EUROPE IS THE NEW 98-pound weakling on the world’s geopolitical beach. Its craven failure to resist American withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran is vivid evidence of its strategic paralysis. For 70 years Europe lived under a security umbrella provided by the United States. In exchange for this subsidy, Europeans allowed Americans to set their military agenda — which consists mainly of snarling at Russia and sending troops to help fight American wars. Now President Trump is kicking diplomatic sand in their face. Conditioned into servility, Europe meekly retreats.
All European leaders recognize that the Iran deal serves their security interests. It guarantees that Iran, which is in Europe’s extended neighborhood, will not acquire nuclear weapons. It allows Europe to import more Iranian oil and gas, which decreases its strategic reliance on Russia. And it opens the world’s last large untapped consumer market to European products from cars to cosmetics.
Upheaval and instability in Iran is Europe’s nightmare scenario. That, however, is precisely what the United States now hopes for in Iran. New American sanctions are intended to make life more difficult for ordinary Iranians, in the hope that spreading misery will set off upheaval and rebellion. Yet even when the United States takes steps like these, which clearly harm European interests, European leaders cower before the muscular bully.
Four months elapsed between President Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Iran deal and the time he ordered the withdrawal on May 8. During that time, European diplomacy was comatose. European leaders could have visited Iran to promise that they would keep their commitments. They could have invited President Hassan Rouhani to tour European capitals. They could have come to Washington together. At the very least, they could have clearly declared the central truth about the deal: Iran is scrupulously complying, and all violations have come from United States. They did none of that. Instead of confronting the United States, European leaders chose the path of appeasement. They cozied up to Trump, telling him that they agreed with his criticisms of the Iran deal and that they too wanted it “improved.” Trump ignored them, leaving them looking foolish and naïve.
One reason for Europe’s eagerness to bow before Washington’s dictate is obvious: money. The new American package of anti-Iran measures includes “secondary sanctions,” meaning that European companies doing business in Iran cannot do business in the United States. Although many Europeans have called this an infringement on their sovereignty, they have little choice but to comply. After all, although there are profits to be made in Iran, its economy is smaller than that of Massachusetts. European companies that had planned investments in Iran are shutting down or reducing their operations. The European Union has a “blocking” mechanism that would forbid compliance with secondary sanctions, but invoking it would set off an unseemly confrontation with the United States. For now, submission seems the wiser course.
Some European leaders are protesting as they submit. “The announced American sanctions will not remain without consequences,” the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, vowed at a summit meeting in Bulgaria. No real power or authority, however, rests behind those words. Europe is bereft of assertive leadership. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is nearing the end of her political career. Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain is even weaker, due both to political challenges at home and her country’s decision to quit the European Union. President Emmanuel Macron of France tried to charm his way into Trump’s good graces, even sending French jets to join Americans in bombing Syria, but Trump paid him no heed. Italy, the main European power in the Mediterranean, is in political chaos and unable to focus on the outside world.
As Europe enters the post-Atlantic stage of its history, it is seeking to define its long-term interests and decide how to promote them. So far it has failed to do so. In past centuries Europe produced masters of diplomacy. Now it seems bewildered. Crippled by weak leadership, rising national rivalries and surging ethnic chauvinism, it has failed to develop a strategy for resisting American policies that undermine its interests.
President Trump’s decision to trash the Iran deal accelerated the break between Europe and the United States, but it was bound to come. Europeans are still absorbing its implications. Their logical response would be a return to their traditional Eurasian identity. As the Atlantic world fades in importance, ties between Europe and the United States will weaken. Europe has not yet shown a willingness to assert its interests over those of the United States, but slowly and inevitably, it will do so. In the future, Europe will be one grand terminus of a vast trading realm stretching across the world’s greatest land mass to China. One effect of this will be closer ties between Russia and the rest of Europe, based on a European security architecture that takes Russian interests into account.
European leaders showed pitiful weakness when they accepted President Trump’s attack on the nuclear deal with Iran. They have been slow to accept the new reality: that Washington is acting against their continent’s interests. If Europe is to remain a center of world power, it will have to rise from its geopolitical slumber and defend itself.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.