An old Jew comes to a bookstore and asks for a globe. After intensely peering at various spots on its surface, turning it around and back, studying it from close by and from afar, he finally asks the assistant: “Would you have another globe?”
Richard Haass has been an astute observer of geopolitics for decades. His condemnation of Europe to the garbage heap of history in a recent Financial Times op-ed piece (“Goodbye to Europe as a high-ranking power”) is therefore not to be taken lightly. In fact, some of the points he makes, painful as they might be, are difficult to rebut. It is an objective fact that if the current trends continue Europe will represent an ever-diminishing part of the global population and of the global economy. (It is not necessarily because the population or the economy of Europe would be shrinking but because other populations and other economies would be growing faster.)
Europe finds itself in a tough spot at the moment, shaken by the winds of the global financial crisis and stunned by the long suspected but rarely talked about imbalances between and within the economies of the member countries of the euro zone. European defense spending has also declined in both relative and absolute terms — and what little expenditure remains has not always been very rational from a continental perspective, with wasteful overlaps on the one hand, and gaping holes on the other. Some Europeans think that the root of the problem is the lack of real European governance, while others believe that it’s a lack of realism about the project itself. Be that as it may, the expectations of the EU emerging as a heavyweight in the international affairs of the 21st century have failed to materialize so far.
It is good to be reminded of our shortcomings by friends. It is also good to be reminded that Europe has international obligations. But it is hard not to notice a hint of a Schadenfreude in Haass’s concluding observation that “Even before it began, Europe’s moment as a major world power in the 21st century looks to be over.” For an American realist, to dance on Europe’s grave would not only seem tactless but also quite shortsighted. Before he is through with NATO and the Atlantic partnership, he might do well to consider what is going to replace them. It is all very well to talk of coalitions of the willing as the future modus operandi of US foreign policy, but for all NATO’s failings it is hard to think of an alternative coalition for the war in Afghanistan. It may have taken too much time to convince the Europeans of the need for effective sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, but it is hardly more fun to try to persuade the Chinese, the Russians, or the Brazilians. In fact, sometimes the convincing itself seems to lack conviction.
If the idealists are sometimes short on common sense, the realists are often short on imagination. The current state of the Atlantic relationship may leave something to be desired but it is arguably more solid and friendly than in the years just prior to World War II. The current state of affairs only appears deeply unsatisfactory when compared to the golden standard of the Atlantic bond in the Cold War era. It is against that standard that Americans are right in thinking they could use a little more European support when facing some very tough challenges of the present, and it is against the same standard that Europeans are right in thinking they could use a little more of the American leadership. At the moment we can probably still afford to feign indifference to each other. The deep common foundations of free individuals, free markets and free thought will only stand out in their clear outline when threatened. We may wax nostalgic about them when they are not. But we will be hard put to find them on another globe when they are.