Victoria Nuland did not make me write this blog post, but she clearly helped me. Having spent the past week in Washington, D.C., I have again been struck by how few people in that town give a hoot about Europe. They care about China, naturally; the Middle East, of course; Russia, again; and Iran, as ever. But from an American perspective, Europe plainly has no real role in any of that. High time for a hefty dose of realism in transatlantic relations.
For at least twenty years, America’s capital has been losing its sentimental Europe-friendly leanings. Ever since the glory of the American unipolar moment of the mid-1990s, when growth was endless, the world looked as flat as White House interns looked curvy, and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden was in middle school, the number of truly dedicated Europeanists has been falling.
None of that is new, of course, and Europe has become used to it. What’s new is that even the remaining Europeanists, such as Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia and a former ambassador to NATO, have moved from devotion to disdain when it comes to Europe’s capacity to play a role in the world.
The EU’s contribution to the Iranian nuclear issue—no matter how celebrated it is in the Brussels bubble—has never been taken seriously on the Potomac. Normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo is considered too small an issue to make a lasting impression on U.S. observers. And the failure to secure Ukraine’s signature on an EU trade and association agreement last fall has only reinforced Americans’ general feeling of European uselessness.
Nuland’s recent remarks during a leaked phone conversation, in which she revealed her frustration with EU policy on Ukraine by saying “F*** the EU,” were not an accident. Her words represent a widespread feeling: not only does Europe not matter, it actually sucks. That Nuland recommended taking the Ukrainian dossier away from the EU and giving it to the UN to “glue it” only adds insult to injury. When a U.S. diplomat prefers the UN over allies in Europe, you know it can’t possibly get any worse.
Only that it can.
Because Europeans today have similar feelings about the United States. When you combine the hardening U.S. perception of Europe with an increasingly negative European image of America, you are entering dangerous territory. I don’t mean European views of Guantánamo Bay, drones, or the NSA’s bugging of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. I mean that European foreign policy buffs, many of them ardent transatlanticists, perceive a U.S. administration that is giving in to parochial isolationism and sleepwalking through international affairs.
What Europeans see when they look across the Atlantic Ocean is a U.S. president uninterested in providing global leadership. They see a United States that was largely absent when the Europeans embarked on their geopolitical adventure with Ukraine, that woke up late to the story, and that came lecturing when things turned sour. They see an administration that left Central Europeans in the lurch on missile defense and then caused irritation by announcing a noisy but ultimately immaterial pivot to Asia.
Nor did it help the Americans’ cause to publicly lecture NATO partners that were teetering on the brink of economic collapse about spending more on defense—no matter how valid that plea might have been from a strict capabilities standpoint.
And so finger-pointing is the transatlantic pastime of the moment. If such vanity continues, even the last big Euro-American project, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently under negotiation, could be jeopardized.
What is the alternative? It is what could be called transatlantic realism. That starts with Americans recognizing that the EU is not useless, and that there are a few files on which the United States will simply be unable to find a solution without the Europeans. Despite its often lackluster performance, the EU has potentially formidable tools to bring to the table on Russia and Eastern Europe, on the critical issue of Turkey, and maybe, just maybe, on Iran. In contrast, on the Middle East peace process, Syria, Egypt, and China, Europe has less to offer.
At the same time, Europeans should understand that EU countries must do two things. First, they must forget about false aspirations and pointless pet projects around the world, and instead focus efforts on a reduced set of issues. Europeans must do what is hardest for them: prioritize.
Second, EU member states must swallow a large amount of national pride and start working on these issues together. At least on that small number of important issues, Europeans should overcome Robert Kaplan’s “narcissism of small differences” that reigns supreme between them.
To ensure the success of transatlantic realism, Americans and Europeans need to sit down and chart their policy course on these issues as partners. Joint planning and coordinated diplomacy would do much to help create lasting impact where the results of unilateral action have so far been rather poor.
It rings hollow for Europeans to call for the Russians to come on board to solve the Ukraine conundrum when the Americans aren’t on board first. The EU and the United States should give Russian President Vladimir Putin a little less to gloat about by showing him that the West can still act as one—occasionally, but decisively.
Transatlantic realism will end all romantic notions of Cold War–era togetherness. It will deflate the idea that America is still strong enough to go it alone and that Europeans are useless. And it will destroy the notion that Brussels can stand on the sidelines while Washington does the ugly stuff.
A dose of realism will undermine the childish illusion that Britain, France, or Germany can hope to win glory based on yesterday’s achievements. It will make obsolete the federalist dream that the EU can be a strategic global player on its own. And, by doing all that, it might even force Victoria Nuland to revert to slightly more elegant vocabulary.