By George Friedman
U.S. President Barack Obama has re-emphasized the importance of the European Union, saying it was one of the most important inventions of the past 70 years. This claim comes after he told the British public that they should vote to stay in the EU, to the anger of those supporting an exit. They felt that Obama was interfering in British internal affairs by taking sides in a domestic dispute. Obama claimed that given historical U.S. involvement in Europe, in wars and recovery, this was justified.
A distant second after the more important question of why Obama is involving himself, is whether he thinks his opinion actually matters. Assuming he understands that his views matter in Britain about as much as British Prime Minister David Cameron’s opinion on the Republican primaries matters in the U.S., we need to think through what Obama is trying to do, since he clearly knows that he carries little weight in the matter, and might actually alienate British voters.
To begin at the beginning, European integration was an American idea. While Paul-Henri Spaak and Robert Schuman may have thought of the idea, it was the Marshall Plan that first had increased European integration as one of its goals. The Americans believed that their mission was to revive Europe and that the infusion of money wasn’t enough. Creating a harmonized economic structure was central to the recovery, so the United States pressed for some form of integration.
France resisted integration at first because it was not prepared, so soon after the war, to collaborate with Germany. The British rejected the idea because they felt they had a special relationship with the United States given the wartime alliance, and didn’t want to be tossed in with the rest of Europe, particularly the French.
It was Charles de Gaulle who finally embraced the idea, but not for economic reasons. His reasons were geopolitical. Europe was fragmented, the east was occupied by the Soviets and the Americans were an overwhelming presence. De Gaulle knew that Europe could not counterbalance the Americans or Soviets, but he believed that Europe could balance between them. Economic integration with Germany, along with smaller European states, would put France in the position of the leading European power, as Germany would play a subordinate role. Best of all, the British would not join this formation, which meant that France’s only rival in Western Europe would stay outside. He saw this as the path to resurrecting French influence. Out of this, over the course of decades, the EU emerged in the form of the Maastricht Treaty. Europeans and Americans both tend to forget the American role and the French calculation that got this rolling.
All this happened prior to such clarifying events as the Berlin Blockade by the Soviets. This led to the American strategy of containment, and alongside that, the creation of NATO. American strategy was to hem in the Soviet Union from the North Cape of Norway to Turkey. The military containment was to be complemented by an increasingly productive and prosperous Europe. Psychologically, the contrast between a prosperous Western Europe and an impoverished Eastern Europe would weaken the Soviet position and strengthen the American. But more important, a prosperous Europe meant that it could support a European military component inside NATO. It was the American plan that the Europeans play the primary role in defending against a Soviet attack while the United States would provide some forces stationed there, massive reinforcements and, of course, a nuclear deterrent.
For the United States, European prosperity was a critical factor behind the strength of NATO. This was the idea behind the Marshall Plan, and it is why the United States was always pleased to see European economic integration. But there was another reason – Germany. The United States, like the European powers, did not want to see Germany re-emerge as a major power. But it wanted Germany to be able to at least support itself, and ideally, field a substantial force against the Soviets. Germany would be the battlefield in any U.S.-Soviet conflict because of geography.
The U.S. wanted a prosperous Germany, but one whose prosperity was tied up in a system of integration that took away German room to maneuver. The U.S. had fought two wars against Germany and while American casualties were far less than others in Europe, they still were deep in the American mind. So the United States wanted a strong but constrained Germany. The U.S. was prepared to see Europe recover enough to be a strong economic competitor to the United States, so long as the Soviets were blocked by German forces and Germany was constrained in a web of prosperity.
Now, the integration that the United States put into motion is threatening to collapse, Germany is the dominant European power, but other EU countries are increasingly ignoring it, and Russia is active to the east. The structure the U.S. created after World War II is coming apart.
With it, NATO is threatening to come apart. NATO is built on the assumption that there is a common interest among the European countries and the United States. The problem of the EU today is that it is not clear that European countries have a common interest. If they have competing interests on not only economic matters, but on cultural and political issues like refugee migration, then NATO will cease to function. It is not functioning well anyway. As I have written in the past, the EU has almost 200 million more people than the United States and a GDP slightly larger, yet has a small fraction of the effective military power of the United States.
If the European Union falls apart, it is hard to see how NATO survives, even in its current state. If that happens, the direction of Germany’s foreign policy is a huge unknown, matching the huge unknown of Russia. In a certain sense, the geopolitical reality of Europe is still in place. Germany is powerful, with unknown intentions. Russia is economically fragile but militarily possibly potent. And France and Britain have little trust in each other or resources to act. The situation is far from 1914 or 1939. Still, the configuration of nation-states is familiar.
From the American point of view, this is the worst-case scenario. Germany is freed of constraint not by its will but because of the failure of the EU. Russia, rather than facing a united alliance, is facing fragmented and squabbling European states. And the United States is facing its old question. Should it withdraw from trying to manage Europe and leave it to its own devices, or should the U.S. remain involved through NATO, which is more a liability to the United States than an asset.
Obama is an American president and he is facing, in the distance, the potential for the re-emergence of the old Europe that twice drew the U.S. into wars. His policy, which has been the policy of every president since Harry Truman, is to play a significant role in Europe and to maintain the architecture it crafted 70 years ago. And that explains why he doesn’t want the EU to collapse.
Unanswered in this is why he thinks announcing U.S. desires will matter in the least. The U.S. has tolerated the imbalance in NATO with only formal complaints. It has already accepted the rise of Germany, which was inevitable anyway. And it will involve itself against Russia under any circumstances. Obama has named no consequence for the Europeans from the U.S. if the EU fails, nor is there any he can name. But it is understandable why he speaks up, however impotently, persuading only those who already agree with him.
The world that was created in the 1940s is coming apart. A Europe made up of separate nation-states has been a dangerous place for the U.S. Retaining the European Union is desirable given American history. It may be desirable given European history. That doesn’t mean it can be preserved.