If you want to see why American leadership is essential to the effectiveness of Europe in global affairs, just meet with a multinational collection of European political and other officials.
I had occasion to share an evening with such a group this past week. The discussions were on background, not for attribution, so, as with last week’s column, I won’t name the speakers or identify the occasion of the meeting. But those details are not necessary to understand what they said or the implications.
For when the question of Ukraine and the Russian incursion into the Crimea came up, the opinions were as diverse as the countries these officials represented. I gather from an exchange of notes after the Europeans left that every American present was as startled as I at the amount of disagreement over the Russian action and the passion with which the disagreements were expressed.
The central fault line was proximity – how close a speaker’s country was to Russia or Ukraine. In the United States, when we hear about border problems with Mexico or the terrorist bombing at the Boston Marathon, we don’t say, “Oh, that’s Texas or Massachusetts’ problem.” We understand such national security matters are the concern of the nation as a whole. This is clearly not the case in Europe.
One official from a European country that shares a border with one of the countries in this crisis referred to a border area only a morning’s drive from his home as highly militarized. The question was asked, if the Russians gobble up the Crimea today, will the Balkans be next? He responded with a nod. This official was passionate about the dangers to Europe generally of a Russian ruler intent on reconstituting the former empire and suggested that the blithe breaking of a treaty, as has occurred in Ukraine, is an indication of things to come.
The alarm was not widely shared.
A speaker from a country of what was once called Western Europe said, we have 40 percent youth unemployment in my country, and ticked off statistics from several other European nations in similar straits. The Russian action is not a big concern to us, he said, with a dismissive wave of the hand.
A speaker from a country with an Atlantic coast seconded this view. He noted his personal concern about what the Russians were doing but reported, “My constituents don’t care about this issue. It is of no interest to them at all.”
Another Western European argued that the Russian incursion could prove stabilizing. And while not exactly agreeing, but voicing a related view, yet another noted that the expelled government in Ukraine had come to power in free elections. Now this elected government has been expelled by, basically, a massive mob in Kiev. Such an action cannot be good for establishing traditions of popular sovereignty and rule of law in the countries of the former Soviet Union and the old Warsaw Pact.
So this is the state of European opinion during perhaps the greatest crisis the region has faced since the fall of the Soviet Union. It ranges from alarm and an urgent call for response to “I don’t know and I don’t care” to something approaching support for the Russian move.
These divisions within Europe are not new. But since the end of the Second World War, America’s European role has been in part to define and assert a common long-term interest, building a consensus that would allow action. It is precisely the absence of a trusted and competent hand in Washington that is different now.
Last week I reported the alarm of a number of Reagan and Bush 41 and 43 era foreign and national security experts that “once the steadying and mediating force in the global order, the United States under the current administration is viewed as feckless and unreliable in all global quarters.”
This week’s visiting Europeans gave a clear picture of how quickly confusion comes to Europe when America effectively leaves the scene.