The Dilemma of America’s Strategy for Europe

 In CIS, Russia, EMEA, P5

The end of the Cold War, from the open­ing of the Berlin Wall through the col­lapse of the Soviet Empire, entailed an unam­bigu­ous suc­cess for decades of American for­eign policy in Europe. Yet during the sub­se­quent three decades, America has faced repeat­ed dis­ap­point­ments, both in our deal­ings with post-Soviet Russia and regard­ing trans-Atlantic rela­tions with our pre­sump­tive allies in Europe. We need to look at both aspects — our adver­sary and our allies, but when we do so, we face a fun­da­men­tal strate­gic dilem­ma.

A revan­chist Russia has emerged in the Putin era as a strate­gic com­peti­tor, as the 2017 National Security Strategy cor­rect­ly rec­og­nized. Moscow has revert­ed to an adver­sar­i­al stance toward Washington, ulti­mate­ly sim­i­lar in char­ac­ter, if not in degree, to Russian poli­cies of the Soviet era. Such com­pe­ti­tion between Russian and the United States is ulti­mate­ly not sur­pris­ing and has very deep roots, stretch­ing back to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.

Meanwhile, America repeat­ed­ly finds itself at odds with some European part­ners, notably France and Germany. Such dis­junc­tions reflect a fun­da­men­tal post-Cold War real­i­ty. Unlike pre-1989 Western Europe, today’s uni­fied Europe is less depen­dent on American secu­ri­ty guar­an­tees and there­fore increas­ing­ly aspires to its own autonomous for­eign policy goals, inde­pen­dent of or even con­trary to Washington’s con­cerns. (In con­trast, those coun­tries most aware for his­toric rea­sons of their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to Russia, the Baltics and the former Warsaw Pact coun­tries, are now the most com­mit­ted to strong ties to the United States.) U.S. for­eign policy, there­fore, faces a double prob­lem, despite the heady vic­to­ry of 1989: the reemer­gence of the Cold-War adver­sary Russia and the repeat­ed irri­ta­tion in trans-Atlantic rela­tions, as Europe faces temp­ta­tions to turn away from the West, a kind of pivot to Eurasia.

These simul­ta­ne­ous chal­lenges gen­er­ate a dilem­ma for U.S. for­eign policy. Should Washington adopt ever-tougher stances toward a Moscow that con­tin­u­ous­ly pro­vides ample grounds for firm respons­es? The list is long: Crimea, Donbas, Syria, Libya, Belarus, as well as domes­tic repres­sion and extrater­ri­to­r­i­al assas­si­na­tions. Or should American diplo­ma­cy empha­size repair­ing trans-Atlantic rela­tions, which means return­ing to more col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tions with Paris and Berlin? Those alliances have been impor­tant assets for American for­eign policy for decades, so there is much to rec­om­mend that path. Yet here’s the rub: Those two visions are at odds with each other. France and Germany are con­sid­er­ably softer on Russia than nearly anyone in Washington, whether Republican or Democrat. The more the United States was to ratch­et up the cri­tique of Putin and pursue con­fronta­tion­al poli­cies, the more stress will be placed on U.S. rela­tions with the tra­di­tion­al allies on the con­ti­nent. Each path is cred­i­ble, but it is delu­sion­al to imag­ine that America can pursue both at the same time, at least not with­out unlike­ly reori­en­ta­tions away from Russia on the part of the Europeans.

Europeans legit­i­mate­ly wonder if Russia-hawks in Washington will always have the upper hand. At least since the begin­ning of this cen­tu­ry, American admin­is­tra­tions have dis­played unpre­dictable incon­sis­ten­cies in their atti­tudes toward Russia. At times they have indulged in a roman­ti­cism of rap­proche­ment, as when George W. Bush claimed to see Putin’s “soul,” or with the ill-fated “reset” of the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, let alone the “hot mic” moment with Dmitry Medvedev. Those fan­tasies of détente have repeat­ed­ly crashed into the bru­tal­i­ty of Moscow’s hard-nosed ambi­tions. Compared with its pre­de­ces­sors, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been tough on Russia, with its con­sis­tent pur­suit of the post-Crimea sanc­tions, the appli­ca­tion of the Magnitsky Act, and its oppo­si­tion to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

The Europeans are much more hes­i­tant to con­front Moscow. To date, nei­ther Berlin nor Paris has attrib­uted the Navalny assas­si­na­tion attempt to the Russian gov­ern­ment, and the European Union has yet to adopt a sanc­tions tool com­pa­ra­ble to the Magnitsky Act. Meanwhile, French pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron, in his efforts to bur­nish his own for­eign policy cre­den­tials, has pur­sued an uncon­di­tion­al reen­gage­ment with Russia. It is, how­ev­er, surely not coin­ci­den­tal that Russian and French inter­ests appear to over­lap in Libya, Armenia and with regard to Turkey.

As far as Germany goes, Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves credit for push­ing through the Crimea sanc­tions, despite the protests of a sig­nif­i­cant pro-Russia lobby, the so-called Putinversteher. Nonetheless, a Moscow-linked assas­si­na­tion in the streets of Berlin elicit­ed only a tepid diplo­mat­ic response, and the wide­spread calls in the German public to sus­pend Nord Stream 2 as a response to the Navalny poi­son­ing have been slow-walked by the gov­ern­ment. Merkel’s call for a “European solu­tion” for Nord Stream really means infi­nite defer­ral, since a con­sen­sus of all 27 mem­bers on the pipeline will be nearly impos­si­ble to reach.

The point is that both Germany and France prefer to min­i­mize damage to their rela­tions with Russia. Any American pro­pos­als to con­front Moscow more force­ful­ly will there­fore con­tribute to a dete­ri­o­ra­tion of rela­tions with our trans-Atlantic allies. The wrong steps by Washington could even push them toward Moscow and into what used to be called a “Finlandization” during the Cold War, a de facto sub­or­di­na­tion to Russian hege­mo­ny. Instead, the appro­pri­ate ques­tion for Washington to ask is whether there are ways to align U.S. strat­e­gy with inter­ests of Berlin and Paris so as to estab­lish an Atlanticist col­lab­o­ra­tion against Putin’s revan­chism. This ques­tion should be asked fur­ther­more with a view to the elec­tion cycle: not only 2020 in the United States but also 2021 in Germany and 2022 in France.

Whatever the out­come of the American elec­tion, there are hard times ahead for U.S.-German rela­tions. If Nord Stream 2 is com­plet­ed, which is likely, the sanc­tions that were passed with wide bipar­ti­san sup­port in Congress will kick in, yield­ing a per­ma­nent source of bilat­er­al irri­ta­tion. Moreover, if the next coali­tion gov­ern­ment in Berlin after 2021 includes the Greens — also likely — there will be pres­sure for Germany to offi­cial­ly retract its Wales Pledge, the 2 per­cent of GDP for defense, and to ban U.S.-NATO nuclear weapons. This, too, will have neg­a­tive bipar­ti­san reper­cus­sions in the United States.

A pro­duc­tive U.S. strat­e­gy for Germany des­per­ate­ly needs a robust com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­e­gy, direct­ed both at the polit­i­cal class and the broad public. We have ceased to make the American case well, while the German media are full of Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion. However better com­mu­ni­ca­tion and public rela­tions are hardly suf­fi­cient. U.S. diplo­ma­cy needs to explore venues for pro­duc­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion with Germany. One unex­pect­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty could involve join­ing forces to rebuild bridges to Turkey. Germany des­per­ate­ly needs a work­ing rela­tion­ship with Ankara as the linch­pin in its strat­e­gy to limit immi­gra­tion into Europe, while Washington has a vested inter­est in cul­ti­vat­ing the con­nec­tion to this impor­tant NATO ally. A joint German-American diplo­mat­ic ini­tia­tive toward Turkey could also build on Ankara’s deep sus­pi­cion of Moscow. In addi­tion, while such an ini­tia­tive would not make Greece and Turkey renounce their rec­i­p­ro­cal griev­ances, it might just pre­vent these two NATO allies from going to war with each other.

As far as the 2022 elec­tions in France are con­cerned, the good news is that nei­ther the anti-Americans on the far left or on the far right are likely to win.  Either Macron will gain a second term, or he will be replaced by a can­di­date of the center-right Republicans. The for­eign policy con­se­quence might entail a con­tin­u­a­tion of the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly French call for “strate­gic auton­o­my,” a vari­ant of a neo-Gaullism, but Paris under­stands that there are real limits to its own power. Unable to impose its mil­i­tary will even in Mali, France cannot assert itself any­where else with­out sig­nif­i­cant sup­port, and for that sup­port, there is no other can­di­date than the United States. The oppor­tu­ni­ties for Franco-American col­lab­o­ra­tion lie in the Sahel against Islamists and in the Indo-Pacific region, where France has inter­ests because of its over­seas ter­ri­to­ries and could, for exam­ple, join more free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion oper­a­tions as a way to counter the other strate­gic com­peti­tor, China.

America can rebuild its trans-Atlantic ties to Germany and France through align­ments of shared diplo­mat­ic and secu­ri­ty goals. Such align­ments can serve to con­tain America’s great-power com­peti­tors, Russia and China. For the fore­see­able future, how­ev­er, the European lead­er­ship faces polit­i­cal limits as to the extent that it can con­front Russia direct­ly. Proposals that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion becomes even more adamant than it has already been in denounc­ing Putin may surely be jus­ti­fied, given Russian actions, but we should remain aware of the dele­te­ri­ous impact our words can have on our rela­tions with vital allies. Harsher rhetoric toward Moscow only makes sense if it helps reach a worth­while polit­i­cal goal. There are smarter and more subtle ways to con­front our adver­saries, while also rebuild­ing our vital strate­gic alliances.

Russell A. Berman is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor of German Studies at Stanford University.

Image: Reuters

National Interest source|articles

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