In my column here last week, I claimed that the real issue at stake in the Ukraine crisis was the future of America’s role as Europe’s security guarantor. I argued that the United States would inevitably have to reduce its footprint in Europe to attend to more urgent business in other strategic hotspots elsewhere, most importantly in Asia.

With the Europeans at the same time unwilling and unable to up their game on security, I wrote, a power vacuum would emerge that external players, most notably Russia, were only too eager to fill. Ukraine is just one example of the conflicts that could arise as competing actors seek to fill that vacuum.

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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This argument was based on the United States’ function as Europe’s protector from external threats. This function is manifested in NATO as an organization and in the alliance’s Article 5 clause—that an attack on one ally is an attack on all—as the mechanism that gives the organization its value and meaning.

But the role the United States plays for security in Europe is not confined to merely addressing external threats. The U.S. role is just as much about Europe’s internal stability and the way the Europeans conduct business with each other.

I believe it was the British-American historian Tony Judt who pointed out that by turning itself into a European power after World War II, the United States brought to European affairs an enormous infusion of trust. By becoming the dominant military power in (Western) Europe, Washington removed the ancient source of European politics, the question of which European power was to dominate the old continent. Was it France or Germany, Sweden or Spain, Britain or Russia, Austria or Rome?

The mistrust that had been at the origin of thousands of years of bitter and bloody rivalry and war became an obsolete issue. True, utter European exhaustion made it necessary—and easier—for the United States to take on that role, and Soviet expansionism gave it more than enough ideological justification. But the real magic source of America’s success as the benevolent hegemon in Europe lay in its pacification of power rivalry among Europeans.

The European integration project could not have worked without the US.
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The European integration project as we know it today could not have worked without the U.S. presence. Not only did the Americans underwrite the process through massive financial support—and Europe’s founding fathers duly went to Washington to get U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower’s nod before they signed their first treaties. The United States also alleviated French fears over the return of German power, German fears over punishment by former enemies, and British fears over being alone out there with the unruly continentals.

Combine this infusion of trust with the Marshall Plan to help rebuild European economies after World War II and the United States’ NATO-administered security guarantee for Europe, and you get what I call the deep web of Pax Americana. It was (and still is) arguably the most successful grand strategy of modern times.

Time moves on, however, and the deep web that once was tightly and firmly woven into the European political fabric is becoming loose and threadbare. America’s military presence in Europe, despite some recent reinforcements, has been systematically reduced. Economically, Europe is often seen as a rival, and today’s equivalent to the Marshall Plan, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), is not really moving ahead.

The United States has less political capital, less time, and less curiosity to spend on Europe. Partly, this is due to changes in U.S. society itself, which is just a lot less European these days. But more importantly, it is because of strategic necessity. Asia and the emerging rivalry with China will be so much more important to Washington than the European theater is. And with all due respect to Russia, it is not China, no matter how hard Moscow tries to appear strong and “emerging.”

Now that the United States has at least partly withdrawn from Europe, some of the old ghosts of European politics are coming to the fore. Talk of dominance in Europe is rife again, and, shockingly, it is about Germany. A unique combination of economic crisis, Russian resurgence, weak leadership across Europe, and U.S. absence has catapulted Germany into a leadership role it neither wanted nor finds easy to embrace.

With France and the UK at least temporarily too weak to balance out Germany’s towering presence, a slight nervousness grips the continent. Europeans’ anxiety is not about overall German dominance, of course, because Germany is too weak for that—nor does it want it. Rather, it is about the undue influence of just one power within the carefully calibrated power-avoidance scheme that is the European Union.

This is all the more true since U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempts to sway German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach to the euro crisis have all failed. The United States simply does not have this kind of influence anymore.

In addition, as the old forces of history stick their neck out once again in Europe, something else has returned to the continent, something very ugly: the bookkeeper’s approach to history. For decades, it was a key unwritten rule in European affairs that history would never be forgotten, but that it would not be used for political gain in intra-European negotiations. Once you start the game of who owes what to whom from way back when, irredentism can never stop.

But in the ongoing negotiations over Greece’s government debt after the far-left Syriza party’s recent electoral triumph, it is exactly these kinds of irredentist arguments that reemerge. To gain leverage in a desperate situation, Greek officials freely (and brutally) mix economic and fiscal policies with talk about historical debt and past wrongs. The result is bitterness on all sides, a loss of trust and goodwill, and a reduced chance of compromise.

The historical truth that Europe is inherently fragile and unstable remains valid.
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It would be too simple, of course, to attribute these phenomena to the United States’ reduced presence alone. As always in Europe, a multiplicity of factors is at play. However, the key historical truth in all of this—that Europe is an inherently fragile and unstable continent—remains valid.

Europe has yet to prove it can take care of itself. The initial developments in the last twenty years, since the United States started to reduce its political and military footprint in the Old World, are not encouraging. No matter how much both Americans and Europeans loathe hearing it, Pax Americana, and the infusion of trust it brought to Europe, might be needed for just a little bit longer.