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Finis Europa

In light of European weakness, the question is clear: Would the Americans risk their status as a great power in a war against Russia?
European Flag at Jubel Park

It’s too early to comment on the tactical situation in Ukraine. The experience of Iraq, Libya, and Syria has brought a keen awareness of the fog of psychological operations in wartime. For now, it should suffice to say there are two different 21st centuries awaiting, depending on whether Putin succeeds there. But while the success or failure of Russia’s intervention remains uncertain, Ukraine has been apocalyptic for European power, unveiling its absence.

Who could forget Germany’s awkward maneuvers, first sending helmets and later dysfunctional missiles to Ukraine? Who could forget France’s minister of the economy, Bruno Le Maire, promising “total economic and financial warfare” against Russia only to backpedal shortly after?  The skittish European dance between the U.S. and Russia demonstrates how little has changed about Europe’s status since the Cold War ended, and how illusory the period of Euro-optimism of the mid-2000s was, which forecast the E.U. “running the 21st century.”

Ever since those days, Europe’s shares have declined. Quite literally: The Global Financial Crisis temporarily reduced the EU’s production levels to those of the 1990s, while European firms dropped entirely off the list of the world’s top ten companies in any industry by market capitalization.

At the same time, China has emerged as Europe’s industrial competitor with cheaper products ever more closely matching European quality. Germany is saving itself in a niche of investment goods, while France, which is producing nothing much really anymore, is trading in its remnants of global political and military power.

But were does Europe’s weakness stem from? The continent has arguably accrued a strategic debt for more than half a century. Its shortcomings are both technological and military. This has been apparent since at least 1967, when French journalist and politician Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber warned of a “technology gap” between Europe and the United States in his widely read book, The American Challenge. European states have not been able to alleviate this gap to this day. They failed to meaningfully build common strategic projects that could have enabled the scale of necessary investments to challenge technological powerhouses like America’s DARPA, a source of considerable envy.

The reasons for this failure include European states’ infamous national egotisms and the reluctance of Europe’s national champions to share their top technologies. Successful cooperations like the French-German Airbus remain an exception, and French-German high technology projects like the undercapitalized search engine Quaero—conceived between German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French President Jacques Chirac in 2005—have failed spectacularly. To this day, there is a marked absence of European digital giants of the likes of the U.S. GAMA or the Chinese BATX. At the same time, Europe continues to be sorely deficient in technologies like semiconductors and artificial intelligence.

Even in Europe’s traditional sectors of strength, like industrials and automotives, things are not looking much better. Despite having announced a pursuit of European “strategic autonomy” since 2016, the E.U. continues appears to sabotage its chance for an economic revival. In 2019, the European Commission blocked the merger between French industrial giant Alstom and its German counterpart Siemens. While advocates for a merger insisted on the necessity of creating internationally competitive megacorporations to rival those in the U.S. and China, the E.C. prevailed with its stance that a merger was problematic from an antitrust standpoint, fueling worries that the commission is not actually working for the best long-term interest of Europeans.

The second pillar of Europe’s strategic debt is its incapacity to weigh in militarily on the international scene. What commentators have called a “geopoliticization” of trade of the 2010s—a turn towards “strategic capitalism”—has gradually disenfranchised the continent. Europeans had to look on as their companies were punished by U.S. secondary sanctions against Iran in 2018. On the same day as Trump unilaterally ended the so-called P5+1 agreements from 2015, the U.S. ambassador to Germany urged German countries to immediately leave Iran, a promising emerging market, along with their investments, all despite Teheran having remained fully compliant with the terms. Furthermore, the energy division of Alstom, a remnant of France’s former core industrial complex CGE, smashed up and privatized in the 1987, was sold to the Americans after they pressured it into compliance by jailing one of its senior officials in an application of extraterritorial U.S. legislation. At the time, the takeover was getting its final green light by a young and promising minister of the economy named Emmanuel Macron.

The two incidents above proved to Europeans that Washington was willing to use its military and economic muscle to treat Europeans with contempt, and that ultimately there was nothing Europeans could do to retaliate. The alternative of Europe “going it alone” looks illusory whenever questions of security—such as Ukraine—come to the fore. It is another age-old problem. After all, Europe has been under NATO military command since the founding of the alliance in 1949. While NATO’s civil administration has been run by Europeans, its military command represented by the SACEUR, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe stationed in Belgium, has always been an American. Effective command of NATO therefore continues to lie with the Pentagon. Only France under De Gaulle temporarily withdrew from NATO command structures in 1966 but reintegrated in 2008 under French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a family relation of Frank Wisner II, the son of a founding CIA director of planning, a matter which has caused some controversy in France. Under such conditions it is questionable whether the E.U. can even be said to enjoy full sovereignty.

More recently, E.U. states, shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have announced significant increases to their military budgets falling in line with increasing talk of a “geopolitical” E.U. commission announced by E.C. head Ursula von der Leyen as well as “European Strategic Autonomy,” a favorite talking point of Emmanuel Macron. Meanwhile, the question whispered in European capitals is whether the change of mind does not come decisively too late. In 2022, how credible is the NATO guarantee of collective (meaning, above all, U.S.-led) defense enshrined in the alliance’s Article 5? After all, the U.S. commitment to European defense has always been less than automatic. Historian Beatrice Heuser has pointed out that Americans, when signing the treaty, had been sure to weaken the formulations by amending phrases like “such actions as it deems necessary,” so as not to abridge the sovereignty of U.S. Congress. This could mean that fulfilling Article 5 obligations formally equates to sending a letter of protest.

Throughout the Cold War, Western Europe was thus always concerned that an attack against it might not have provoked a full U.S. response, and thus about the effectiveness of U.S. deterrence. In fact, the U.S.’s “flexible response” military strategies of escalation aimed at preventing a direct nuclear exchange between the superpowers above all. Yet, while U.S. retaliation to protect Western Europe had never been a certainty, today the situation may even look worse: European land armies that felt certain of the end of military conflicts with Russia after the end of the Warsaw Pact are in terrible shape, with almost all of the last decades’ budgets spent on expedition corps capability for the E.U.’s “peacekeeping” missions abroad. A German former NATO general recently said straight out that Germany’s Bundeswehr is simply incapable of defending itself against Russia. The French military does not fare much better: According to a recent parliamentary report, France would run out of missiles after two days in a full-scale land war against Russia. Additionally, with Brexit, the U.K.—Europe’s second military and nuclear power—has left the E.U., a move that also casts doubt as to the seriousness of its NATO commitments in the case of a war.

In light of European weakness, the pressing question is clear: Would the Americans—faced with a Russian invasion of Western Europe—risk their status as a great power in a possibly devastating war against Russia and thus leave history to emerging powers like China and India? After all, in a classic realist calculation, a Russian move westwards may be enough to neutralize both Russia and the European powers for decades to come, thereby weakening both, and thus ending the heartland menace that has dominated geopolitical consciousness from Mackinder to Brzezinski as the main threat to Anglo-American sea power. After all, the U.S. has “pivoted” to Asia since the second Obama administration, demonstrating the declining importance of the European question for Americans. Similarly, while former U.S. strategic elites like Henry Kissinger may have still exposed a certain nostalgia for the old continent, such Europhilia is increasingly questionable in current U.S. decision makers such as Victoria Nuland, who appear rather contemptuous of that other historical pillar of the West.

For Europe, the question is increasingly existential: Can the continent turn things around in time and take its autonomy seriously, and can it do so without drawing the ire of the Americans in addition to that of the Russians? Despite the unity of Europe’s response to Ukraine, the prospect is more doubtful than ever given the multitude of positions and sensibilities on the continent. There are the Nordic States insisting on spending limits, seemingly incapable of a strategic vision that will not lead to their vassalization by non-European powers. There are the rabidly anti-Russian states such as Poland and the Baltics, which prevent any rapprochement with Russia despite the open hand which had been extended by Vladimir Putin ever since he took office. There is Germany, incapable of leadership and statecraft with its “re-educated” elites perpetually traumatized and domesticated by the defeat in the Second World War. Finally, there is France, perhaps closest to pursuing a strategic vision, yet constrained by its overblown ambitions that contrast sharply with the mediocrity of its elites.

All those political and sociological divisions prevent bolder moves towards closer unification, which can be the only possible European response to its challenges today. In return, a break-up of the E.U. amidst neo-nationalist tendencies, while perhaps desirable on the cultural front, would constitute strategic suicide for the continental powers. Already, Chinese, Americans, and Russians are known for refusing to speak to E.U. representatives—preferring bilateral agreements with European states to divide the continent against itself. Nationalists like Eric Zemmour have yet to formulate a reasonable strategy in response to this predicament. The answer may reside in a genuine European multiculturalism that seeks closer economic and military cooperation and transfers of sovereignty, while maintaining and emphasizing the common fate yet cultural uniqueness of European nations.

Nicolas Hausdorf is a German writer living in Melbourne, Victoria. He is the author of the psychogeography Superstructural Berlin.

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