What does the reelection of Barack Obama mean for Europe? Besides continuity, will there be more intransigence on certain issues or, on the contrary, will there be a bit more attention to the sensibilities of his allies? These are the kinds of questions with which European leaders continue to harass both their advisers and all those who agree to be invited by them in Washington DC.
Beyond a few constants that we will discuss here progressing from more anecdotal to fundamental, the answer proposed is that for once yes: change, there will be. But this mutation announced in transatlantic relations has nothing to do with Obama’s reelection to the presidency of the United States, or with the financial and economic crisis, and not even with the great geopolitical reconfigurations under way that Europe just contemplates while remaining ostensibly blind and deaf. It comes from Europeans themselves, namely from their pathological refusal to assume their own interests instead of seeing America as their principal, if not unique, reference.
(Credit photo: ABC News)
As each and every time, for more than twenty years, right after the announcement of US election results, European leaders engage in their favorite sport, a sort of beauty contest, as grotesque as it is unworthy, to know who is going to overtake whom in pledging allegiance to the new President of the United States. And this regardless of the person of the newly elected President or of whether it is a first or second term. Thus, in February 2005, it was a recently re-elected George W. Bush, on visit in Europe, that they rushed to greet so eagerly that Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, then President of the European Council, could not prevent an ironic remark at the spectacle of the general jostle: "If ridicule could kill, Brussels would be littered with corpses."
As each and every time, for more than twenty years, European leaders will return from these meetings-audiences with the same talking points. According to which they were surprised to discover how America is now much more ready, and even more impatient to see its allies become more independent and more "capable". To further emphasize this point, they do not hesitate to admit that in the past, there could have been some reluctance, even hostility in this area from their part. One problem though: in the past that they refer to as a counterpoint, they were serving us exactly the same language. With the exact same arguments, reflecting the exact same confusion. Highlighting the limits of the U.S. budget (due first to the "peace dividends," then to war spending, then to the financial crisis), as well as their overall responsibilities to stress that America would finally need a partner rather than a "vassal". It is true that the United States continue to call on Europeans to better take charge - but in their vocabulary, it is to improve the capabilities (preferably made in USA) of those who are intended to act either as auxiliaries or as subcontractors in crisis situations from which they prefer stay afar. If America no longer cares so much whether it is in NATO or the EU that Europeans become more "capable", this is partly because the defence policy of the Union is being diluted to the point where it means no competition to the Alliance at all. And partly because in the key areas American control is just as complete as ever before.
As each and every time, for more than twenty years, the U.S. encouragement for Europeans’ greater "independence remains firmly framed by two reserved domains that Americans consider, not without reason, as being of paramount importance. Namely armaments and the chain of command. As to the latter, within the Alliance, everything works like magic. There are two parallel chains of command, one labeled NATO, another all-American, headed by the double-hatted commander who is both SACEUR (Supreme Allied leader) and commander of EUCOM (head of U.S. forces on our continent). In any case, even in the NATO chain non-US senior officers are merely background actors. As was noted by former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, "the nationality of the general who transmits U.S. orders does not matter a lot." Attached to this unchallenged control, America continues to viscerally oppose any idea of a European "caucus" within the Alliance (from which, in the present state of things, it would have nothing to fear though). At the same time, it traditionally blocks the creation of a genuine EU military headquarters. Again, nothing to worry about any more: the current plans would lead to something that looks more like an NGO’s seat than a military Command and Control Center. In the armaments field, the United States remains firmly opposed to any EU regulation similar to what they are implementing themselves in order to maintain their technological and industrial base. Add to this a few projects (such as the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft or ballistic missile defense) that serve a double purpose: juicy contracts for U.S. manufacturers and depleting of European budgets – through which we could, in principle, support programs more consistent with our own interests.
Unlike over the past twenty years, the king is now not only naked, but in front of him all folding screens have disappeared. With defence budgets on a free fall in European countries, it is clear that initiatives such as Pooling and Sharing (EU) or Smart Defense (NATO) show only one thing: for the majority of governments any alibi is good to take so that to cut a little more in defence spending. The absurd mantra of "doing more with less", even if it means loss of sovereignty, is not only a derisory mask for what is, in the minds of most Europeans, a pooling of their capability deficiencies. It is also indicative of the same short-term accountant’s vision than the one that makes European leaders want to believe - and want their public opinion believe – in a hypothetical American “umbrella”. No matter that it has never been credible (for this, all potential adversaries should have been convinced that America would risk his own destruction just to run to the rescue of its allies). The key for European governments is to get rid of the financial, but also political and psychological, burden that comes with the responsibility of the defence of their own country. As long as Europe was a central theater (because of the bipolar confrontation) or as long as, though it was not any more, this was not said aloud, one could, ultimately, nurse illusions about the importance of our old continent on the list of priorities of the Pentagon/White House. This is no longer the case. The pivot towards Asia, announced last January, acted as the very last blow. The voluntary subordination of Europeans to the United States appears now as it is: in the words of the Chinese ambassador to Brussels, "a pathetic servility."
Unlike over the past twenty years, Americans can now relax and display an attitude of "openness". In fact, the so-called common security and defence policy of the European Union (CSDP), originally designed to liberate Europe from NATO’s tutelage (much to the indignation of Washington circles), is currently turning into its own caricature. The project that, due to its potential, caused a wave of panic, pressure and blackmail at the time, now tends rather to confirm the skeptics who used to say: “Well, it will be there to help cats out of trees”. The choice of NATO-isation of its staff and its standards, the civilianization of its institution and the unraveling of its ambitions reflect the reserves, not to say blockages, among the EU’s 27 governments (26 in fact, since Denmark has an opt out from CSDP). Certainly, the former Defence Minister of Bulgaria struck by his candor when, talking about the financial crisis, he said he considered it as an opportunity to stop telling ourselves fairytales on European defence ("to cut the crap on CSDP” to quote him accurately), and instead put all our eggs in the NATO basket. But this does not mean that others think otherwise. In fact, even expert-analysts known as "Europeanists" begin to change their tune, and advocate a sort of fusion between CSDP and NATO, as something they believe would help to resolve the deadlock.
Unlike over the past twenty years, the old-new American administration no longer has exactly the same reasons as before to keep their control over what one of the most iconic U.S. advisors-stretegists, Zbigniew Brzezinski, called their "protectorate". In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was about keeping in check a rising power that, once emancipated, could overshadow their global supremacy. As Brzezinski wrote: “a militarily emergent Europe could become a formidable rival to America. It would inevitably pose a challenge to America’s hegemony. A politically powerful Europe, able to compete economically while militarily no longer dependent on the United States would inevitably contest American preeminence, and could confine the scope of U.S. preeminence largely to the Pacific Ocean.” Alas, this is no longer the issue. With Europe choosing to lock itself into the (institutional, material, psychological) matrixes of dependence and powerlessness, and in view of the predictable activism of new power centers, America is now rather interested in preventing that its protectorate become one day the protectorate of a rival ...
At the root of this spectacular downgrading, we find a curious mixture, cultivated by Europeans, between alignment on Washington’s decisions and guilty resignation disguised as good intentions. On the one hand, before taking position on particular topics, European countries first look to America with what former European Commissioner Chris Patten called their "Pavlovian reflex". On the other hand, immersed in their dreams of the world being about charity, market, multilateralism, naïve pacifism, rejection of power and so-called international community, they make virtue out of their abdication and profess their suicidal vision as a religion. Much to the delight of all their potential rivals. Who can note, albeit with astonishment, but with no less joy, that Europe is lagging terribly in the current reshaping of the worldwide chessboard.