Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Lovin’ Europe by Leavin’

It is past time fore our 60-year-old European child to move out of the house and get a life.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

One of the most misleading fables about this present struggle is that, since 9/11, we have squandered European good will through arrogance and our “unilateral” operations in Iraq. The controversy over the U.N., the debate about Old and New Europe, the French-German anti-American axis — they are not so much reactions to what we have done as they are expressions of a pre-existing and very unhealthy relationship that was already eroding well before September 11.

The envisioned European Union will have more territory, a greater population, and a larger economy than the United States. Their aircraft, automobile, and heavy industries are nearly comparable to ours. They are flush with dollars from staggering trade surpluses. And yet in a period of its greatest crisis since the creation of the Warsaw Pact, “Europe” — whatever that imprecise term really means — has almost no meaningful military capability.

If it spends about a fourth as much on defense as the United States, such relative budgetary comparisons are still a misleading barometer of European military weakness. The United States Marine Corps is larger than any single continental European army. One of America’s twelve carrier groups is far more potent than all of Europe’s naval forces combined. When we examine comparative research and development, field experience, recent combat history, army organization, and public attitude, the military gap only widens.

Yet this litany is ancient history now. So is the record of America’s role as savior since World War II — the Marshall Plan, protection of Europe from Soviet Communism, American support for German unification, our leadership in NATO, pledging our cities to save Europe from Soviet nuclear blackmail, and the current protection of Europe itself. Blah, blah, blah — we’ve all heard it ad nauseam and its recitation leads us nowhere.

Nor do we need to quibble any more over the cause of our decade-long and growing estrangement. Thousands of pages have been published demonstrating that the current transatlantic falling-out is the predictable result of our quite-different histories. Or is it the lack of a common deadly foe in the post-Cold War era? Some cite the envy that results from such imbalances in hard power. Others remind us of the foreign-policy effects of socialism in European politics. We all sense very deep divides over the role of multilateral institutions. Again, there is no need to regurgitate all the usual exegeses.

We are equally bored with the proposed cures. Americans are supposed to be more diplomatic. We should consult the U.N. more. A self-righteous Madeleine Albright or Jimmy Carter needs to tutor George Bush. Damn those neoconservatives who wrecked all the hard work of selfless Clintonites and internationalists. We must be patient with Western European angst over lost colonial glories. We need to defer more to NATO officials, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Kennedy School of Government, the State Department, our universities, and public intelligentsia — all the myriad generals, diplomats, experts, and politicians who assure us that our current bilateral relationships with Europe are sacrosanct and must remain unchanged.

Meanwhile, the American people who don’t read Foreign Affairs or go to briefings at Brookings grow increasingly cynical. It is not just that they grow tired with the French, or expect predictable German ingratitude — and are disgusted by Belgian silliness, Scandinavian moralizing, or Spanish and Greek antics. No, most Americans have simply lost their old willingness to support and protect Old Europe. This is a grassroots feeling, and it is relatively new — and even the cheap anti-European rhetoric of the cable news shows does not capture the simmering anger of the American people.

Oh, we recognize our common intellectual and cultural heritage. We appreciate the need for joint action in the so-called war against terrorism. And we like visiting European capitals, and enjoy many aspects of present-day European culture. But it is for those very reasons of wishing to preserve some sort of relationship that we must abandon the status quo and think of radically new ways to relate to our friends and stewards of our common cultural ancestry.

We can begin with NATO and the so-called Atlantic Alliance. Germany is up. Russia is in. America is out. The NATO plea that Europeans would like to have helped out more in Iraq, if we had just been more diplomatic — in the way that they had deployed to Afghanistan — is a myth. There was never an impressive NATO presence in Afghanistan, at least commensurate with the forces that a continent-sized ally should mobilize. The Spanish were murdered by terrorists whose ultimate genesis lay in the madrassas of North Africa and the camps along the Afghan-Pakistani border; and yet there are few Europeans there now amid the peaks working with President Musharraf and American Special Forces to prevent more al Qaedists from plying their trade.

We lament the lack of plentiful European troops in Afghanistan and Iraq for a variety of other reasons. Almost 150,000 American sailors, airmen, and soldiers are concurrently stationed in various European countries while thin lines of Americans battle in the Afghan badlands and the Sunni Triangle — a de facto damning indictment of our entire approach to military deployment abroad.

Of course, pulling troops out of Europe is a perilous enterprise, given the continent’s history in the 20th century. Nagging questions of culture, human nature, and national power are more constant than transitory. Thus our absence from Germany will chill the Poles (unless we redeploy there), and bother the French — and perhaps many of the Germans themselves who must now decide whether to press on with their nanny state, continue to subsidize southern and eastern Europeans, or at last provide for their own defense.

A vastly reduced presence in Old Europe might make American military logistics, communications, troop rotation, and transportation abroad more difficult. The present location of our bases, after all, was carefully designed for a reason by insightful American officers of the late 1940s. And how would we sort out particular reductions with particular states — given that our bilateral relationships differ and that Europe is not yet monolithic in its attitudes toward the United States?

In addition, the fewer Americans in Europe, the less influence we may have with Europeans. And how many American officers will want to pull their families out of southern Spain, the bay of Naples, Germany, and Chania, Crete to post in a former Soviet Republic, a depressed Eastern European republic, or the tense landscape of the Gulf? Imagine a Senate fact-finding committee, a delegation from the Joint Chiefs, or junketing congressmen eschewing Rome, Brussels, and Berlin for Uzbekistan or Baghdad? There are over 100,000 American dependents at our European bases for a reason.

Yet I am not sure that these old arguments for either staying or downsizing in Europe are the chief reasons we should continue our radical reassessment. True, we pay for the costs of very wealthy peoples’ own defense when they are more than able to foot the bill. There is no more Soviet Union on the borders of Europe — no raison d’être, in other words, for NATO as we once knew it. At a time of enormous budget deficits and trade imbalances with the Europeans, it makes no sense to spend billions to patrol the German countryside, keep Spanish airspace safe, or guard the Cretan Sea. All these are legitimate, practical economic concerns; but again, they are not the chief grounds to begin leaving Europe.

No, the real reason is not to end the European relationship, but to save it. And thus we must not see the current problem merely in a context of money or troops or even ingratitude, hypocrisy, and perfidy — but rather in psychological terms of dependency and its associate pathologies of enablement and passive-aggressive angst.

Precisely because we protect Europe, Europe will need ever more protecting, and will grow ever more weak. And because it will need the United States to defend it, it will ever more resent the United States. Without a real menace like the Soviet Union on its borders, Europe will find ever more outlets to vent cheaply and without consequences — at precisely the time it is most threatened by terrorists and rogue states.

In contrast, the withdrawal of Americans throughout Old Europe — sober analysts can adjudicate a remnant figure of about 30,000 or so, down from our present numbers in Spain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and Greece — will encourage Europe to rearm or face the consequences of institutionalized appeasement. That radical step — despite popular misconceptions that it is either impossible or unwise — is more a good thing than a bad one.

That way we will not be dealing with a spiteful teenager any longer, but a mature adult partner. And if — after we leave — Germany invades France or Poland a third time, then there is simply no answer to the European problem anyway. Instead we must trust in our confidence that Europeans are wise enough to settle their own affairs peacefully. Perhaps socialists who won’t fight much abroad at least won’t be likely to fight among themselves either.

So we must be farsighted and confident enough to encourage the emergence of an associate rather than a dependent. Parents are happy when their sixty-year-old sons move out and get apartments — not angry that they have lost the opportunity to feed and launder balding and perpetual adolescents.

Modern democracies rarely attack each other. A militarily strong and democratic EU could, in theory, be a bothersome rival, but it will not be an enemy. For all its invective, it does not fear the United States, precisely because it recognizes that we really do consult with friends and don’t control the Japanese, Chinese, or Europeans.

More European muscularity will allow Americans to deploy further to the East where the real challenges to democracy in the 21st century — China, North Korea, and the Middle East — lie. We can free up tens of thousands of American troops to deploy well beyond NATO’s old eastern flank, allowing Europe as a full partner to patrol the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, promote democracy around its shores, and provide a critical reserve if it wishes to help the United States face anti-democratic forces abroad.

As we depart, let us also speak in hushed tones of awe about NATO’s past undeniable achievements — even as we rue its current transformation from a military into a ceremonial alliance. We should give more braid and sabres to its officers as we accept that such Spanish, German, French, and Belgian generals will lead very few transatlantic soldiers into battle against fascists in the Middle East who threaten Western civilization.

We wish to save Europe by leaving it, to strengthen the Atlantic Alliance by altering it, and to encourage maturity and responsibility by ending dependency. Begging miffed Europeans to help in Iraq or Afghanistan in real numbers while tens of thousands of Americans are stationed in Europe is the stuff of fairy tales. The sham should end now, for the well-being of everyone involved.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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