The E.U.’s New Power Couple
The U.S. can advance its interests in Europe by fostering Franco-Polish entente over Germany.
Since World War II, the United States has had a bipartisan policy toward Europe. That policy is based on an imagined trade-off: In return for defending the continent via NATO’s Article V protections, the U.S. gets to act as though Europe—both individual nations and the European Union as a whole—is a vassal state and does more or less whatever America wants.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that this conception is a fantasy. The reality is that the E.U. mouths support for the U.S. for American defense guarantees while, at the same time, cozying up with America’s rivals, whether Russian or Chinese.
Rather than recognize how outrageous this situation is, successive American presidents have, mostly, refused to demand more from those who demand so much of us. When Europeans have discussed going their own way on defense, they have faced criticism—including from none other than Donald Trump, who suggested that European countries should pay their share of the NATO defense budget before pursuing their own projects.
Both the Trump and Biden Administrations have been maddeningly unclear on America’s policy toward China, waffling on whether or not China is a serious enemy or just a friend to “out-compete.” Why would the E.U. risk economic storms to break up with a country that America couldn’t even say was an enemy—while knowing that there was no way America would ever abandon them?
America’s policy for Europe may have worked in the midst of the Cold War, but it is delusional to think that it would work in the 21st century, when the primary threat is on the other side of Eurasia—and both parties have continued on with the delusion. Fortunately, with elements of foreign policy realism being embraced by both GOP frontrunners, there now exists a chance for conservatives to find a new way forward.
During the Cold War, American policy was straightforward regarding Europe: keep it free of governmental anti-Americanism. The practical upshot of this goal was keeping the Russians out and the Germans down. The Europeans were happy to add “…and the Americans in” to that formulation, and voila: the rationale for NATO came into existence.
Now there is no ideology that can convert Europe into an anti-American satellite—and there are easier (and cheaper) ways to keep Europe free of anti-Americanism than what we're doing now. America can do this by taking advantage of the European fault-lines, centuries old, which have re-opened after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Over the course of the invasion, an old quasi-alliance has quietly returned: that of France and Poland. This friendship has appeared off and on throughout history; Napoleon resurrected a Polish state, and during the 1930s and World War II the two nations were closely aligned. It is driven, as are all international relations, by power politics. France has long aspired to have political control over Europe and gain supremacy over Germany; Poland aspires to keep existing despite the historic threats of Germany and Russia. The latest iteration, though less obvious than in the past (due partially to Poland’s semi-pariah status in the E.U. as a result of its conservatism), has seen France and Poland unofficially team up to embarrass Germany into sending tanks to Ukraine.
Post-war America has traditionally supported Germany over France. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel—whose terrible foreign policy incumbent Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been unlucky enough to inherit, though he has not made his own job any easier with his inconsistent stance—was close with both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. From the perspective of keeping the E.U. as a vassal, this made sense on paper: Despite its enormous economic power, post-war Germany clearly telegraphed that it had no desire to march across Europe once again and was generally well-liked by the rest of the continent. By supporting the power that had no desire to turn the E.U. into something more, America kept Europe down and docile.
Things have changed. Germany’s position in post-war Europe has never been weaker. Scholz’s polling numbers among the German public are poor, and, with regard to the wider E.U., Germany’s waffling on the Russo-Ukrainian War has pleased no one and aggravated everyone. This is France and Poland’s moment to strike while the iron is hot.
It is also the prime moment for America to change horses. Germany is not doing whatever America wants, nor are they really staying down. Just years ago, they declared it “unacceptable” for America to consider moving its own troops—troops that were defending them from Russia, a country they were happy to do deals with over American protests. They also recently announced stronger economic ties with China and affirmed no decoupling would take place. (When France balks at decoupling from China, it at least lacks hypocrisy—the nation has been ambivalent or hostile to American defense since de Gaulle.) In short, Germany is unpopular, weak, and uncooperative.
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What would revamping America’s policy toward Europe look like? One possibility is fostering the France-Poland alignment within a stronger E.U. framework. America’s instinctual hatred of any form of an independent E.U. military force should be jettisoned; we should instead embrace the concept. A pan-European army might be a long way off, but with France and Poland pushing the E.U. to take care of itself—and Poland clearly desiring a strong military of its own—we should allow them to plant the seeds. This does our work for us at a fraction of the cost and commitment. A more militarized Franco-Polish-led E.U. means a more centralized E.U. The more centralized the E.U., the less China’s influence over single states will matter.
If America were to support this shift, it would bolster its popularity across eastern Europe; former Soviet-orbit states would jump at the chance to join a serious continental army, which would allow them to defend themselves independent of great-power neighbors. The E.U. has about 400 million people, nuclear weapons, and a GDP close to that of the U.S.; there is no reason why a militarized E.U. could not handle Russia without the U.S. American support for a robust, independent E.U. bloc means such an alliance would never be definitively pro-China, keeping anti-Americanism out of that end of Eurasia and allowing the U.S. to move its strategic focus to the Pacific.
This would be a dramatic reconception of American foreign policy. The lack of “war for democracy”-style arguments may bother the remaining neoconservatives, and a lack of total withdrawal from NATO may bother some paleoconservatives. But realignment demands new thinking. Readjusting our policy toward Europe, with an eye to France and Poland, would be a start.