US public has had it with being the world’s policeman. An April 2014 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 19 per cent wanted America to engage in a more activist foreign policy. Fully 47 per cent wished the US to conduct a less activist policy, a camp that has quadrupled in size over the past 13 years, no doubt motivated by the unmitigated mess George W Bush made of the world.
Bottom line, this is a stunning new political fact that must be constantly considered whenever erstwhile interventionists (from The Economist to John McCain) call on America – in that most dangerous of phrases – to “do something” about the global crisis de jour. At last, the self-involved, overly-interventionist US foreign policy elite has awoken, aghast, to find the butcher bill is well and truly coming due for the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. This cataclysm amounts to nothing less than the American people saying an emphatic “no” to the high level of foreign policy involvement that has characterised US intellectual life for 70 years.
However, we cannot simply blame poor, hapless George W Bush for everything. For far beyond that tragically misguided presidency, there is a deeper cancer at work that is far more culpable for this present state of affairs.
Europe’s seven-decade holiday from history is primarily to blame for the decline of the West. It has infantilised its elites, making them unable to understand even the rudiments of the power politics that still do and always will drive foreign policy. America was right to tolerate this maddening situation during the Cold War, when far less was expected of Europe. The US was relatively more powerful than it is now, and Europe (especially Germany) was the battlefield of global conflict, rather than an active player. But this is simply not the world we live in anymore, and European elites have willfully refused to accept this, so comfortable have they grown at free riding off the United States.
Ukraine is merely the latest galling example of Europe simply not existing as a player in global power politics. In terms of practical policy, the West has few options regarding Putin. Force is rightfully off the table, but the devising of serious sanctions relating to the energy sector that might just bring the Russian President to heel has just been ruled out at the joint Obama-Merkel news conference; the present tepid variety merely being a feel-good palliative, and everyone knows that.
Sanctions only work when they are comprehensive and target the other side’s economic jugular – it is not enough for America alone to impose them and expect anything much to happen. Particularly in the case of Ukraine, it is Europe that must lead the way in terms of foreign policy sticks, a prospect so laughable as to be almost beyond the realm of possibility. Yet it is Europe, and not America, that holds the economic cards here; trade between Europe and Russia amounted to $370bn in 2012, while US-Russian trade was only about $26 billion that year. This means (for once) Europe must bear the economic burden of “doing something”, if something is to be truly done. Pardon me for not holding my breath.
The other major item America will now press Europe on (as it has fruitlessly tried to do for seven decades) is spending more than a pittance on defence. The numbers tell the tale. In 2013, the US spent 4.1 per cent of its GDP on defence, Britain 2.4 per cent, France 1.9 per cent, Poland 1.8 per cent, Germany a laughable 1.3 per cent, Italy 1.2 per cent, and Spain less than 1 per cent. These numbers, which have gone on year after year, make a mockery of the notion of a common western defence. Toxically, when an unserious Europe collides with an America heading to the exits, the result is likely to be the end of something that really mattered.
The perception that Europe is no longer a force to be reckoned with will – and soon – lead to an American rethink of its foreign policy strategy. The US response will be to do less with Europe as it does not add value, try to work with different global allies (especially in Asia) who might do more, and simply to do more on its own unilaterally. All of these outputs will drive a stake through the heart of the transatlantic relationship in short order. This is an elegy, for something important, and valuable, is dying here, something that will not be replaced. Investors beware; the world beware.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., and president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.