The United States Needs Europe

‘In an interconnected world, there are no global problems that can be solved without the United States, and few that can be solved by the United States alone.’ United States National Security Strategy, 2015, p. 3.

‘A strong Europe is our indispensable partner, including for tacking global security challenges, promoting prosperity, and upholding international norms.’ United States National Security Strategy, 2015, p. 25.


The United States needs strong allies in Europe. The United States also needs European unity. This is has been a recurrent theme in Barack Obama’s foreign policy since the start of his campaign for the presidency in 2007. It is a theme he borrowed from the second administration of George W. Bush. It is also one of Obama’s greatest disappointments in shaping U.S. relations with the outside world. From the outset, both Obama and his predecessors have been explicit that the United States needs Europe’s strength to promote world order and uphold democratic values. U.S. foreign policy is most effective when it works in concert with Europe. It is least effective when coordination across the Atlantic falters or when Europe is divided or distracted. Future U.S. Presidents will struggle to adapt if European division and distraction becomes the norm. In fact, that may be happening already. Despite the strong language of his 2015 National Security Strategy, President Obama seems to be moving in a direction that relies less on trans-Atlantic cooperation.

To understand U.S. dependence on Europe, the first step is to understand the importance of ‘global leadership’ in American foreign policy discourse. The United States is unique among world powers in its popular commitment to world leadership. Obama refers to this as an ‘undeniable truth – America must lead’. The trick is to figure out what this leadership mean in practice. George W. Bush understood leadership as doing whatever he believed to be in the national interest, no matter what support or opposition he might garner from friends and allies. Obama redefined leadership as creating the conditions within which America’s friends and allies have fewer incentives to ‘free ride’ on U.S. foreign policy and greater commitment to accept their share of responsibility for addressing global problems.

There is a material logic to Obama’s understanding of leadership. The United States does not have either the resources or the political will to act as the world’s policeman. Moreover, efforts to intervene unilaterally and recruit allies after the fact are both expensive and wasteful. This is the lesson Obama drew from U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. By ‘leading from behind’, Obama sought to husband American military resources more carefully. His expectation was that close friends and allies could be shown how interest translates into responsibility and so could be encouraged to take up the slack. Alas, the intervention in Libya was a test case; it was also a failure. Europe was divided on the wisdom of the intervention; it was also distracted during the aftermath. Now the whole world must face the consequences.

The failure of intervention in Libya did not vitiate Obama’s theory of U.S. leadership. Instead, it made him more wary of America’s partners in Europe. The sudden reversal of U.S. policy toward Syria in 2013 is a good illustration. When British Prime Minister David Cameron failed to win parliamentary authorization, Obama effectively cancelled his support for military action by calling for a similar vote in Congress. He also began looking for alternatives. As luck would have it, Russia offered a face-saving solution to the problem of Syrian chemical weapons. Whether Obama was cynical or sincere in responding to the British vote is debatable; what is not open to debate is the fact that the fate of Syria is more important to Europe than to the United States. Had the U.S. intervened without substantial European support, it would have been overextending itself militarily while at the same time encouraging Europeans to focus their attention elsewhere.

The challenge for future U.S. presidents is to encourage Europeans to match their resources to their interests. As explained in the 2015 National Security Strategy, ‘we and our partners must make the reforms and investments needed to make sure we can work more effectively with each other’. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Obama made the point more explicitly. He warned Cameron that if Britain did not spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on security, he could forget having a ‘special relationship’ with the United States. The same implicit threat applies to Europe more generally. This is what U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates tried to explain in his valedictory address to America’s NATO allies in June 2011. A future U.S. Congress will not allocate resources to European security if Europeans are unwilling to invest in their own defense.

That reluctance to support allies who will not support themselves is on full display in the current round of U.S. Presidential elections. Three of the four candidates hardly pay lip service to conventional notions of U.S. global leadership. Instead they talk about getting a good deal for America (Donald Trump), protecting U.S. interests robustly (Ted Cruz), or retreating to a narrower conception of what is both possible and desirable at the world level (Bernie Sanders). Only Hillary Clinton emphasizes the importance of continuity in foreign policy and she as much as anyone is tarred by the setbacks in Libya and the Levant. A Clinton Presidency would rely heavily on European partners for an effective foreign policy. If Europe were too divided and distracted to support U.S. global leadership, then it is very likely that Europeans will have to learn to live with the alternatives.

This essay was originally published on ‘The Cipher Brief’.  You can access the edited version here.


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