According to Pew International polls, Trump is now intensely disliked in Europe. His endless spats over European trade, the costs of NATO, and differing approaches to Vladimir Putin’s Russia acerbated already tense U.S.–European relations. But Trump neither created European or transatlantic crises nor can be of much help in solving them. In part, they are Western in origin and to a degree shared by all Western allies, but mostly they are innate to Europe and self-induced.
We often refer to the “West” of nearly 1.5 billion people without really defining it or appreciating just how predominant Europe should be in all matters Western. In terms of population, the contemporary West consists of mainland Europe (circa 500 million — depending on how the borders of Europe are defined), the United States (325 million), the Anglosphere of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (130 million), and major Westernized, industrial, and democratic countries in Asia, most notably Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea (200 million), along perhaps with South American nations such as Argentina, Chile, and Brazil (265 million).
Of all these kindred regions, Europe logically should be the cornerstone of the West, given its vast population and size. It is home to both NATO and the European Union. The euro was birthed as a rival to the dollar for international primacy. The Mediterranean connects three continents. Rome remains the center of Christianity. Historically, Europe has been the font of international humanitarian work from the Red Cross to the Geneva Conventions. Europe was the birthplace of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the industrial revolution — and the igniter of the two most destructive wars in human history.
Yet the global influence of Europe continues to wane, at least as defined by demographic robustness, technological innovation, the quality of higher education, and the ability to defend its interests. Its aristocratic elite classes are currently under constant challenge from populist reformers. And 73 years of peace have been hard on Europe, in the sense that the postmodern European cultural ideal is to avoid childbearing, most religion, and national defense.
Some of Europe’s current problems, of course, are ancestral and have never been adequately solved. The great curse — and boon — of Europe has always been traced to its diversity. The continent is about the same size as the United States, but Europe currently is divided among some 44 nations.
While such national rivalries at times spawned innovation, energetic diversity, and innovative technology, the ensuing friction, tribalism, and nationalism resulted in constant warring. Usually the remedy to such chronic strife has been as bad as the disease. The dream of all strongmen, from Julius Caesar and Augustus, Napoleon, and Hitler to the supposedly enlightened European Union, has been to unite and thereby magnify Europe under one government, one culture, and one economy, by an imposed nationalist rule (Roman, French, or German) and, most recently, by a pan-European elite.
The problem, however, with all these one-government schemes is that they have inevitably required a level of coercion to instill among diverse ethnicities and recalcitrant nationalists a shared “Europeanism” that is antithetical to constitutional government. The European Union felt that it could be the first pan-European movement founded and sustained on democratic principles. But it too is now opposed to popular referenda. Brussels makes voluntary withdrawal from the EU nearly impossible, as the United Kingdom is learning. European elites have clearly failed to craft something akin to American federalism. They have learned that even Mississippi and Massachusetts have a more common history, culture, economy, language, and tradition than do Norway and Greece, or the Netherlands and Bulgaria, or Malta and Lithuania.
The European project currently is drawn and quartered: to the south by financial tensions with the north; to the east by furor over illegal immigration; to the north by Brexit and the EU’s efforts either to stall it or to ensure it never happens again; and to the west by its exasperation with the United States on matters of climate change, military readiness, and a preference for equality of opportunity rather than of result. The hub of these factional spokes remains German.
Since 1871, Europe has struggled with the “German problem.” Translated, this has meant that since the unification of Germany, Europe’s largest and most populous nation has created wealth and enjoyed political influence far beyond European norms of per capita industriousness — and used that power to attempt to recalibrate European values as German values.
After three disastrous European wars, in 1871, 1914, and 1939, the solution to the perceived dynamism — and ambitions — of Germany was variously to divide it up for a while, to deny it nuclear weapons while arming its ancient rivals France and Britain, to invite in the United States to impose and oversee a pan-European military alliance against a common enemy of Soviet Communism, to transform a common market and free-trade zone into de facto shared European nationhood, and to allow Germany to manipulate the euro to facilitate its own mercantile ambitions.
Despite all those efforts, Germany today dictates European immigration, financial, trade, and military policy, often against the wishes of its neighbors. It runs the world’s largest account surplus, and a huge trade surplus with the U.S., while spending relatively little on its own defense. Berlin is simply not interested in priming the European economy to reach American-like goals of 3 percent annual GDP growth. That shared prosperity might entail a reduction in its huge trade surpluses or necessitate increases in German consumption of pan-European products.
When the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact collapsed, one might have expected NATO to stabilize with the loss of its existential enemy. Instead, in an almost artificial sense, NATO radically expanded its membership, ambitions, responsibilities — and vulnerabilities. The agenda was quick to absorb former Soviet clients while Russia was still reeling. But NATO expansion to 29 diverse members oddly attenuated its prior geographical, cultural, and economic commonality, at the very time it lost its unifying common enemy.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, most NATO and EU countries assume that the strategic and conventional military superpower of the United States vitiates the need for European military readiness. Because Europe did not invest in its military commensurately with its size and wealth, it adopted the necessary compensatory ideology that war itself was obsolete. Those who were prepared to deter enemies were themselves seen as sort of retrograde and unenlightened. The weaker Europe became militarily, the more it depended on the U.S. Armed Forces — and the more it resented such dependence.
Sometimes the asymmetrical relationship was manifested in an Athens–Rome dichotomy. At best, European Socratic philosophers thought they knew best where to direct the formable legions of their naïve Roman ally. At worst, Europeans redefined America’s investment in NATO almost as if a militaristic America had been pushing missiles, tanks, and jet fighters down their throats, hoping to force them to share their own pessimistic view of human nature. When two powers are of roughly identical size and prosperity and one protects the other, the result is usually not sustainable.
But aside from these crises of the European Union and NATO, Europe is at odds with the United States on a variety of issues, which will likely continue to make Europe both weaker and less relevant.
Europe continues to believe that the “Palestinian issue” is key to “peace” in the Middle East — a euphemism for distancing itself from Israel. In truth, the Middle East is undergoing the greatest revolution since the end of colonialism. The worries about Arab security are not the tardiness of Palestinian statehood but the existential threats emanating from theocratic Shiite Iran and the neo-Ottomanism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. In that sense, a conventionally strong and nuclear Israel is for now allied with an Arab world at odds with both Tehran and Ankara, and is likely in any major war to be on the side of an Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Yet for Europe, the Palestinians are the rusty key to peace, even as the latter are increasingly under suspicion by Arab nations as pro-Hezbollah and pro-Iranian.
Europe for now is on the wrong side of the energy revolution, perhaps best epitomized by the near-suicidal green policies of Germany. As it dismantles coal and nuclear plants, Angela Merkel’s government finds its subsidized wind and solar projects utterly incapable of meeting Germany’s competitive industrial needs. The result will likely be a continual and massive importation of natural gas, increasingly from NATO’s supposed archenemy, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The dream of hydraulic fracturing of shale gas throughout Europe is now largely dead and buried by opposition from radical environmental groups. The result is not a self-sufficient Europe enjoying renewable energy but a continent increasingly dependent for its mounting conventional energy needs on costly imports, with resulting energy costs that are making it uncompetitive with North American industries. Again, the contrast with the United States is telling: The latter went from foreordained, “peak oil” fossil-fuel dependence to becoming the largest oil, gas, and coal producer in the world.
One symptom of European demographic decline, multiculturalism, and military impotence is massive illegal immigration from the Middle East and North Africa. The ensuing crisis of large unassimilated populations is said to be analogous to the influxes of illegal immigrants into the United States from Central America and Mexico. But there are key differences. As an immigrant nation without a hereditary aristocracy, the melting pot of the United States even in postmodern times has far better integrated, assimilated, and intermarried newcomers. Illegal immigrants to the United States are largely Catholic; challenges to assimilation are national, ethnic, and linguistic but not additionally religious as in Europe. Congressional and presidential policy reflects a majority opinion in the United States that now supports secure borders and measured, legal, meritocratic immigration. In Europe, official immigration policy is still at odds with voters.
Finally, since the French Revolution and the upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries, the European state has erred on the side of equality of result rather than of opportunity. One consequence of the American emphasis on liberty, individualism, and less government has been greater annual economic growth and lower unemployment — critical criteria for questions of assimilating immigrants, ensuring military readiness, and avoiding population stagnation and shrinkage.
Europe will remain a friend of the United States. Even after the failure of the Obama administration to fundamentally transform the United States into a European social democracy, and the similar inability of the European Union to create robust economic and demographic growth, political federalism, and military readiness, it is simplistic to say that the two centers of Western civilization will merely drift further apart.
More likely, the power of the United States will grow and the global influence of Europe will continue to wane — reawakening ancient dangers that are all too familiar to Americans.
Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its initial publication.