America shouldn’t remain indifferent to the crisis in Europe

Natalie Nougayrède writes: In 1947 George Marshall, the US secretary of state, went to Europe. He was shocked by what he saw: a continent in ruins, and rampant hunger. The mood in Paris, Berlin and other capitals was resigned and doom-laden. On returning to Washington, Marshall told President Truman that something dramatic needed to be done – and very soon. The initiative would have to come from Washington, he said.

On 5 June, in a speech to students at Harvard, Marshall announced his European recovery programme. It became, in the words of the British politician Ernest Bevin, “a lifeline to sinking men”. The Marshall plan not only helped Europe back on its feet, it laid the groundwork for the cooperation that ultimately led to the creation of the European Economic Community, the European Union’s predecessor.

In Davos this week Joe Biden, the US vice-president, may well have had a shock similar to Marshall’s. Of course today’s gloom in Europe is not comparable to the devastation left by the second world war – but alarmist language is being heard all the same. Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, has spoken of a risk of European “dislocation”. “Europe has forgotten that history is fundamentally tragic,” he said. Joachim Gauck, the German president, also used the word “tragic” when describing Europe’s difficulties over the refugee crisis.

Europe today is in such a shambles that it is not absurd to ask whether the US should again do something about it, or whether the old continent even matters to American strategic interests any more. The answer to both questions should be a resounding “yes”.

It is obviously unrealistic to think the US is likely to repeat the kind of assistance it deployed in 1947. But the US urgently needs to seriously re-engage on European matters. Failing that, it risks seeing the European project unravel, with more disorder pouring into and across the continent and, ultimately, the loss of key allies.

Europe is currently struggling with the danger of Brexit and major security threats (which include terrorism, and Russian aggression), as well as the political fallout of the refugee crisis. It’s not that US action in itself would miraculously solve all these problems, but its aloofness has arguably contributed to making them worse. [Continue reading…]

Update in response to comments: Natalie Nougayrède’s reference to the Marshall Plan seems to have led readers to conclude the lifeline she’s calling for is financial. After all, that’s what foreigners always do, isn’t it: beg for money from the U.S.!

Actually, her first appeal is for Obama to be forthright in making it clear that the U.S. has a strong interest in Britain remaining in the EU. The British naively and nostalgically cling on to the UK’s (one-sided) “special relationship” with the U.S.. A wake up call from Washington might alienate a few people, but I think they’d be outnumbered by those who recognized that this kind of counsel was well-intentioned and realistic. Moreover, departure from the EU would have much larger repercussions than diminishing the value of U.S.-UK relations. It may well lead to the rapid breakup of the UK as Scotland seeks swift independence so that it can remain in the EU.

How much would this piece of political engagement cost the U.S.? Nothing.

Second, she calls for “more US political leverage” in supporting a common European defense policy. Cost? Nothing.

Third, “the US cannot continue to treat the refugee crisis destabilising Europe as if it were a far-flung problem that doesn’t affect its direct interests. Around 4.5 million refugees have fled the Syrian civil war. The US has taken just 2,600.”

Refugees are not only fleeing from Syria but also Iraq and Afghanistan (and many other countries).

Instability across the Middle East cannot be attributed solely to American meddling and yet in the last two decades there was no single action that had a more destabilizing effect than the decision to invade Iraq.

Americans who supported the war and many of those who opposed it are now apparently unified in believing that, like a hit-and-run driver, the best course of action is to flee the scene of the crime.

Certainly, those who argue that America’s military interventions invariably seem misguided have plenty of evidence to support their argument.

But when it comes to the issue of helping Europe handle the refugee crisis, the primary impediment in the U.S. is not financial; it’s Islamophobic cowardice.

After the United States had finished carpet-bombing Vietnam and dousing its jungles with Agent Orange and the war’s failure had become undeniable, part of the aftermath of that unconscionable and delusional intervention was that there was sufficient decency in the U.S. to accept what eventually amounted to 1.3 million refugees settling here.

For the U.S. to now step up and welcome tens or even hundreds of thousands more refugees from the Middle East is not to make some unreasonable demand on American generosity. It’s part of paying the price of war.

It’s one thing to argue in advance against meddling in the affairs of other countries and on that basis to promote a relatively benign insularity, but when the meddling has been rampant and long-running, then insularity is just another name for irresponsibility. The United States doesn’t have the option of becoming Switzerland.

Having said that, Nougayrède’s appeal here is less blaming and by no means strident: it is for the U.S. to recognize that it really does have a stake in Europe’s future and it should not remain a mute bystander watching the European project fall apart.

Is that too much to ask?

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5 thoughts on “America shouldn’t remain indifferent to the crisis in Europe

  1. pabelmont

    So, we need a new Marshall plan? Several of them (say one for fighting climate change in poor-ish countries) ? Well, what about all those billionaires at davows (and perhaps elsewhere) ? Isn’t it time they contribute? They own most of the world, so they should make an investment for its health and safety.

    About time.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    The issues here have less to do with financial commitments than with a need for the U.S. to become psychologically, politically, and socially engaged with this unfolding crisis. The American mentality both outside and inside Washington tends to be one of insularity in relationship to issues being confronted an ocean away — thus the assumption that whatever can be kept outside these borders isn’t America’s problem.

    Many Europeans are making the same mistake.

    It’s the same mentality that leads people to live inside gated communities where they don’t need concern themselves with social decay so long as its expressions can be kept outside the gates.

    This is also evident in the toxic ideology of political realism with its focus on national interests.

    In each case, collective interests get narrowly defined for the purpose of being able to say: this is not our problem.

    Everyone who makes that argument should be viewed with suspicion because if you dig deep enough, chances are that you’ll find that the core of their worldview is that everyone needs to look out for their own interests and collective interests are really a fiction. Margaret Thatcher: “there is no such thing as society.”

  3. Steve Peebles

    The US initiated the financial crisis which wreaked havoc all across the Western world.
    The US invaded Iraq, which turned a combustible Middle East into fireworks.
    The US supported the anti-Assad rebels just enough to create a nasty civil war but not enough to oust Assad.

    And that lady from the Guardian is telling the Euros what they need is more American engagement! That’s the sorry state of journalism today…

  4. hquain

    “But the US urgently needs to seriously re-engage on European matters.” I have to admit that I can’t even begin to see how this could happen. Where is the internal dynamic that leads to anything like this? Even the word ‘serious’ seems misplaced in the current context.

    The US is a shambles and thinks of itself as a shambles. It feels very strange for someone else to be calling to us to throw out a lifeline.

  5. Internationalist

    America’s capacity to “step in to save us” (a subheading designed to flatter and which the article clearly does not believe in) is greatly limited by the fact that Europe’s failings are largely America’s too.

    The crises outlined in the article can be regarded as different manifestations of a (morbid, perverse) populistic nationalistic reaction against globalisation. This reaction is largely articulated by those politicians on the right who stand to benefit the most from it, but is also present among many “progressive” commentators. Criticism of the current international order and a paucity of ideas on how to improve it go hand-in-hand.

    The anger, the dejection and the cluelessness among the public and the intellectuals are pretty much the same on both sides of the pond. In terms of policy, the difference between Obama’s stimulus and European austerity after 2008 was negligible compared to the divergent paths taken by the US and Western Europe after 1929 (especially considering that European austerity has been imposed against the backdrop of a more generous welfare state). Globalisation/equalisation is at work.

    The notion that America is uniquely suited to stem the tide is a vapid, nostalgic conceit. Obama can and should offer political endorsement to Merkel* on the refugee issue, and express support for British membership of the EU, but such “interfering” gestures are just as likely to motivate the nativist forces in Europe as not. As for receiving a share of the refugee flows commensurate to the size of the US, good luck with that in an election year.

    The US still has significant clout with regard to the relationship with Russia. Then again, the article limits itself to making vague noises about “Russian aggression”, fostering a common European defence and yet not falling into a “Cold-war mindset” (that last one via a link). The author could be deemed to be safely straddling the line between (Cold-war) hawkishness and a sort-of-progressive containment policy, if the line weren’t so blurry.

    Since the article has no political imagination, it cannot acknowledge the limits of our imagination. I would start by pointing out that an arrangement with Russia along the lines of the post-war agreement between the West and the Soviet Union on Finland might conceivably have allowed to meet the aspirations of the majority of Ukrainians while allowing Putin to save face domestically (his primary concern). Then I would wonder why such a thing has not been on the cards.

    *: better still, he could explicitly endorse the position articulated by the European Parliament. Then again, most “sophisticated” Americans and Europeans would regard such a gesture as odd and irrelevant at best…

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