Boston Globe: ‘Europe’s wimpy servility is really wisdom’

A Polish soldier stands near US, Poland, and NATO flags as US paratroopers arrive to participate in training exercises in April.
A Polish soldier stands near US, Poland, and NATO flags as US paratroopers arrive to participate in training exercises in April.

THE UNITED STATES and Europe are drifting slowly apart. This may be to the benefit of both, but the prospect of a more independent Europe distresses some in Washington. They complain, ever more loudly since Russia’s seizure of Crimea, that Europe refuses to take enough responsibility for its own security. Some European countries are not responding to the land grab in ways the United States deems sufficiently tough or confrontational.

This is a preview of things to come. The Crimea crisis demonstrates an important geopolitical truth that the United States would be wise to recognize: For reasons of history and especially geography, Europeans and Americans see the world much differently.

When leaders of the 28 NATO countries meet in September in the Welsh countryside, they will have trouble reaching a consensus on how to deal with Russia. The United States, supported by some European countries, is pushing for harsh sanctions to punish Russia for its grab of Crimea, formerly part of Ukraine. The moral superiority we will feel by poking a stick in the bear’s face will not be tempered by much economic loss. And if Russia lashes out again, we will not be directly affected. Being far away from Ukraine, and lacking strong economic ties to Russia, makes it easy for us to promote tit-for-tat escalation.

Some Europeans are uncomfortable with this approach. They sense a shared continental fate, one that includes Russia but not necessarily the United States. Much has been made of Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas, but their sense of community is based on more than economics. Russian and European identities have always overlapped.

Maintaining peace in Europe requires tolerance, even in the face of flagrant provocations. Sometimes the punishment for bad behavior can be more destabilizing than the behavior itself.

To some Americans, Europe’s failure to unite in anti-Russian indignation looks like wimpy servility. They cannot comprehend attitudes like that of former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who said Russia’s takeover of Crimea was “entirely understandable” and escalated into a crisis only “because the West has gotten so terribly worked up about it.”

The United States has the luxury of pushing others toward confrontation. We have only two neighbors, Canada and Mexico, neither of them potentially hostile. We do not normally calibrate our foreign policy to fit their needs. In fact, we rarely take them into account. Separated by vast oceans from potential enemies, Americans know that even if overseas conflicts escalate terribly, they will probably not come to our shores. That makes it easier for us to adopt the “let’s-you-and-him-fight” attitude toward regional crises.

On other continents, many people live more closely packed against their neighbors — including potential competitors or enemies. Setting out from Atlanta or St. Louis or Denver, you can drive all day and into the night without reaching an international border. From Munich, there are five within 150 miles.

This leads to different ways of perceiving the world. Successful countries in Europe are those that have mastered the art of delicately balancing rival interests. Experience has taught them to seek long-term security. That requires accommodating neighbors whenever possible, not insulting, confronting, or punishing them.

During the Cold War, competition over ideology was so intense that it seemed every other conflict in Europe had disappeared. The first sign that this assumption was wrong came in the Yugoslavia wars of the 1990s, which showed the persistence of ethnic nationalism. Now age-old patterns of alliance and rivalry are re-emerging in Europe. Managing old resentments and enmities is a delicate job — especially in Europe, where modern history testifies to how horribly things can go wrong when conflict breaks out. Fortunately, geography has given Europeans an instinct to cooperate and compromise.

Americans, unchallenged masters of an enormous continent, never had to develop this instinct. In the years ahead, we will keep pressing European countries to build up their armies, snarl at their enemies, and draw lines in the sand. Some Europeans will resist, reminding us that surviving on a crowded continent requires cooperation. Sometimes, they will add, it may even mean overlooking transgressions in their midst.

As the Cold War paradigm fades, the trans-Atlantic security relationship that was at its core must naturally evolve. Europe is returning to history. In the years ahead, European countries will often find that they have more in common with one another than with the United States.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

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