Trump Leaves Tumult At Home, Will Visit Middle East, Europe

For a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the United States had a clear aim for Europe: to bring the former communist world into the liberal international order and build a Europe whole, free, and at peace. After containing the Soviet threat for four decades (and intervening in two World Wars before that), the United States and its allies focused on enlarging the community of market democracies eastward to eliminate sources of conflict that had bedeviled Western leaders throughout the 20th century.

In November 1999, when President Bill Clinton spoke at Georgetown University to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seemed the United States and its allies were well on their way to accomplishing these goals. America began the decade supporting Germany’s unification, with a united Germany remaining fully in NATO. In the mid-1990s, the United States began pushing for NATO to include a first wave of new members from the East and supported the European Union’s steps toward enlargement. The United States, bilaterally and multilaterally through international financial institutions, provided Russia billions of dollars in the 1990s, as Clinton’s top adviser, Strobe Talbott, put it, “to help Russia complete the destruction of one system and the building, virtually de novo, of a new one.” Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin made clear that NATO expansion created political headaches for him at home, he had sought integration with the West from the start of his presidency. In 1997, he went along with plans to create a formal NATO-Russia framework (the Permanent Joint Council) for dialogue with the West. The Group of Seven advanced industrialized countries added Russia to their membership roster in 1998 to further enhance relations. NATO conducted airstrikes that paved the way for the Dayton Accords to end the war in Bosnia in 1995 and engaged in a 78-day bombing campaign in 1999 against Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia without suffering any NATO combat casualties. And as concerns emerged about the threat from radical Islamic extremists, the United States pushed Europe to take more seriously the idea of Turkish membership in the European Union in the hopes that the country could set an example for the Middle East as a secular Islamic democracy.

It was not an understatement when Clinton remarked in 1999, “Now we are at the height of our power and prosperity.” After 40 years of containing communism during the Cold War, it seemed the first ten years after communist regimes began collapsing in Eastern Europe had gone about as well as they could. The idea that any country could challenge America’s global leadership was laughable. Europe seemed on its way to overcoming its historic divisions.

Since then, however, America’s ability to promote the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace has eroded considerably. After the Iraq war and the global financial crisis, the United States lost not only its standing but also its self-confidence as global leader. Although the Eurozone economies are growing again, structural problems continue to cast doubt on the Euro’s future. The United Kingdom is negotiating its exit from the European Union, and authoritarian populism has surged in Central Europe. Russia has emerged as a power intent on undermining the Western order: It invaded Ukraine in 2014 and has launched information operations designed to disrupt electoral democracy across Europe and in the United States. And then came the election of Donald Trump, whose attitudes toward Europe have created tremendous uncertainty since he entered office.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Brexit vote, the rise of authoritarianism in Central Europe, and the continuing challenges of maintaining the Eurozone, the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace no longer serves meaningfully as a framework for America’s Europe policy. The optimism underpinning the 1989 strategy — that the West won the Cold War and could set the terms for the integration of the East, including Russia — has given way to pessimism now that Russia is bent on undermining Western institutions and populist politicians in Europe are doing the same.

Formulating a new U.S. strategy for Europe takes place in a Washington much less Euro-centric than it was during the 20th century. That was a time when the United States viewed Europe — the source of conflict in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War — as the region most vital to American strategy.

But it would be wrong to believe Europe is no longer central to American prosperity and security. The United States should reconceptualize its strategy for and with Europe along two tracks. The first has formed the core of its approach since 2014 and echoes America’s Cold War strategy: working with European allies once again to contain Russian aggression. This cannot consist of only reassuring NATO allies they will be protected against military attack, but should also include the development of serious U.S.-European collaboration in the face of Russian propaganda operations.

The second requires a true understanding of America’s foreign policy needs as it looks toward Asia. Under President Barack Obama, the United States rightly sought to respond effectively to the rise of China, the greatest geostrategic challenge facing the United States in the coming decades. But the more time, energy, and resources America focuses on the China challenge, the more it requires a Europe capable of managing threats and challenges in its own neighborhood. The new transatlantic agenda’s second track, therefore, should focus on developing a collaborative division of labor that allows the United States to continue turning its attention toward Asia. Europe, under the leadership of France and Germany and with the participation of the United Kingdom, should develop greater capacity to respond to challenges in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and North Africa region, all the while cementing the transatlantic alliance through a strong NATO.

A Spent Strategy

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Less Whole, Less Free, Less at Peace: Whither America’s Strategy for a Post-Cold War Europe?
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