Foreign Policy Blogs

Rethinking U.S. Views of the EU


Rethinking U.S. Views of the EU

Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has written a new book, “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.” In it, Brzezinski examines the challenges most likely to threaten the ability of the U.S. to continue as the leading force in maintaining global stability. The EU comes under specific scrutiny for its inability to serve as a strategic partner, leaving a leadership deficit the U.S. must fill. The tone and content is so representative of the standard criticism of Europe by leading U.S. policymakers that it is useful to quote it at length and examine it here:

“The EU thus faces potential irrelevance as a model for other regions. Too rich to be relevant to the world’s poor, it attracts immigration but cannot encourage imitation. Too passive regarding international security, it lacks the influence needed to discourage America from pursuing policies that have intensified global cleavages, especially within the world of Islam. Too self-satisfied, it acts as if its central political goal is to become the world ‘s most comfortable retirement home. Too set in its ways, it fears multicultural diversity. With one half of the geopolitical West thus disengaged from active participation in ensuring global geopolitical stability at a time when the world ‘s new pecking order of power lacks coherence and a shared vision of the future, global turmoil and a rise of political extremism could become the West ‘s unintended legacy.” (Zbigneiw Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, New York: Basic Books, 2012).

Each of these points has come to be accepted as boilerplate criticism of the EU among U.S. policy elites. It is useful to push back against conventional wisdom, and events in the international financial within the past year open the door to a re-think of some basic U.S. accepted wisdom regarding Europe.

European Commission source – its 2009 European Innovation Scorecard acknowledges an innovation performance gap between the U.S. and the EU, but finds the EU narrowing the gap in such categories as government and private sector R&D spending, venture capital investment, and high-tech manufacturing exports. One can stipulate U.S. leadership in innovation without consigning Europe to technological stagnation. Many in the environmental lobby point to emerging European leadership in “green” technologies as a result of a longer-term commitment to market support for energy efficient technologies that the U.S. has not be able to muster.

Europe’s “passivity” regarding international security responsibilities is a weightier and more common observation. An April 2012 New York Times editorial following the successful intervention to oust Muammar el-Qaddafi praised the mission’s success while acknowledging that Europe could not have completed the operation on its own. The primary reason is Europe’s systemic lack of investment in its own defense capability; the average European NATO member nation spends 1/3 the amount the U.S. spends annually on defense (1.6 percent v. 4.8 percent of GDP). This disparity is long-standing has been often cited since Europe failed to carry the weight of NATO’s intervention in the Balkans in the late 1990s. It gains new relevance in the light of the budget environments on both sides of the Atlantic. The current sequestration deadline is the clearest example of significant doubts about the sustainability of U.S. defense spending. Europe’s own budget crises, meanwhile, make it difficult to envision its capability to significantly raise defense expenditures even if the political will could be summoned.

This begs a question at the heart of Dr. Brzezinski’s book: If Europe were willing and able to raise its defense commitments to American levels, would America welcome the change? U.S. strategic superiority stems from larger conventional forces but also tactical dominance. The U.S. lead in the inputs required to project power – from satellite intelligence to high-tech weapons systems – allows it to drive strategic decision-making. Would the U.S. sacrifice this edge in exchange for a Europe of equal capability, or would some U.S. policymakers welcome Europe as something closer to a silent partner on defense, where the U.S. conducts operations and the Europeans pay the bills?

The U.S. and EU share long-term fiscal concerns, concerns that have only grown since the recent financial crisis. Neither in position to feel “self satisfied.” It’s true that Europe’s demographics are closer to those of a retirement home than the U.S. (The U.S. Census Bureau complies “population pyramids” by age group: comparing the U.S. pyramid with those of the EU is one useful view of the greater challenge Europe faces from an aging population.) Europe’s “guns vs. butter” choice is starker. But tough decisions will need to be made on both sides of the Atlantic about how to pay for – or modify – fiscal promises to retirees while securing the world in the present.

My aim here was not a point-by-point refutation of the view of Europe presented in only a few paragraphs in Dr. Brzezinki’s book. But it does seem that the upheavals – financial and strategic – of the past decade might be cause for a pushback against immediate acceptance of conventional thinking. It may be time for a re-think.



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.