Washington wary of a fragmented Europe

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By George Kerevan
 
PREDICTABLY, the warning from Philip H. Gordon, President Obama’s point man in Europe, that Britain should stay in the EU, has provoked howls of outrage. Ukip’s Nigel Farage, who has a pithy way with words, retorted: “We said no to America over Vietnam and we’ll say no to them over the EU”. Possibly Nigel has forgotten we did not say no to them over Iraq.

Philip Gordon may not be a household name (here or in the States) but he’s a voice to reckon with. He was a senior policy adviser to Obama during the 2008 presidential election and clearly has the ear of the president. Also, far from being insular, Gordon was educated in France and has written numerous books on European politics.

The truth is that Gordon’s warning that the US administration is against Britain quitting the EU is hardly a revelation. This has been the standard American position for 30 years, shared by both Republican and Democratic administrations. It is not just that the White House fears fragmentation among its European allies. More practically, US presidents have always relied on the UK to act as a proxy for American interests inside the EU, to head off the tendency of the French and (increasingly) the Germans to pursue their own diplomatic line.

This was abundantly clear during the Iraq war, when Tony Blair successfully sabotaged efforts by Paris and Berlin to swing the EU against the US overthrow of Saddam. The Iraq adventure may have turned into a quagmire, but remember that 16 out of the then 25 EU member states openly backed the invasion, sending troops or providing logistical support. No US president wants to lose the UK’s ability to influence the EU from inside. What is different with the Obama White House is that it has seriously downgraded Europe as an area of strategic interest. The key to Obama’s thinking is that he wants a quiet life in Europe and the Middle East while he re-focuses US interests and defence posture towards the Pacific, to contain what America perceives as Chinese regional ambitions.

Does Obama’s preoccupation with the Pacific imply an existential crisis in America’s relationship with Europe, or could things change when another administration enters the White House? It is difficult to gainsay the fact that China – given it represents a quarter of human kind – will dominate the global economic and security agenda over the next generation. It should also worry Europe: social friction between China’s modern coastal fringe and its poor interior, the endemic corruption, and growing labour shortages undermining growth will combine to make Beijing a political tinder box in the next decades.

On the other hand, Obama is certainly taking the Europen alliance too much for granted. Europe’s economy may be in trouble but it is still bigger than that of the US. America may account for 39 per cent of global defence spending but her European allies provide another 15 per cent, allowing Nato to outspend the rest of the world put together.

Worse, Obama is making the classic political mistake of wishing the rest of the world would go away while he focuses on what he thinks is important. This is the mindset of an intellectual who forgets the golden rule of diplomacy and of military preparedness: “if it can go wrong, it will”. Which it might well do on Europe’s doorstep, with Syria or Iran.

Not every American agrees with Obama on retreating from Europe. In November the head of US forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, resigned suddenly. Reportedly, he was opposed to a decision to cut US troop numbers under his command to only 30,000 – down from 270,000 at the end of the Cold War.

Paradoxically, Obama assumes that Europe itself will fill the regional strategic vacuum left by America’s “pivot” to the Pacific. You can see this in his reaction to the civil war in Libya. A Bush or even a Clinton (remember the bombing of Serbia) would have taken the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone against Gaddafi. But Obama pushed Europe into playing this role, with the American military keeping well in the background.

Unfortunately, Libya also shows the central problem for Obama in this “Europe First” approach. While France and the UK sent in the bombers, Germany refused to get involved. German’s foreign preoccupations lie to the east, not in the Mediterranean. And in any American showdown with China, Germany may well opt to sit on the fence to protect its Asian market.

What Obama and Gordon misunderstand is that Europe remains a collection of quite distinct nations with quite separate interests – despite EU and eurozone membership. Famously, Henry Kissinger asked whom he should phone when he wanted to get in touch with “Europe”? But even though the EU now has an official president (Herman Van Rumpuy) and foreign minister (Catherine Ashton, remember her?) no US secretary of state can find out what “Europe” thinks on any issue unless they phone London, Paris and Berlin separately. I can’t see that changing.

In Washington, telling the UK to stay in the EU is just business as usual. But it suggests to me that the Obama administration has failed to understand the watershed the EU has reached as a result of the euro crisis. Unless the eurozone explodes – still very possible if mass unemployment provokes a crisis in the Mediterranean countries – then Europe is marching to fiscal and eventual political union under German leadership. I can’t see the UK (or an independent Scotland, for that matter) joining such a union.

Which means that sometime in the foreseeable future the UK is going to revise its relationship with the rest of Europe, probably following a referendum after the 2015 general election. This may turn out to be more of a legal separation than outright divorce, but the status quo cannot hold. Washington needs to take that into account rather than have its European representatives issue platitudes.

Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper