America’s Tripolar Approach to Europe

Robert Kaplan suggests that American foreign policy in Europe should focus on France, Germany and Poland.

Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Barack Obama of the United States are reflected in a mirror during a bilateral meeting in Caen, June 6, 2009
Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Barack Obama of the United States are reflected in a mirror during a bilateral meeting in Caen, June 6, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

In the latest edition of The National Interest, Robert D. Kaplan contests the prevailing narrative of American decline, pointing out that militarily, the United States will remain the world’s sole superpower for decades to come. He outlines a grand strategy that would maintain American supremacy through diplomacy moreover; one in which France, Germany and Poland play a key role.

Despite efforts to revitalize NATO yet again, the reality is that absent a major crisis, the alliance won’t ever be the extension of American foreign policy that it was during the Cold War.

Moreover, while the relative importance of individual states may decline in the course of globalization, “powerful countries will still help determine the course of war and peace in coming decades,” Kaplan predicts.

Thus, rather than concentrate primarily on organizations like NATO or on European nations across the board, the United States needs to intellectually reduce the challenges of projecting power on mainland Europe to three states: France, Germany and Poland.

Geographically, these nations cover the broad European plain from the Pyrenees to the former Soviet Union and with 184 million people, they contain nearly two-fifths of Europe’s population.

With lingering aspirations of grandeur, the French armed forces, “honed through decades of expeditionary warfare and deployments in Africa,” are notably skilled in offensive cybercapabilities and naval warfare. “Not only that, the French have been on the same page as the United States regarding the danger of Iranian nuclear weapons.”

Germany may be more pacifist but its military is extremely capable. Pivotal are its economic relations with both Western and Central Europe. As the EU’s core economy, Germany is an engine of growth.

As for the Poles, they are emerging as the quintessential nation of Central and Eastern Europe with a large and religiously cohesive population of close to forty million. The country is politically more conservative than Western Europe and relies on America for its security to the same degree that it depends on the European Union economically.

France, Germany and Poland will only increase in significance precisely because the institutions of the EU will be — as the Greek financial bailout showed — preoccupied for years to come with the integration of the Mediterranean and Balkan peripheries into the eurozone, and thus the dream of a unified continent with a common foreign policy will be, in the near and medium term, stillborn.

The only wrench in this tripolar approach is the great Russian bear. A little over a year ago, Kaplan wrote that it’s still roaring and he points out now that the reason the Balts, Poles and Romanians agreed to send troops into Afghanistan and Iraq was essentially a quid pro quo for America’s implicit security guarantee of their sovereignty.

With Germany highly dependent on the import of Russian natural gas, evidenced by the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline which bypasses Poland and the Baltic states, the former Soviet satellites know that they cannot depend on the EU for security in the first place. France and Germany in fact have been discussing a partnership with Russia, supposedly to pull it closer into the European sphere and reduce the likelihood of conflict.

Despite Russia’s size and assertiveness, it is a weak empire, contained by the rise of China in the Far East; unrest along its southern border and vibrant states on its extended frontier, including India, Poland and Turkey, with aspirations of their own. “America’s goal,” according to Kaplan, “must be to support Russia’s consolidation of its own Far East, so that China will feel less secure on land and consequently be unable to so completely devote its energies to sea power.”

Balancing against Russia in Europe and yet helping it abroad is the kind of subtle strategy that would help guard against any one nation achieving the level of dominance elsewhere that America already enjoys in the Western Hemisphere.

As France continues to seek international prestige, certainly as it heads both the G8 and the G20 this year, and China and Germany are both surplus economies, heavily dependent on one another, it makes sense for the United States to involve them in Sino-American diplomacy which could benefit that particular relationship and help prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula and Iran.

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