Magazine | May 4, 2009, Issue

Helium Diplomacy

At the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, they’re premiering a new ballet about a young French boy who’s befriended by a giant helium-filled balloon. Any balletomanes at the U.S. embassy might be forgiven for assuming it to be some hastily concocted metaphor of Euro-American harmony in the Age of Obama: a lithe young Continental prancing around the stage enraptured by his dazzling bag of gas. But, as it happens, The Red Balloon is an adaptation of some fey French movie from the Fifties, when a twirling Euro-ninny and his novelty gasbag were the stuff of cinematic whimsy and not the twin pillars on which Western civilization has come to rest.

As is now well-known, President Obama’s outreach to the Europeans — talking up the Continent’s “leadership” in the world and managing to keep a straight face while doing it — went unreciprocated. When it came to the good war — Afghanistan, the one the anti-Iraq types claim to be in favor of — NATO, a “military” “alliance” of 28 countries, rewarded the impeccable multilateralist with an extra 5,000 troops — or approximately 180 soldiers per nation. And by “soldiers” I don’t mean men with guns who fire them at the enemy but “non-combat” forces who man the photocopier back at barracks while the Third Infantry Division and a few brave lads from Britain, Canada, and a couple of other places are up in the hills sticking it to the Taliban. Our allies are happy to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, as long as there are a couple of provinces between their shoulders and ours.

On the other hand, the Obama happy talk seemed to go down well with the North Koreans, who promptly held one of their missile tests, and with members of the piratical community, who seized an American vessel for the first time in a couple of centuries. As the New York Times headline writer put it: “Standoff with Pirates Shows U.S. Power Has Limits.”

Well, all power has limits. Today, the salient feature of the modern world is the urge to self-limit. The wealthiest jurisdictions on the planet have no “power” as it’s conventionally understood — and, indeed, that’s the point: They’re projecting post-power power, which, being that it’s non-existent, has no limits whatsoever. In 2002 the Finnish prime minister, Paavo Lipponen, gave a speech in London saying that “the EU must not develop into a military superpower but must become a great power that will not take up arms at any occasion in order to defend its own interests.” Good luck with that. Mr. Lipponen objected to my derision by suggesting I’d missed some subtle nuances of his, but for the life of me I can’t see what they are. Aside from anything else, anyone urging a Continent capable of “taking up arms” would be up against basic Euro-math: You can have massive welfare or a credible military, but not both. Indeed, with Europe’s deathbed demography, the former is barely affordable even without the latter.

#page#Shortly after 9/11, Canada’s deputy prime minister, John Manley, conceded that his country was dining in the best restaurants without paying its way — or, as he put it, “You can’t just sit at the G8 table and then, when the bill comes, go to the washroom.” That’s the sort of straight talk politicians do when they want to sound as if they’re getting real but have no intention of doing so. And so the horrors of 9/11 faded, and Canada and Europe resumed their habit of dining at the NATO table and stampeding for the washroom when the check came. The idea that Continental nations are going to find money to upgrade their militaries anytime soon is delusion: A few years ago, the U.S. spent 3.4 percent of GDP on defense and the other NATO members spent on average 1.9 percent. The most recent figures show that the U.S. spends 4 percent while the rest of NATO averages 1.7 percent — and it’s mostly high wages for unionized armies keeping it even at that level: The Continental country with the highest defense spending is Greece, and that’s almost all on personnel. The average age of a Belgian soldier is 40 — which at least ensures that the eternal Democratic plaint that we’re sending “our children” into harm’s way is replaced with the faintly surreal alternative of sending our middle-aged into harm’s way.

Meanwhile, Susan Rice, America’s U.N. ambassador, urges Iran to “halt its illicit nuclear program” and “take the steps that would enable it to be a responsible member of the international community.” You mean like Belgium or Finland? Lacking the exquisitely refined sensibilities of Mr. Lipponen, the mullahs can’t see what’s in it for them.

My old colleague at the Daily Telegraph in London, the historian Sir John Keegan, likes to say that “without armed forces a state does not exist.” The European Union exists only because for half a century they’ve been under American military protection: Promoted as a counterweight to the U.S. hegemon, the EU in fact exists only because of it.

So what happens when America embraces Euro-sized government? The U.S. can’t buck the basic arithmetic any more than Sweden can: A social-democratic America at home presupposes cuts in Pax Americana abroad. Those allies in tough neighborhoods — Israel next to Iran; India next to Pakistan; Japan next to North Korea; Eastern Europe in the shadow of a resurgent Russia — have already noted America’s passivity in the face of explicit threats. But eventually Western Europe will, too: at the top table, the big guy is heading for the washroom.

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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