Reconcilable Differences: U.S.-French Relations in the New Era
John Newhouse has been a respected and influential writer on American foreign policy, often on Europe, for more than three decades. His books are readable, full of interesting information about a variety of subjects, and laced with pertinent comments from politicians, bureaucrats, academics, businessmen, and journalists. Frequently they have been serialized in The New Yorker. Newhouse's interests and judgments generally reflect the current state of enlightened professional views. He is a particularly reliable presenter of opinion among senior American diplomats and professional analysts close to power, and indeed is a consultant to the State Department's European Bureau.
Europe Adrift is very much in this mold. It surveys the European scene to see how well European states are coping with Germany's unification and Russia's collapse, and how well the European Union (EU) and NATO are adapting to the new situation and whether they can successfully enlarge to the east. Anyone wanting an intelligent, well-informed, copious but readable survey of European issues can hardly expect to do better. Europe Adrift is the cream of well-informed conventional wisdom.
The book can, on the other hand, be criticized for just that reason. In its defense, it may be said that what passes for conventional wisdom among professionals is usually more right than wrong. Similarly, while the book may be faulted aesthetically for lacking focus, arguably that is Europe's fault and not New house's. He cannot delineate and analyze coherent, focused policies if European governments do not have them. Instead, as he sees it, Europe's governments, realizing the depth of the divisions that separate them, are afraid to press for real decisions, collective or domestic. Now that its nations lack a common enemy, Europe is increasingly swamped by its own problems. Such a Europe, it would seem only natural to conclude, still requires strong American leadership.
The conclusion is hardly novel. It mirrors a conviction long cherished within the American government: left to their own devices, European states are too divided, selfish, cynical, suspicious, ungenerous, and jealous of each other to harmonize their policies in any sensible and enduring way. In short, Europeans are incapable of managing their collective affairs unless skillfully led by the Americans. For a time after the Soviet collapse, even well-connected cognoscenti thought the Western Europeans, liberated from the Red threat, might forge a union that would end America's postwar hegemonic role. But by now, as Newhouse indicates, conventional wisdom has reverted to normal, with one significant difference. American self-satisfaction used to be tempered by the nagging doubt that the European countries, despite their collective political and military weakness, were better at managing their economies -- perhaps because they had fewer military burdens to carry. Today, as the United States enjoys the fruits of its peace dividend, its economy is booming and its budget deficit disappearing. Meanwhile, Europe is suffering from a bout of Eurosclerosis. That change of fortune removes the only major inducement to American modesty.
In its ambitious confidence, the present mood in Washington begins to resemble that in the early 1960s. Then, as now, American economists had begun to think growth and prosperity were assured indefinitely, and American politicians exulted in asserting their nation's power and benevolence around the world. Those who remember the later 1960s may find the parallel disturbing and begin to feel that for the United States, the Soviet collapse creates a dangerous temptation to hubris. A pessimistic and condescending view of Europe only compounds the danger. As an American, I do not feel that I should welcome a weak Europe, or accept it as fact without argument.
Newhouse, however, leans heavily toward Euroskepticism. He is too honest and adept not to report on the hopeful as well as the discouraging possibilities in Europe. But as he weighs the factors, he invariably comes down on the side of pessimism. After a while, Europe's incapacity begins to seem less the conclusion of his study than its premise.
That predisposition seems particularly obvious in his discussion of European Monetary Union, present-day Europe's one indisputably willful, bold, and grand project. Newhouse examines it in a chapter titled "A Collective Nervous Breakdown." He sees EMU as the misbegotten product of the Franco-German deal formalized in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, in which the crafty Mitterrand convinced the Germans to give up their precious deutsche mark in return for promises of significant progress toward a more federal Europe. As Newhouse describes it, the French, having secured Germany's commitment to EMU, subsequently teamed up with the British to prevent federalism. French guile, however, achieved a Pyrrhic victory. Meeting the preconditions for EMU has proved a "crushing agenda," thanks to the dislocations in Europe's economies caused by Germany's heavy borrowing to finance reunification, plus the more fundamental ailments of Eurosclerosis in the face of rising global competition. EMU will, he predicts, bring Europe to a crisis point in 1998.
Meanwhile, as Newhouse sees it, the real challenge to the EU -- enlargement to the east -- has been neglected, not least because it creates major conflict among the Western Europeans. Taking in the Easterners will require, for example, the reform of America's old bugaboo, the Common Agricultural Policy -- not a task weak European governments are eager to undertake seriously. More fundamentally, Russia's retreat shifts Europe's center of political gravity from Paris to Bonn, or rather to Berlin. The EU's expansion eastward will confirm the shift by creating a large new bloc of German-oriented states. The union's vital Franco-German relationship is being upset as a result. A disgruntled, pessimistic France has already lost its self-confidence and can no longer play its traditional leading role as Germany's imaginative partner. Instead, Paris flirts ambiguously with the British, who continue to lack enthusiasm for a strong Europe. The Germans are as unhappy as the French. They cannot lead alone, since they lack a sufficient national ego and are frightened of having one.
Europe, meanwhile, according to Newhouse, grows more and more vulnerable to its increasingly unsafe surroundings. Newhouse believes Russia is more dangerous to the West now than during the Cold War. He also notes the long-term dangers of the "troubled Mediterranean," where the unhappiness of overpopulated and underdeveloped Muslim societies seems likely to boil over into Europe. In the south, as in the east, Europe is too divided for effective action. Northern European countries feel detached, and while Italy has the potential to be a great power in the region, jealousy between the Italians and the French precludes durable cooperation, and Italy continues to be more comfortable deriving its security from the Americans.
Europe, in short, has not found any effective new organizing principle to replace the Cold War. That principle, according to Newhouse, was supposed to have been federation. But today's Europe, its states at odds and increasingly challenged economically, is unlikely to become "a political entity capable of joint decision-making." Nevertheless, Newhouse feels, Europe's flaccid new order is essentially benign. The continent can and should remain "the citadel of civilized values, a center of peace and stability." But its equilibrium and safety will continue to depend on its close relationship with America. Newhouse worries whether that relationship can be sustained in the absence of a single clear and common threat. His unexceptionable advice is that transatlantic ties will have to be carefully cultivated.
AN UNTIDY CONFEDERACY
Newhouse's conclusions are intelligent and well-informed, but are they correct? Certainly the Soviet collapse has shaken up the comfortable Western Europeans, but their response has not been as inept as he portrays it. Monetary union may yet fail, but its prospects are better than Newhouse suggests -- not least because it is very much in Germany's interest. Since reunification, Germany has grown increasingly indebted and weighed down with its own Mezzogiorno, the former East Germany. Its national competitiveness is less assured, and a perennially overvalued deutsche mark risks becoming a poisoned heritage. Arguably, the sooner it is gotten rid of, the better for Germany and for Europe. A common currency will give new macroeconomic options to the Germans and Europeans collectively, as well as new financial power.
A successful EMU, moreover, will constitute a geoeconomic and to some extent geopolitical revolution. If it is achieved, no one will accuse Europe's leaders of lacking vision or determination. As it is, EMU has already elicited courageous political leadership in several European countries. The capacity of several successive French governments to hold fast to the franc fort hardly seems fickle or weak-willed. And the radical improvement in Italy's fiscal situation under the Romano Prodi government belies the stereotypes of Italian politics. EMU may be misguided, but it is hardly a sign of divided and indecisive leadership.
Newhouse is right to stress that Europe is at a delicate moment politically. But France is not as weak as he paints it, nor Germany as strong. Indeed, the current problem is not Germany's strength but its weakness. The Kohl government's economic reforms are blocked by the German states, the chancellor's authority is diminished, and the general direction of policy awaits next year's elections. In any event, Franco-German ties, which have held for half a century, are stronger than Newhouse indicates. Each country needs the other, and Europe's progress will continue to depend on their collaboration. Their partnership, moreover, does not require a centralized federal Europe. Such a Europe has never been a realistic option, and not achieving it should not be considered a failure.
Europe's abiding reality is that it is a Europe of states -- determined to preserve their independence but condemned to coordinate their policies. To reconcile these two imperatives, they have evolved toward a highly developed confederacy. It is an untidy construction, but also supple and tenacious. It is, in effect, a new and ingenious political formula for governing a diverse continent. It is certainly the most successful experiment in international cooperation in modern times. It is not very efficient, but then neither is America's own federal system. It can be expected to take a long time developing itself. Further integration will depend on the real need for it. Most likely, the states of the EU will do what their urgent interests require, and not much else.
The EU is thus likely to move on to monetary union and find some formula for absorbing Eastern Europe. But for the time being at least, Europeans may well be happy to let the United States provide for their security, so long as their own arms industries continue to profit. If the Americans insist on blocking a long-overdue Europeanization of NATO, Europeans are in no hurry. And if the Americans are foolish enough to get themselves into an antagonistic relationship with the new Russia, the protected Europeans will, as usual, be happy to mediate.
The transatlantic link may well prove as significant in the next century as it has been in this one. But a Europe that can manage its own space and is a genuine ally rather than a costly dependency is very much in the United States' interest. Given America's growing and apparently inescapable involvement with Asia, Washington can no longer afford, and is unlikely to sustain, Europe's Cold War dependence. Europeans should not be given the impression that the United States wishes to prolong that relationship. Certainly the United States should not be too directly involved in Europe's complicated internal politics. Its capacity to manage the continent's problems is extremely limited. America should be Europe's great and good friend, not its would-be guardian.
A policy that presumes otherwise is not only outdated but dangerous. It risks antagonizing both the Russians and the Western Europeans, as well as prejudicing relations between them. In the coming century the West in general will face difficult adjustments, not least because of rising economic and political competition from non-Western parts of the world. The United States should not presume too much from its present success or Europe's present discomfiture. This is not the moment to lock the country into overextended positions that it is unlikely to sustain and that will impede European efforts to rise to the occasion. Thus, while Newhouse has presented his usual magisterial survey, it leaves the wrong impression. Perhaps, for once, he has been too much of an insider, and has relied too heavily on the judgments of those among us with a vested interest in managing Europe's affairs.