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Upstairs, Downstairs -- A Tale of Two Continents

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Cross-posted from National Journal's National Security Blog.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is touring Europe cajoling government leaders to do more for the team. Augmented European contributions are the means to the overriding end of prosecuting the multiform 'war on terror.'

We know the litany by heart. America is Europe's savior -- three times in the 20th century. Europeans depend on us for securing their well-being. They need and want our leadership. They are rudderless and querulous if left on their own. Their governments never express full gratitude, though, for all that we do for them. Europeans have become free riders who let the United States pay in blood and dollars in undertaking onerous enterprises that serve their interests as much as ours. They refuse to hold up their end - not spending enough on the military and not sending enough troops to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

We bend our ear to hear with satisfaction to those farsighted European statesmen who courageously assure us that all this is true and shameful. Thus we welcome the voices of Lord George Robertson, of Jaap de Hoop Sheffer, of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, of Tony Blair, of all those worthy and loyal courtiers who parade in and out of Washington swelling American pride.

If only it were so simple. Certainly, it is convenient to an American administration to have obedient followers. For them to supply auxiliaries (military or diplomatic) for whatever campaign we are embarked on. To feel that we ride in the vanguard of all good and virtuous (and threatened) fellow democracies. Equally certain is the rude truth that we could benefit from being told candidly when we are going astray (Iraq; Palestine); that the Europeans occasionally may have a better notion of how to go about doing things (bring political stability to Afghanistan on reasonable terms); that fanciful schemes buoyed by irrepressible American optimism (the recent Crusade for Democracy) can be counter-productive.

Maybe dealing with close allies who yet affirm their independence of mind and judgment is better training for the world ahead than is dealing with nodding dependents whose passive deference feeds an unjustified hubris that America always knows best, does best, and has God's benediction to superintend the affairs of the planet forevermore.

America continues to denature Europe by its intimidating, looming presence -- and by encouraging them to value the waiver from the hard responsibilities of decision and commitment received under the American imperium. Europe and America form a classic dominant/subordinate relationship. The attitudes of the superior and inferior parties reinforce each other. Hence, they have become enablers of each other's dysfunctional conduct.

American impulsive activism, domineering attitude and supreme self-confidence induce Europeans to indulge their penchant for yielding instinctively to American initiative. Their lack of self-assertion and ever-readiness to give Washington the benefit of the doubt, in turn, encourages American leaders to treat them as subordinates. The result is a strengthening of the American rooted sense of superiority and a Europe that unnaturally has played itself out of the game. Solidarity with America, on terms set by Washington, is prized above all else. Candid talk and multilateralism are today's catchwords, but not where it counts or when it counts. European leaders are most aggressive when elbowing each other to be first in line for photo-ops on the south lawn of the White House.

As for the Alliance, NATO is seen by Washington in strictly instrumental terms. It is a tool kit to be used as and when the United States chooses. The metaphor is that of a Swiss army knife -- multi-functional, passive, ever ready and, in the improved model, constantly honing its implements for possible activation. Most European political elites seem quite content with this arrangement even while making polite requests for more consultation. However, for them to continue playing the roles of subaltern, appendix and acolyte to American might and magnetism can only stunt the former while exalting the other. Therein lies an unpromising future for all parties, including the world beyond the Atlantic axis.

Looking ahead, one thing is clear. There will be no initiative from the American side to modify the relationship. Washington enjoys too many advantages from it to want significant changes in the status quo. The practical benefits of having what is potentially the world's second strongest power center unsure of its identity, deficient in will, and ready to find compensation in being first lieutenant to the United States are manifest. On another plane, Americans' sense of self, along with their sense of the country's exceptional place in the grand scheme of things global, is confirmed by two aspects of these Euro-American realities. One, emulation across the Atlantic conforms to what is seen to be the natural order of things. Two, the absence of serious challenge, political or intellectual, spares Americans either critical self-examination of those postulates so basic to the national persona or the exertions required to truly convince a partner cum possible rival. The family ties with Europe strengthen both feelings since the unique virtues of American society are taken to be the ultimate expression of Western civilization's innate superiority generally.

This logic means that it is up to the Europeans to change - for their own sake and also for the United States. If they are too timid, too fractious, and too habituated to playing off an American lead, then Europe will fail to create its fair share of public goods. An under-supplying Europe runs the risk of being devalued by others as a force to be reckoned with in international political and security affairs.

All this is terrific for the United States if you believe that the 21th century is destined to be another American century and if you believe that we have demonstrated since 2001the aptitudes for running things while producing results that confirm the validity of that prognosis.

On the other hand, if you don't, then it is a compelling American interest to favor the European nations behaving as responsible, autonomous adults.

These thoughts have been more fully developed in a monograph, Toward A More Independent Europe, published by the Egmont Institute in Brussels. It can be accessed here.