Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


MARCH 2010

Two recent events in Europe, Greece's financial crisis and the Netherlands' decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, call into serious question the viability of the European Union's experiment with monetary union (EMU) and its members' willingness to remain strong supporters of the Atlantic Alliance (NATO).

For sixty-one years, since formation of NATO in 1949, European leaders dreamed of a time when their nations would unite in an economic and political union and be the equal of the two superpowers. The Common Market, a single currency (euro), and the new constitution for a European Union were seen as landmark steps toward that goal.

What happened to dampen this dream of a united Europe?

On the economic/financial side, many observers now conclude that Europe's leaders overreached when they decided fifteen years ago to adopt the euro (Britain did not) without also and moving quickly to forge a political union, one that could exercise powers over individual countries on fiscal policy. There is some resemblance here to our own Founding Fathers' decision to scrap the Articles of Confederation and adopt a constitution, which limited the powers of individual states.

On the political/security front, Europe's reluctance, following the Soviet Union's demise in 1991, to let NATO assume responsibilities outside Europe forced the United States to deal with threats to peace in the Middle East and East Asia. Instead, Europe's leaders cut defense budgets and focused their efforts on building a united Europe. Although their governments sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001 to support America's invasion, public opinion (except for Britain) did not approve a combat role for their NATO forces.

Dutch political crisis

The fall of the Dutch government two weeks ago and its decision to withdraw all 2,000 troops from Afghanistan sent shock waves across the Atlantic. These troops have performed exceptionally well against Taliban insurgents in a key southern province, and their withdrawal will be a serious blow to NATO's overall mission in Afghanistan.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned NATO, in a speech at the National Defense University, that "demilitarization of Europe -- where large swaths of the general pubic and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it -- has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st." ("Gates Sees Danger in Europe's Anti-Military Views." New York Times, Feb. 24)

Gates pleaded with European leaders for two years in increase military contributions to the NATO effort in Afghanistan, and he partially succeeded after President Obama agreed to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops. Britain, Italy, and Germany authorized modest increases, but France and Spain did not. Public opposition across western Europe to the war now runs near sixty percent.

Financial crisis in Greece

Greece's national crisis results from huge budget deficits and failure to impose and collect taxes. It is also a crisis for the European Union because Greece is a member and also uses Europe's single currency, the euro. Financial default by Greece on its massive debts would impact the economies of other European countries and call into question the future viability of the entire European Union.

Writing in the Financial Times, (Feb. 23) columnist Gideon Rachman offers this stark assessment: "The Greek crisis is about the very basis on which European unity has been built for the past 60 years. It threatens not just the euro but the entire edifice of the European Union." He predicts that if the EU does not move forward politically in the Greek crisis, "it will more backwards and the long process of European integration could start to unravel."

A noted economic historian, Prof. Niall Ferguson, stirred up a flurry of comment recently in a column titled, "A Greek crisis is coming to America." (Financial Times, Feb. 11). He argues that the ingredients in Greece's impending bankruptcy are also present in America's unwillingness to cut its massive deficits and live within its means. Ferguson also believes that the United States is headed for rapid decline as a world power.

Implications for Washington

President Obama faces a dilemma in 2011, if other NATO countries withdraw their troops from Afghanistan and he is forced to decide whether to leave a residual U.S. force without NATO's participation, or withdraw. This would raise a larger strategic question for Washington policymakers: what is the value of the Atlantic alliance if Europeans conclude that its security role should not include any areas outside of Europe?

One conclusion that I draw from the Dutch and Greek crises is that Europe is no longer the strong, reliable partner the United States had in the 20th century. A second one is that unless Congress gets serious about this country's economic crisis, America, like Greece, will soon lose its international standing, and its high standard of living.

File last modified on Sunday, 07-MAR-2010 10:16 PM EST

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