The relationship between Europe and the United States is the result of two remarkable historical developments. The first is an achievement of epic proportion all too easily taken for granted: By any imaginable standard and especially by the standard of its own troubled history, Europe in 2008 is an extraordinary success. For over half a century, more Europeans have lived better than ever before, and fewer have died as the result of political violence. In the 1970s, the European miracle extended to Portugal, Spain, and Greece, all of which were transformed by peaceful democratic revolutions. After 1989, the list of stable, peaceful, democratic states was extended to include the former European members of the Soviet Empire. Of course Europeans still face serious problems, but who, amid the wreckage of the Second World War, would have been rash enough to predict such a bright future?

The second development is closely connected to the first: From the start, the evolution of a peaceful, prosperous, and stable Europe depended on its ties to the United States. Acting in its own enlightened self-interest, the United States provided economic assistance, political support, and military security for its European allies for decades after 1945. Within the incubator created by American power, the fragile institutions that promoted European prosperity and stability could grow until they became robust enough to live on their own. It is easy to overlook just how extraordinary this enduring relationship between Europeans and Americans is. When else in history have so many people been willing to depend for their security needs on a foreign power thousands of miles away?

It is not surprising that Europeans have often felt uneasy about this dependent relationship. Nor is it surprising that the aspiration to construct an independent foreign and security policy has been a recurrent theme in the life of the European community. Many European leaders assume that until the new Europe becomes a kind of superpower, able to act independently of its American ally, it will remain unfinished, its promise unfulfilled, its destiny unrealized. Yet there are three reasons why the creation of a European superpower seems unlikely.

In the first place, Europeans would have to be willing to invest in the increasingly expensive technology that modern weapon systems require. With a large and productive population of 445 million and a combined GDP of about $11 trillion, there is no doubt that Europeans could afford an effective military force. There is considerable doubt, however, about their willingness to devote a larger share of resources to defense, particularly considering the growing fiscal constraints confronting every European state. While a majority of Europeans say they want Europe to be a superpower, only a third of them want to spend more money on defense.

Even if Europeans could find the resources necessary to improve their military capacities, they would face a second, more difficult task: creating effective decision-making institutions. To get a sense of this challenge, one has only to look at the convoluted definition of foreign and security policymaking in the reform treaty that was rejected last month by Ireland. Just as making decisions about security policy puts a greater burden on institutions than, for example, decisions about fiscal or agricultural policy, justifying decisions about life and death requires a much higher level of legitimacy. The strength of a system’s legitimacy is measured by the political weight it must carry. Nothing is heavier than the questions of peace and war. This brings us to the third and most formidable barrier to the creation of a European superpower, the “democracy deficit” that is usually regarded as the European project’s most conspicuous weakness. The European parliament has always been the community’s least effective institution because Europe lacks a demos to represent, a body of engaged citizens whose primary political loyalty is to the European Union. The sources of democratic legitimacy remain in the individual states, not the organs of the EU.

It is often assumed that because Europeans enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity, they will take the next step and create a European superstate. The reverse, I think, is closer to the truth. Precisely because they have peace and prosperity, most Europeans do not want to expend the resources or take the risks that the creation of a European superpower would demand. Both the strengths and the limitations of the European project clearly reflect the historical experience of postwar Europe. The character of the EU is deeply rooted in the political culture of European states and will not easily be changed by eloquent proclamations or ambiguous treaties.

This has one profound implication for European-American relations: Europe is likely to remain dependent on the United States for its security needs, especially those that require the projection of military power. The most obvious indication of this continued dependence is the remarkable survival of NATO. Throughout history, most alliances have been short-lived, created at a particular moment, dissolved as soon as that moment passes. NATO, however, is approaching its sixtieth birthday—despite the fact that the problems it was created to confront have changed beyond recognition. In Lord Ismay’s concise formulation, NATO was designed to keep the Soviets out, the Germans down, and the Americans in. Six decades later, the Soviet Union is gone and no serious observer regards the Germans as a threat to the European peace. Of the alliance’s three original purposes, therefore, only the need to keep the United States involved in European affairs remains, and it is this purpose alone that sustains the alliance.

The same European values and attitudes that will continue to make the Atlantic alliance necessary will continue to create tensions within it. These tensions were surely intensified by the Bush administration’s political and military blunders in Iraq, but they are also an inherent part of a relationship between two quite different partners, with distinct views of their interests and vulnerabilities. Rebuilding a firm foundation of cooperation and trust within the alliance requires that Washington recognize these differences and learn to manage them. Let me conclude with three modest suggestions that might make this process easier.

First, don’t underestimate Europe’s political and economic importance as a partner. Sneering comments about “old Europe” are foolish. Europeans have enormous resources, wealth, and experience that can be used in cooperative ventures, including the long struggle against Islamic fundamentalism, where we need all the help we can get. The Atlantic alliance has always been, and will for the foreseeable future remain, in the interests of both sides.

Second, let Europeans be Europeans. That is, take advantage of their strengths rather than complain about their weaknesses. It is, for example, unreasonable to expect that German troops will play a more active military role in places like Afghanistan—this is not your grandfather’s Wehrmacht. (Thank God, one might add.) But German “soft power” can be of great use, providing aid, supporting local institutions, and establishing ties to groups that do not easily relate to the United States.

Third, there will certainly be times when Americans and Europeans differ over fundamental issues. These differences are best managed if we remember that in international affairs—as in family life—it is better to praise publicly and criticize privately. The schoolyard bully is not a useful role model for the conduct of foreign affairs.

In dealing with our European allies—and not only here—the new administration has to rediscover diplomacy, the art of persuasion and compromise that can contain or temper conflict, make differences more bearable, avoid violence whenever possible. George Kennan once wrote that the successful statesman is like a gardener who performs the endless task of nurturing healthy plants, limiting the destructive power of weeds and pests, and responding to the unpleasant surprises that nature has in store. Let us hope that in 2009, people with Kennan’s wisdom, patience, and experience will once again guide the nation.


This essay is part of the Issues 2008 series of commentaries on the important issues confronting the next president and Congress.

James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is professor emeritus of history at Stanford University.

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Published in the 2008-07-18 issue: View Contents
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