Weak America Weakened Europe

In Today’s Interdependent World, Nuclear Warheads No Longer Bestow influence; It’s a Country’s Ability to get Others to Cooperate

Opinion | Christoph Bertram | September 2007

America’s power has been so overwhelming for so long that many think it has survived George W. Bush’s presidency unscathed. That this is untrue is demonstrated by those - from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe --  who are exploiting America’s loss of standing and influence.

This is no cause for schadenfreude. On the contrary, it is high time for friends of the United States, particularly in Europe, to realise that America’s weakness undermines their international influence as well.

The evidence of America’s weakness is clear enough. At the height of America’s power, Russia had resigned itself to the apparently unstoppable encroachment of NATO on the Soviet Union’s former sphere of influence.

President Putin tolerated a US presence in Central Asia to assist in the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan and raised no serious objections when the US trashed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty prohibiting strategic missile defenses.

America, eager to bring both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, felt scant need to consider Russian concerns, convinced that the Kremlin would have no choice but to bow to the inevitable.

That was yesterday. Today, Putin seeks to regain the influence Russia lost in previous years. He is skillfully playing the anti-America card across Europe while putting pressure on the Baltic states, a clear warning not to extend NATO any further. In Ukraine, political forces resisting closer strategic links to the West have gained ground. And the Kremlin is aggressively portraying the planned establishment of a modest US missile defense installation in Poland and the Czech Republic as a threat to Russia’s vital security interests.

Or consider Iran, another power exploiting American weakness. Only a few years ago, Iran’s government seemed sufficiently in awe of the US to inch toward an agreement on its nuclear program that would have interrupted, and perhaps even halted, its enrichment activities. There was talk of possible bilateral contacts with the US, which, if successful, would have ended almost three decades of hostile relations. Today, Iran’s enrichment program is going ahead despite the United Nations Security Council’s warnings of new sanctions, while Iranian officials publicly ridicule threats of US military action.

These examples reflect the same message: America is losing clout around the world. The Bush administration is internationally exposed in both the arrogance of its concepts and the limits of its power. It lacks support at home and respect abroad.

Never since the US became the world’s predominant power during World War II has there been a similar decline in its international influence. Even during the Vietnam War and following its humiliating withdrawal from Southeast Asia, there was never any serious doubt about America’s authority and ability to deal with what was then the central strategic challenge, the Cold War.

In today’s interdependent world, however, it is no longer the number of nuclear warheads that bestows influence, but a country’s ability to get others to go along with policies that it regards as serving its major interests. Bush’s America has forfeited that influence – in the Middle East, in Asia and Africa, and in much of Europe.

Many in the U.S. like to think that this is a temporary state of affairs that will vanish with the election of a new president and Congress in 2008. But they are neither sufficiently aware of the damage done nor realistic enough about the chances of Bush’s potential successors – many of whom initially supported his adventurism – to revive the trust and respect their country once enjoyed.

To achieve that will take more than a new face in the White House. It will require years of hard work to reconcile America’s resources and requirements, and to ensure that its initiatives can once again be seen as designed not to serve narrow US ideologies, but to advance a fair international order.

The result of protracted US weakness is also a weaker Europe. In the heyday of American dominance, European governments profited doubly: They were part of a powerful West and courted as a potential counterweight to US dominance by third countries. If they dissented from US positions, this did not seriously impair the West’s strategic efficacy because American power was more than sufficient to compensate.

That arrangement no longer works. If European governments today distance themselves from America, as their citizens frequently demand, they will both antagonize and further weaken the US.

At the same time, they will undermine their own international influence, allowing others to play off Europe against America, destroying as well what chance remains for rebuilding the West with a reformed America. European leaders, even when they are unhappy over US positions, therefore need to combine forceful support for the transatlantic community of interests with discrete, if firm, lobbying in Washington not to strain it to the breaking point.

Whether they can successfully perform this difficult act, remains to be seen. Fortunately, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Gordon Brown understand the challenge, and at least some parts of the Bush government seem aware of the problem.

In the long period of American weakness, European leaders will have to demonstrate statesmanship for the West as a whole. It is a role for which decades of US supremacy have scarcely prepared them.

Christoph Bertram was formerly Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, Germany.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.


Other articles from this issue