United States can approach Beijing.