Europe is in crisis. Once more, America will have to step in to save us
In 1947 George Marshall, the US secretary of state, went to . He was shocked by what he saw: a continent in ruins, and rampant hunger. The mood in Paris, Berlin and other capitals was resigned and doom-laden. On returning to Washington, Marshall told President Truman that something dramatic needed to be done – and very soon. The initiative would have to come from Washington, he said.
On 5 June, in a speech to students at Harvard, Marshall announced his . It became, in the words of the British politician Ernest Bevin, “a lifeline to sinking men”. The not only helped Europe back on its feet, it laid the groundwork for the cooperation that ultimately led to the creation of the , the European Union’s predecessor.
In this week Joe Biden, the US vice-president, may well have had a shock similar to Marshall’s. Of course today’s gloom in Europe is not comparable to the devastation left by the second world war – but alarmist language is being heard all the same. Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, has spoken of a risk of European “dislocation”. “Europe has forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic,” . Joachim Gauck, the German president, also used the word “tragic” when describing Europe’s difficulties over the refugee crisis.
Europe today is in such a shambles that it is not absurd to ask whether the US should again do something about it, or whether the old continent even matters to American strategic interests any more. The answer to both questions should be a resounding “yes”.
It is obviously unrealistic to think the US is likely to repeat the kind of assistance it deployed in 1947. But the US urgently needs to seriously re-engage on European matters. Failing that, it risks seeing the European project unravel, with more disorder pouring into and across the continent and, ultimately, the loss of key allies.
Europe is currently struggling with the danger of and major security threats (which include terrorism, and Russian aggression), as well as the political fallout of the refugee crisis. It’s not that US action in itself would miraculously solve all these problems, but its aloofness has arguably contributed to making them worse.
On three key European issues America needs to speak out more and act more – and soon. First, Barack Obama needs to make it plain that a British departure from the EU would not only risk breaking Europe altogether, but would spell the end of anything that still smacks of the “special relationship” between the US and Britain. Some American officials say it in private, but unfortunately not in public: Britain must remain a member of the EU if it is to retain any significant interest for the US, and the international stage at large.
Second, the US needs to show more commitment to Europe’s security. Some things have been since in Europe; but more US political leverage is needed if a common European defence policy is to become fact. It is not enough to state, as Washington often has, that Europeans need to “share the burden” of collective security.
Third, the US cannot continue to treat the refugee crisis destabilising Europe as if it were a far-flung problem that doesn’t affect its direct interests. Around 4.5 million refugees have fled the Syrian civil war. .
There are many reasons why the Obama era has been perceived as one of American indifference to Europe – and not just the fact that a in 2009. US priorities have simply been placed elsewhere: Asia and the Pacific have loomed large on Obama’s radar, not Europe and the Atlantic. But the decade where Europeans seemed more or less capable of taking care of themselves has drawn to a close.
Now what we have are European solitudes: the solitude of inward-looking Britain, stuck in a renegotiation with Brussels that no one will be happy with; the solitude of economically weak France, struggling to build the kind of European anti-jihadi coalition it hoped for after the terror attacks of 2015; and the solitude of Germany, whose calls for solidarity in the face of mass migration have been mostly unanswered.
Of course, Europe’s predicament must be blamed first and foremost on its own failings – not on the US. But by privileging bilateral relations in recent years, essentially picking and choosing individual European partners depending on the issue at hand, the US has been weak in what was its historical role: helping forge European unity. The Ukrainian crisis was mostly outsourced to Germany’s Angela Merkel. And on anti-terrorism, France has become America’s best European friend – arguably to the detriment of a wider, shared continental effort.
In the 90s the US had to move in to save Europe from catastrophe – wars in the Balkans . Europeans had been divided (Germany favoured Croatia, while France sympathised with Serbia). Successive US administrations hesitated to get involved, with James Baker, the then secretary of state, famously saying: “We don’t have a dog in this fight.” In the end Bill Clinton found himself having to act, not only to stop the carnage but to preserve the very ambition of a “Europe whole and free”.
Since 1947 the US goal has been a peaceful, undivided and democratic Europe – not for altruistic reasons, but because such a continent serves American interests. Today’s Europeans are faced with so many existential crises that they need the US at their side. If the Obama administration doesn’t do it, the next one will have to.
When Marshall laid out the aim of his plan at Harvard, he said it would “restore the confidence of the European people in the future of their own countries and in Europe as a whole”. This spirit needs to be re-enacted.