Do Europeans Secretly Aspire to be "Safe," Even at the Price of Being "Irrelevant"?     Print Email

The Irish “no” to the European Union’s modernization blueprint has fueled a new round of skeptical American commentary about Europeans’ real ambitions. “In Europe, a Slide Toward Irrelevance” was the title of an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Robert Kagan, a foreign-policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain. “The danger of this latest blow to European confidence is that our allies, including Britain, could gradually sink into global irrelevance,” Kagan wrote.

This view dwells on an alleged pattern in which European voters seem to shun opportunities to gain unity for EU action. Further, it appears as if Europe’s governments have been unable to put together the political clout necessary to match the EU’s economic weight. This new negative view among some analysts about the EU’s lack of ambition is the opposite of the prevailing concern in recent years in Washington about the risks of seeing the EU seek to become a counter-balancing power to the United States in international affairs.

Nowadays, according to Kagan, Europeans seem hesitant to gird themselves to face a growing array of challenges. The outcome of the Irish ballot has left the EU less equipped to deal with Western economic slowdown, the increasingly competitive Asian sector, mounting European dependence on imports of monopolized Russian energy, and immigration and assimilation issues. The Treaty of Lisbon – now in limbo – was intended to address a number of these problems, notably by restructuring the EU’s leadership institutions to provide a stronger voice on the international level.

Now the proposed treaty is threatened with unraveling. Ireland was the only country where it was put to a popular vote, and European leaders say privately that it would have been rejected in some other EU nations that chose to avoid putting it to vote by sticking to the formula of parliamentary ratification.

Such questions about Europeans’ deepest – and perhaps unconscious – attitudes are not confined to Washington. Gideon Rachman, a leading commentator of the Financial Times in London, seems to concur in Kagan’s skepticism about Europeans’ political will, writing recently that Europeans may actually prefer a kind of “nirvana” based on weakness rather than having to shoulder the burdensome responsibilities of a global political and economic power. Europeans, Rachman said, may ultimately want nothing more than to become a kind of super-safe Switzerland, with no real voice in world power politics.

Hubert Vedrine, the former French foreign minister, expressed similar questions about Europeans’ collective political will in an interview with European Affairs to be published next week.

Of all the foreseeable poles in the multi-polar world, it is the European pole whose future is the most uncertain; I question whether Europe truly has the will and motivation to become a full player. Maybe Europeans will prefer becoming a huge Switzerland – a well-protected zone with a very high standard of living and great liberty, but without the responsibility of power. European public opinion seems to suggest a desire for this condition of being detached from responsibility.”

Kagan famously created the figurative comparison that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” in his book Of Paradise and Power, which argued that Americans are more inclined than Europeans nowadays to see force as a solution to international crises. His subsequent book, Dangerous Nation, described America’s historical readiness since independence in the 18the century to undertake international intervention. (It was reviewed in European Affairs by James Steinberg, who has been named to Obama’s panel of foreign-policy advisers. Kagan has spent the last four years in Europe, and his return to Washington was marked by the publication of his new treatise, The Return of History and the End of Dreams. This book warns about possible new threats to global stability from autocratic powers, notably Russia and China: it will be noted in the forthcoming issue of European Affairs.