The financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent global economic downturn have left American prestige badly damaged. For years its free-trade rhetoric dominated debate within fora like the World Trade Organization and urged second-rate powers to privatize and reduce tariffs. Whatever its political course, American economic leadership seemed unchallenged. It was the era of the Washington Consensus.
Today, the US economy lies in shambles and eight years of George W. Bush have obliterated a great amount of the international leverage and respect that the country could previously count on. American management of globalization is contested as is American predominance on the world stage. Rising powers as Brazil, China and India and old world players as Europe and Russia all demand a place in the Obama Administration’s “multilateral” game.
Serious attempts are made in that direction. The G20 is a fine example of what Henry Kissinger called for last January in “The chance for a new world order“: “creating an international political regulatory system with the same reach as that of the economic world.” A promise that the United Nations has never been able to fulfill, the G20 now revives by shaping the political and financial framework of the future.
There is still bad blood between the Atlantic power blocks however. In spite of their feverish admiration of President Barack Obama, European leaders haven’t forgotten the past decades of American unilateralism. Indeed, as Kissinger notes:
it […] has become an alibi for a key European difference with America: that the United States still conducts itself as a national state capable of asking its people for sacrifices for the sake of the future, while Europe, suspended between abandoning its national framework and a yet-to-be-reached political substitute, finds it much harder to defer present benefits.
With Europe moving slowly toward further political integration, recently electing a president and something of a common foreign secretary, what will it work toward abroad? asks Robert D. Kaplan in “Let’s Go, Europe.”
Unlike the United States, most European countries are pacifist with a great public reluctance to go to war hampering any sort of foreign intervention. Besides France, Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom, all European NATO members spend less that the required 2 percent of their GDPs on defense while countries as Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain elect to invest very much in but one of their armed forces: their navies. What’s to blame? Not just the continent’s “ethical awakening following centuries of war,” according to Kaplan, but “a new strategic context in which Europeans simply face no credible security threat.”
That is not to say that the Europeans cannot be convinced into waging war at all. In fact, the United States rather needs to do so, for as it focuses on the Pacific, drawing Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea into its camp to counterbalance China’s global ascendancy, it will have to rely increasingly on European forces to cover the Atlantic and Africa.
The way the world is shaping up, America will have no choice but to yank Europe kicking and screaming into conflict zones […]
In this regard, the stable naval power of many European partners is an advantage. “Sea power is inherently less threatening than land power,” notes Kaplan.
Moreover, future military operations will be all the more about rescue and disaster relief as populations continue to grow and climate change continues to upset fragile regions across the globe. As much as the Europeans might hate war, coming to the world’s rescue is something that politicians will have less trouble selling to their electorates at home.