Alexander Herzen wrote that after any revolution, “the departing world leaves behind it not an heir but a pregnant widow.” Yet ever since the election of Donald Trump convulsed the world, Western Europe’s leaders have been speaking as if a new international order had already been born. Last August, French president Emmanuel Macron told his diplomatic corps that “Europe can no longer entrust its security to the United States alone.” Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, a few days later wrote that “the outstanding aim of our foreign policy is to build a sovereign, strong Europe” that can “form a counterweight when the US crosses the line.” In the thinking of Macron, Maas, and their confreres in Brussels, the heir to the dearly departed American-led postwar system has already been named, and that heir is ever-closer European union.
This has been a premature christening. While President Trump has indeed turned up the temperature on Europe with his brash criticisms of transatlantic relations, especially in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the labor pains jolting Europe are not of America’s creation. Instead, the continent is in a political turmoil of its own making — a crisis that is directly linked to, and exacerbated by, aspects of the European Union (EU). With Paris and Berlin eying a second Élysée Treaty and Great Britain in the throes of Brexit, today’s Europe is the pregnant widow of Herzen’s imagination. Now is the time for the U.S. to promote the birth of a new alternative to the dogma of integration — a model that gives European nations the flexibility to choose their own destinies.
Over the past two decades, Western European leaders have made two broad claims in support of greater European union. First, they have argued that European integration is responsible for the post–World War II peace. On this point European leaders regularly echo the sentiments of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker: “You only need to visit a war cemetery to see what the alternative to European integration is.” Second, EU leaders have often contended that the Union promotes discussion and coordination without impinging on national sovereignty. In defense of Brussels, one senior European diplomat often emphasizes in private conversations that “where we once fought, we now talk.”
The truth, though, is more complicated than these broad claims suggest. While European integration certainly may have hastened the fall of the Berlin Wall, American power and democracy struck the decisive blow for victory in the Cold War. And while no observer of Brussels could accuse it of an untoward propensity for action, the EU is much more than a mere debating society. It has a voracious appetite for power in almost every domain of public policy, from product regulations to budgetary targets. Already, a large percentage of European laws are decided by EU bureaucrats; tellingly, many European countries consider their EU ambassadors to be their most important diplomatic representatives.
Alas, the EU’s growth has thrown Europe off balance. This is because citizens across the continent identify far more as citizens of their nation than as citizens of some Greater Europe. Brussels’s penchant for making decisions at odds with local preferences only fuels the fires of nationalism. While this may seem anodyne to Americans, whose national identities are tempered by founding documents and a strong republican tradition, nationalism carries far darker connotations in the political mainstream of Europe. In November, Macron defined nationalism as “a betrayal of patriotism.” German chancellor Angela Merkel stated categorically that “nationalism and egoism must never have a chance to flourish again in Europe.” While nationalist forces are embraced in American politics, from Paris to Berlin they are shunned as anathema.
The upshot of this elite suspicion of nationalism is that anti-systemic movements on the political extremes end up as the principal beneficiaries of public discontent. From right-wing nationalists to left-wing radicals, these movements often lack professionalism and a basic appreciation for the economic marketplace. Most worryingly, they seem fonder of Vladimir Putin than of the Pax Americana. As one local official in eastern Germany, himself a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), lamented last year, “The populists tell my constituents that we have a friend in the United States. ‘Why don’t we reach out to the Russians, too? Then we’ll have two friends instead of one,’ they say.” So long as it does not know which way the winds are swirling, the U.S. should be wary of igniting a populist brushfire across the continent.
By contrast, Europe’s mainstream has been mostly supportive of American leadership in the world. Take Angela Merkel. Despite President Trump’s criticisms of her immigration blunders, she rarely misses an opportunity to pay tribute to the transatlantic alliance in interviews and speeches. If European nationalists think parochially, making them vulnerable targets for revisionists, today’s European establishment reveres the liberal order, inoculating itself against such entreaties.
These realities carry one clear implication for the United States: We should strive to tame European nationalism, bringing its healthiest features into the political mainstream. Concretely, this means supporting a multi-speed Europe that jettisons the commitment to “ever-closer union.”
One need only look to recent European history to see the benefits of such policy flexibility. During the financial crisis, it was beyond the pale to support a Greek exit from the euro zone, despite the knowledge that a currency devaluation would have burnished Greece’s economic competitiveness. The unfortunate result? The Coalition for the Radical Left shot to power over centrist parties in Athens, where it has governed ever since. The same calcified attitude is apparent in France, where Macron has framed a binary choice between ugly populism and enlightened Europeanism — and reaped the whirlwind as yellow-vested demonstrators have taken to the streets.
The steady build-up of political tensions across Europe cannot be in the American interest. What the continent needs today are pressure-release valves — reforms that reflect national moods and defuse public discontent. In Austria, for example, Sebastian Kurz has shown the way forward on the issue of immigration. His center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) languished in the polls before he adopted a more restrictive immigration policy and co-opted the message of the country’s nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ). In December 2017, he was rewarded with an impressive come-from-behind victory in national elections. Today, the pro-Western ÖVP calls the shots in Vienna, while the openly pro-Russian FPÖ must content itself as a junior partner.
Of course, if our European allies choose to integrate in select areas on a voluntary basis, the United States should not stand in their way. But the U.S. should be crystal clear that political integration must not carry over into the domain of defense. A serious European effort at military integration directly threatens the viability of NATO.
In December 2017, the EU officially activated Permanent Structured Cooperation, a means of pooling European defense investments. Less than a year later, Macron announced a much more ambitious goal: the creation of “a true European army.” Within days, Angela Merkel told the European Parliament, “We have to work on a vision to establish a real European army one day.”
An effective military apparatus requires an esprit de corps, a martial vigor that is incompatible with the EU’s postmodern ethos. Moreover, the EU’s most important member, Germany, maintains a deep-seated aversion to the use of force. For Berlin, the allure of a European army has less to do with pursuing military interventions abroad than it does with encouraging political integration at home. Another shiny headquarters in Brussels commanding phantom troops abroad would simply attract the ire of Americans and Brits and undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. It would do nothing to augment capabilities and much to weaken NATO, which is the world’s premier defense alliance and has guaranteed the continent’s security for decades. Europe does not need a standing army because it already has a better one at its back.
The need to forestall the birth of a European army, and the opportunity to sublimate European nationalism by channeling it into the mainstream, only highlights the importance of creating a new alternative to automatic EU integration. For decades, the United States played an essential role in fostering the consolidation of Europe. Even today, the EU’s forerunners, such as the European Coal and Steel Community, are seen as diplomatic successes, while free-market supporters credit European integration with the liberalization of the continent’s economies. That era of automatic support for uninhibited integration has ended. Now is the time to shepherd the birth of its heir.