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?