By Paolo von Schirach
January 31, 2012
WASHINGTON – Wolfgang Ischinger, former German Deputy Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, former Russian Foreign Minister, and San Nunn, former US Senator, and once Chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, in their current role as co-chairmen of the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative voice their concern about the future of the Euro-Atlantic community in an op-ed piece in The International Herald Tribune, (Euro-Atlantic Goals, January 31, 2012). The writers lament the lack of policy focus and poor coordination among the key players in this large area encompassing Europe, Russia and North America. At the end of the Cold War, It was hoped that this region could become the driving force for positive change based on new cooperation linking Europe and America, the old partners and a new democratic Russia. But this did not happen. Arguably, Europe and the US are drifting apart, while old enmities with Russia have resurfaced.
Revive the Atlantic Community?
The three former leaders advocate better military to military cooperation, a rethinking about the purpose of missile defense, and a joint, cooperative approch to the exploitation of the vast resources of the Arctic, among other issues. Their underataking is laudable. But the chances of success are dim, mostly because of the profound changes, all for the worse, affecting both Europe and America. Russia is a different story, but not a very good one either.
Simply put, the old foundations are gone. The Atlantic bond and the NATO Alliance that shaped it were based on both a shared fear of a common foe, the old Soviet Union, and on an underlying optimism about the strength, vitality and moral superiority of Western nations. And look where we are now. Whatever the spats with Putin’s Russia, this is not the old Soviet Union, with armoured divisions stationed in East Germany, just a few miles miles from Hamburg, as former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt used to remind us, back in the 1980s. Today’s Russia represents no immediate threat to Europe. So, the old glue based on a shared security concern is no longer there, (even though it has not been replaced by a genuine new friendship with a post-Soviet Russia).
Loss of optimism
But the real impediment to the reaffirmation of a spirited and dynamic Atlantic Community is the loss of optimism. Forgive the cliche‘, but the West is in decline and the remedies advocated by politicians will tend to create a more inward looking political climate. Wounded societies will use their diminished resources to try and fix their domestic issues. There is now little spare capacity and even less political will to seriously engage with the outside world on anything that would demand steady commitments. Anything requiring effort and any type of coordination that may entail domestic sacrifices is now politically unwelcome.
In the US, focus on divisive domestic issues of social justice
Look, America, although doing a bit better than Europe, is saddled with a gigantic national debt and year after year enormous budget deficits that are already causing cuts in security spending. But, aside from Pentagon cuts, (in fact the three statesmen are proposing better security coordination, not new and costly security undertakings), the focus of debate in America has shifted away from growth strategies and confidence in globalization, and is now on who should shoulder the bigger burden of the downturn.
President Obama is running for re-election this November on a platform based on how he will guarantee that the rich pay a bigger share of the cost of fixing public finances. This new focus on “fairness” tends to fuel existing and partly justified social and political animosities that will end dividing Americans. Indeed, whatever the objective merit and the justifications for redistributive policies, a nation divided, in which different groups fight to determine who should pay more, will have no energy for foreign matters not considered absolutely vital. So, while we debate about how much the rich should be taxed, there is little interest in new efforts aimed at revitalizing transatlantic bonds with Europe whose value is not immediately apparent. (The fact that the otherwise laughable presidential aspirations of Texas Congressman Ron Paul who proposes complete withdrawal from foreign committments have at least some traction this year, especially among young voters, is evidence of a profound shift in America.)
Europe: the crisis of the welfare state
Well, if this is the new mood in America, in Europe it is much, much worse. Southern Europe is essentially a disaster area, with no one really facing the fact tat the fiscal and debt crises have been caused by costly state run programs and over generous welfare systems that could not be funded by anemic growth in increasingly non competitive economies. And, although right now the focus is still on putting out the fires and eliminating contagion in the banking systems, very few are willing to propose a rejection of the old societal models as a new way forward.
On the contrary, the idea is about doing more of the same, only reapportioning the costs. In the unfolding campaign for the French presidency, Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger to president Nicolas Sarkozy, would like to keep the old welfare state just as it was. He wants to go back to a lower age of 60 for full pension benefits. At the same time, just like president Obama, he put forward laughable plans to re-industrialize France by bringing back manufacturing that migrated long ago to low cost Asia. The idea is that it may be possible to reassert manufacturing, this time however with more aggressive protection against unfair competitors. And at the same a Socialist President would fight the domestic enemies: the fat cats, the bankers and financiers who have amassed vast fortunes, while the rest of the country suffers.
Populism and protectionism do not mix well with international solidarity
So, in France there is an unhealthy mix of populist class warfare and rising protectionist sentiment. Not a good base for grand new transatlantic initiatives. And do not expect bold new leadership from Germany either. The Germans, while better off economically, right now are mostly concerned with forcing rather recalcitrant Southern EU partners to adopt even more stringent austerity measures, so that there will be no more fiscal crises in the future.
All well and good. But the problem is that austerity without growth strategies will further weaken already weak Southern Europe. Even leaving aside the political fall out of a strong anti-German sentiment –something that does not augur well for intra-European cohesion– I would not count on Greece, Italy, Spain, (more than 20% unemployment), and Portugal to provide a vigorous contribution to any policy aimed at strengthening Euro-Atlantic relations. In the years ahead, they will do their best just to stay alive.
We thought we were better, thus bound to lead
After WWII victorious America and resurgent Europe forged a bond based in large part on the genuine belief that their countries shared the superior foundations of democracy and enterprise. And it was that very self-assurance, that sense of moral superiority that engendered optimism and a willingness to cooperate with other like minded Western nations.
But now that strong belief in Western superiority is gone and with that went the interest in cooperating in the name of the expansion of Western principles. Europe and (even if to a lesser extent) America are now inward looking, unsure and hesitant. Their politics are focused more on fighting over what is left at home rather than on dreaming about an expansive, bright future. The Atlantic Community, for many decades the driving vehicle of Western solidarity, is a major casualty of this new era of reduced expectations and no dreams.