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Bruno Maçães writes POLITICALGeopolitical Union column.
The greatest threat to the West is not European autonomy, but European weakness.
The concept of European strategic autonomy is increasingly presented as a danger to the West as a political community; the idea is that a Europe that does not depend on the United States will walk away from the transatlantic alliance, even as Washington prepares to take on Beijing.
The truth is quite the opposite: the West cannot survive without a strong Europe.
The future of the continent is often reduced to one of two scenarios: In the first, the transatlantic alliance continues to prosper and is able to avoid threats from China and Russia. In the other, the western association withers away, leaving Europe too weak to avoid becoming a Eurasian peninsula, under some sort of control by the eastern giants.
But there is a third, less discussed scenario that is equally dire for Europe, one that former US Secretary of State and old transatlantic fox Henry Kissinger warned of in a prophetic test: What happens if Europe loses its independence not to Moscow or Beijing, but to Washington? In this scenario, the transatlantic community falls apart, but the United States remains in Europe as a kind of foreign power, if only to prevent its great rivals from entering.
Some believe this may already be starting to work. The philosopher and political historian Luuk van Middelaar concluded a recent conference in Paris with the words: “In our relations with America, we may be moving from partner status to vassal status. Trump gave us an early indication of that. “
As Pierre Vimont, First Secretary General of the European External Action Service, told me this week, Europeans used to be able to say no when necessary. However, the lack of investment in defense and the decrease in technological and financial influence have made them reluctant or unable to affect the American calculations. Vimont fears that “the concept of Europe as a vassal is increasingly exposed.”
Indeed, it increasingly appears that America’s stance toward its allies has turned into the exact opposite of what it was before. Asia and Europe have swapped places. During the Cold War, Washington had no qualms about exercising its power in a more naked way when dealing with Japan, Indonesia or the Philippines. It was worth showing some strength to prevent a communist coup in Jakarta or Manila.
Today, it is Europe that looks like a playground, more than a player. As then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear in his visit to Paris last November, the only thing Washington cares about is avoiding the contemporary version of a communist coup: a Chinese takeover of European tech companies. .
In a recent telephone conversation, Richard Grenell, the former US ambassador in Berlin, told me that the United States runs the risk of “allowing Europe to move away from the Western alliance.” Surprisingly, many Americans now think of Europe less as a partner than as a prize.
Several factors explain why Washington no longer feels the need to heed European views or wishes. Justin Vaïsse, director of policy planning at the French Ministry for 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 America’s main rival, Europe is now a long way from the center of the action. On the contrary, Japan and India have gained importance.
Second, as Vimont would point out, Europe has lost both economic and military capacity. If Europe runs the 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 the economic output of the United States. China is already at 70 percent and the gap may completely disappear in less than two decades. The emergence of a rival of peers will result in a less generous and much more mercantilist America.
In her final months in office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has apparently been consumed by this issue of European weakness and seems increasingly committed to turning it into a farewell warning to her fellow leaders. When US President Joe Biden met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, he was quick to argue that Europe needs to speak with its own voice on the issues where its security and prosperity are at stake.
According to a person present at the European Council summit where this was discussed, she sounded unusually excited on the subject. And yet, when he joined French President Emmanuel Macron in supporting a summit between the European Union and Russia, the Franco-German proposal quickly sank into a sea of mutual recriminations among other European leaders.
As several Central and Eastern European diplomats told me, Biden can take on Putin in a position of strength. The European Union would be in a position of weakness.
With this kind of defeatism taking over, the EU should resign itself to its fate of becoming the political and economic dependent of a new American empire. And if it comes down to that, I would join those shy diplomats in electing the American teacher over the available alternatives.
But we must not be under any illusions: that result would not mean the reform of the West; it would mean his death. And like so many in Paris and Berlin, I can’t shake the feeling that Kissinger’s forbidden setting is looming.
In any marriage in crisis, problems begin when the two parts of the couple embark on different life paths. The United States appears to be heading for an exciting new Cold War. Europe may be sinking into a geopolitical twilight.