As riot police battled demonstrators in the streets of downtown Goteborg, Sweden, last week and President George W. Bush met with leaders of the European Union, media speculation about trouble in the Atlantic Alliance reached hysterical heights.
"Bush lands on Planet Europe!" screamed Liberation, a Parisian daily. "Europe mistrusts American security initiative," warned the more conservative Figaro. In Germany, a breathless Suddeutscher Zeitung informed its readers (erroneously) that the Bush administration proposes to build 1,300 nuclear power plants in the next 20 years. Coverage in Spain was more balanced; El Pais noted that while France and Germany opposed U.S. plans on missile defense, Spain, Italy and Britain were more supportive.
The spats between the Bush administration and some of its European allies over Bush's proposals for national missile defense and his decision to kill the Kyoto Protocol on global warming are less important than they appear. Officials concede that ham-handed diplomacy in the early weeks of the administration unnecessarily inflamed the atmosphere by overstating the differences between the policies of Bush and former President Bill Clinton. Since then, the administration has scrambled back toward the center. It promises to consult with allies on missile defense and tells everyone who will listen that Bush loves little green things and will cooperate with international efforts to address climate change.
Still, things have changed. If Europe and the U.S. aren't on the verge of divorce, the magic has left the marriage. With the Soviets gone, Europeans and Americans feel they need each other a little less. Unless Russian tanks roar back toward Warsaw and Berlin, nothing that happens to the balance of military power in Europe can endanger the United States. Western Europe has some security worries--fighting in the Balkans sends streams of refugees into Germany--but the Cold War days when European leaders felt their independence and safety depended on the goodwill of the United States are gone for good.
There's another, trickier problem: European decline. Europe isn't about to dry up and blow away, but its days at the center of world politics are over. Japan has a larger gross domestic product than any country in Europe. If you look at purchasing-power parity, a measure used by the World Bank and others to determine the true value of national output, so does China. Only four of the 15 member countries of the European Union have bigger GDP's than greater Los Angeles. U.S. trade with Mexico alone last year was equal to 65% of total U.S. commerce with the European Union. Of our five largest trading partners, only one is in Europe.
Low population growth also affects Europe's world standing. In 1900, France had three times the population of Mexico, and Germany had three times that of Brazil. Today, Mexico has a larger population than either Germany or France, and Brazil's population is larger than France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Sweden combined. Comparing Europe to the world as a whole, 25% of the world's population lived in geographical Europe 100 years ago; by last year, Europe's share had fallen to 12%, and it is projected to decline to 7% by 2050.
This relative decline is not Europe's "fault"; it is the natural consequence of the history of economic development. Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution were born in Europe, and increased productivity, combined with improvements in health care, led to both wealth and population explosions on the continent when much of the world was pre-modern and traditional. Europe's baby boom and growth spurt are both now over, while Asia, Latin America and even Africa are playing catch-up.
With Europe's security (except for the occasional Balkan war) at least temporarily stabilized, and with its economy performing at a high but relatively slow-growing level, developments in Europe can neither harm nor help the U.S. much, compared with economic and political events in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. It is, therefore, only natural that U.S. political priorities should shift away from stable, slow-growing parts of the world to the more troublesome, but also more promising areas in the developing world.
This does not have to drive the U.S. and Europe apart, but European reactions to the shift in U.S. priorities and Europe's worries about its place in the world are doing exactly that. Reaction in Paris, Berlin and London--all proud capitals long used to thinking of themselves as great powers--to the gradual erosion of Europe's role in U.S. thinking and in the world focuses on a desire to define Europe as a power balancing against the U.S. It is America's alleged position as a "hyperpower" (a term, coined by French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, meaning a power even bigger than a superpower) that becomes the heart of Europe's anxiety.
Worse still, the EU's efforts to assert itself in world politics have mostly flopped--except in trade talks, where Europe's economic strength makes it a super, if not a hyper, power. For Europeans looking to throw their weight around, opposing the United States in the World Trade Organization on agriculture (EU farm subsidies and genetically modified food), aerospace (government support for Airbus Industrie, Europe's answer to Boeing) and entertainment (limiting the presence of U.S. movies and music) is the easiest and most popular thing they can do.
This is all a big mistake. Europe's true interests are what they were throughout most of the 20th century: working to build a durable partnership with America that advances common U.S. and European goals: democratic politics, market economics and peaceful international relations infused with the ethical values of--to use an increasingly common term for the common values of Judaism, Christianity and Islam--Abrahamic religions.
Europe does not have what it takes to be a super-, much less a hyperpower. Its countries have different interests and traditions. The European Union's cumbersome institutional processes are a long way from creating the kind of powerful, centralized state that could act decisively in world affairs. At a time when the U.S. is preparing to increase military spending, Europe is planning more cuts.
This doesn't mean that Europe can't play an important world role. But it does mean that Europe must find ways to work with the United States rather than against it. The U.S., as the Bush administration seems to be learning belatedly, needs to make it easier for Europe to accept the realities of world politics and to find a role as America's partner, not rival. The more the world wounds Europe's pride, the more considerate we ought to be of our poor partner's feelings.
The U.S. marriage to Europe, like all domestic partnerships, changes over time and goes through good patches and bad. We've seen much worse: Europe hated the Vietnam War and didn't much like Ronald Reagan. But we are better off together than apart, and both partners still know it.