The thin US-European relationship

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

There is talk of the trans-Atlantic relationship. It is not gone, nor even frayed. Europeans come to the United States and Americans go to Europe and both take pleasure in the other. But the connection is thin, writes George Friedman.

George Friedman is founder and chairman of Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company. 

"Most discussions on my present European trip concern U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to move decisively against Syria and how Russian President Vladimir Putin outmatched him. One of the most important aspects of the Syrian crisis what it told us about the state of U.S.-European relations and of relations among European countries.

We have spoken of the Russians, but for all the flash in their Syria performance, they are economically and militarily weak. It is Europe, taken as a whole, that is the competitor for the United States. Its economy is still slightly larger than the U.S. economy, but its military is weak, though unlike Russia this is partly by design.

The U.S.-European relationship helped shape the 20th century. American intervention helped win World War I, and American involvement in Europe during World War II helped ensure an Allied victory. The Cold War was a trans-Atlantic enterprise, resulting in the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the European Peninsula. What will the relationship be between these two great economic entities, which together account for roughly 50 percent of the world's gross domestic product, in the 21st century?

The events surrounding Syria hint at the answer. The Syrian crisis began with calls to arms from the United Kingdom, France and Turkey. Though reluctant, Washington ultimately joined in. Only then did European opinions diverge. In the United Kingdom, the parliament voted against intervention. In Turkey, the government favored intervention on a much larger scale. And in France, the president favored intervention but faced a less enthusiastic parliament.

Each European country crafted its own response — or lack of response — to the Syrian crisis. Nothing is more striking than the foreign policy split between France and Germany not only on Syria but on Mali and Libya as well. The need to bind France and Germany economically was a central driver behind the creation of the European Union and its postwar precursors. French and German divergence was the root of European wars.

Yet that divergence has returned. Their differences have not manifested as virulently as they did before 1945, but still, it can no longer be said that their foreign policies are synchronized. In fact, the three major powers on the European Peninsula currently are pursuing very different foreign policies. The United Kingdom is moving in its own direction, limiting its involvement in Europe and trying to find its own course between Europe and the United States. France is focused to the south, on the Mediterranean and Africa. Germany is trying to preserve the trade zone and is looking east at Russia.

Nothing has ruptured in Europe, but then Europe as a concept has always been fluid. The European Union has not become more organized since 1945; in some fundamental ways, it has become less organized. Where previously there were only geographical divisions, now there are also conceptual divisions.

Differences between the United States and Europe were also made clear in the Syrian crisis. Had President Obama chosen to intervene, he could have acted in Syria as he saw fit — he didn't necessarily need congressional approval but sought it anyway. Europe could not act because there really isn't a singular European foreign or defense policy. But more important, no individual European nation has the ability by itself to conduct an air attack on Syria.

Here in Europe, Obama is criticized for his handling of the Syria intervention. I am old enough to remember that Europeans have always thought of U.S. presidents as either naive, as they did with Jimmy Carter, or as cowboys, as they did with Lyndon Johnson, and held them in contempt in either case. After some irrational exuberance from the European left, Obama has now been deemed naive, just as George W. Bush was deemed a cowboy.

My response to such criticism has always been a tricky one. Imagine the fine sophisticates of 1914 and 1939 with nuclear weapons. Do you think the ones responsible for entering two horrible wars could have resisted using nuclear weapons?  These weapons were controlled by American cowboys and fools and by Russian "conspirators" — the European vision of all Russian leaders. Yet amid profound differences and distrust, U.S. and Soviet leaders managed to avoid the worst. The Europeans think well of the sophistication of their diplomacy. I have never understood why they feel that way.

We saw this in Syria. First, Europe was all over the place. Then the coalition that coaxed the Americans in fell apart, leaving the United States virtually alone. When Obama went back to his original position, they decided that he had been outfoxed by the Russians. Had he attacked, he would have been dismissed as another cowboy. Whichever way it had gone, and whatever role Europe played in it, it would have been the Americans that simply didn't understand one thing or another.

The sentiment differs throughout Europe. The British were indifferent to the entire matter; they were far more interested in what the Federal Reserve would say. The Eastern Europeans, feeling the pressure of the Russians — both in reality and in their nightmares — can't imagine why the Americans would let this happen to them.

Whenever I visit Europe — and I was born in Europe — I am struck by how profoundly different the two places are. I am struck at how the United States is disliked and held in contempt by Europeans. I am also struck at how little Americans notice or care.

There is talk of the trans-Atlantic relationship. It is not gone, nor even frayed. Europeans come to the United States and Americans go to Europe and both take pleasure in the other. But the connection is thin. Where once we made wars together, we now take vacations. It is hard to build a Syria policy on that framework, let alone a North Atlantic strategy.

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