America’s decision to pull troops out of Europe and the Far East should not be seen as a retreat into isolationism. On the contrary: it is classic ‘Rumsfeld-lite’ — the downsizing of old-fashioned Cold War units (principally in Germany) and a new emphasis on flexible, mobile, hi-tech forces to be located around the rim of the Eurasian heartland. By redeploying and streamlining its military the Pentagon believes it will be better placed to respond to threats anywhere in the world.
Maybe the Pentagon is right, for the time being. In spite of the streamlining, however, the Bush–Rumsfeld doctrine of ‘full spectrum dominance’ looks a lot less convincing now than it did two years ago. The ‘hegemonic’ superpower is now mired in a medium-sized Arab country whose military strength just before the invasion ranked about 50th in the world. And US forces are now so stretched that National Guardsmen and Reservists make up 40 per cent of US troops in Iraq — and a long-term occupation can only be sustained by bringing back the dreaded, and politically suicidal, draft. With the debt and deficits of the US economy rising to dangerous levels, Washington is facing a classic case of overextension.
American power remains unrivalled, of course, and it was greatly to our benefit that the United States maintained fearsomely strong forward bases in Europe during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had real weapons of mass destruction, and they were aimed at us. But the much-touted idea of a future world dominated by the US and run out of Washington and Wall Street — a Fukuyama-ised globe — now borders on the absurd. Classic American conservative realists (those around Bush the father, but not the son) understand this, and even if Bush holds on to the White House may yet persuade him to employ less braggadocio and more real understanding of power.
The new world ushered in by America’s limits will be a world of great powers. And, already, as the dust settles on the Middle East imbroglio, we can see the contours of this new great power politics. According to population and economic growth projections, by mid-century the US will be one power among equals, perhaps ‘primus inter pares’, perhaps not. It will need to adjust to a world of blocs and to multiple superpowers of which the most prominent will be China, India, South Asia and Europe (and maybe even a revitalised Japan).
But what of the short-run? The next ten years? The stark truth here — and it is as unpalatable to the neoconservatives in Washington as it is to those in Whitehall — is that the only new power able to come close to rivalling and balancing the US in the world is Europe. Even now Europe has the dimensions to rival the US. With a population of over 450 million (100 million or so more than the US), the world’s largest single market and economy (now, since the fall of the dollar, almost 20 per cent larger), and with the euro firmly established, Europe has already become a civilian superpower. And it also possesses that intangible virtue of economic stability (the obverse side of its alleged ‘sclerosis’) compared to a US prone to stock market gyrations, debt, deficits and dependence on febrile Asian money.
Washington’s hawks are of course right to mock Europe’s superpower pretensions while the Continent’s military spending remains so low — at about a half of the Pentagon’s budget, and falling. Europe will need to spend more, particularly on intelligence. Much more. Although Europe can get a much bigger ‘bang’ for its existing ‘buck’ by pooling its resources and finally developing a proper procurement strategy, its politicians need to start a serious campaign to secure public support for defence. The war on terror may help here. And as long as European military operations are placed in a European context, the pacifist tendencies in Germany can be held in check. Europe needs a militarily strong Germany. And — let’s not be bashful about it — Europe needs the Bomb. Talks between the EU’s two nuclear powers are still shrouded in mystery, but both Paris and London need to work out a nuclear strategy.
But does Europe have the will not just to spend more on defence but to become a superpower — to take on the grime and the glory of global responsibility? Are Europe’s leaders willing to play, rather than posture, on the world stage? Do they have the bottle to stand up to Washington? And should Washington falter or retrench, to fill the power vacuum?
In the past two years what Donald Rumsfeld sneeringly dismisses as ‘Old Europe’ has shown remarkable strength and independence. When the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said ‘No’ to Washington in the late spring of 2002 — calling the proposed war in Iraq an ‘adventure’ — he could not have known how fateful his decision was likely to prove. When Jacques Chirac decided to back Germany, and Vladimir Putin joined in too, it looked as though a new global alliance (potentially as powerful as the US) was about to be born.
For the first time since 1947, and the era of global American leadership, two major ‘allies’ were defying the leader of the West — and getting clean away with it. Not only were they refusing to ‘come on board’ but they were actually campaigning against the US around the globe. Europe’s most powerful leaders — minus Tony Blair — were asserting what should be an obvious truth: that the Continent has its own interests to protect, and that these interests will not always coincide with Washington’s. In other words, what’s good for America is not always good for Europe. The US may have sound reasons for bashing up Iraq, for refusing to push a Middle East peace process, even for inflaming anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab and Islamic world. But these are American reasons, not European reasons, and they serve America’s interests, not Europe’s.
Franco-German ‘Core Europe’ — ‘Charlemagna’ — is back in business. Germany now sides with France (not Washington) on security issues. Although Franco-Germany virtually amounts to a superpower itself, the idea is for this ‘core’ to act as a magnet for others. Spain has slipped out of the American orbit and joined already, and Italy will too when the Berlusconi era ends. The even bigger idea — the one that truly creates the European superpower — is to turn this Franco-German duo into a troika — with Paris and Berlin being joined by London in running the new Europe’s diplomacy (as in the three powers’ Iran initiative) and, ultimately, its defence.
To Washington’s chagrin, Tony Blair appears to have signed on for this troika. It is, of course, too early to be sure which way the Prime Minister will spin, but if he clings on to Washington’s skirts, Britain really will become a province of the American empire. There are far worse fates, to be sure, but there is also a better future. Who would not like our Mr Blair to end his dog-like dependence on a President more than 3,000 miles away?
Stephen Haseler’s new book Super-State: The New Europe and its Challenge to America is published by I.B. Tauris.