Opinion | Europe Doesn’t Want to Fight America’s Battles Anymore

To listen to the debate in Europe over the chaotic retreat of United States troops from Afghanistan is to be struck by what a huge vocabulary Europeans have developed over the centuries for describing military calamities. What we just witnessed has already been described as a débâcle, a débandade, a dégringolade and a déroute, not to mention a “rout,” a “fiasco” and a “humiliation.”

The question at the heart of these discussions is whether the botched withdrawal is a failure serious enough to merit a rethinking of European-American defense arrangements. The Afghan war was a NATO operation, involving the core of the trans-Atlantic alliance system that dates from the Cold War. American fecklessness has left European leaders infuriated. In Germany, Armin Laschet, who is running to replace his Christian Democratic colleague Angela Merkel as chancellor in national elections this month, speaks of “the greatest debacle NATO has suffered since its founding.”

Mr. Laschet’s assessment reflects more than election-season passions. It is shared in other countries. Bidenesque incompetence comes atop four years of Trumpian contempt. As Adrien Jaulmes, a French war correspondent, recently put it, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden have together sent “a message to the allies and adversaries of the United States that Washington’s commitments are only commitments for so long.”

There have been moments of mistrust between America and its NATO allies before. But there is a difference today, and it bears on how European leaders are reacting to the Afghan mess. During the Cold War, communism was the issue that polarized continental politics. Europe’s governing elites, in their respective countries, were mostly anti-communist. Their instincts were to strengthen ties with the anti-communist United States, whatever their occasional misgivings about American incompetence, overreach or arrogance. And that meant strengthening NATO.

Today the issue that divides European publics is the European Union, a superstate-in-embryo to which all but a handful of Western European countries belong. The E.U. project has overlapped with the globalization of the economy and has generated similar debates. Some see it as a source of prosperity and human rights, others as a source of inequality and undemocratic highhandedness.

In pretty much every European country, the credentialed, the educated and the empowered want “more Europe.” They are opposed by defenders of traditional, nation-state-based sovereignty, who want to protect the prerogatives of, say, Berlin or Warsaw against the ambitions of the E.U.’s capital, Brussels. Sociologically, the split is like that between Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

Pro-European Union politicians generally look to move governing responsibilities from national capitals to Brussels. The more ambitious among them even seek a measure of military autonomy for the bloc. That would require a rethinking of NATO operating procedures and would almost inevitably bring a loosening of ties with the United States, although E.U. leaders generally deny this when within earshot of Americans.

But in the wake of the Afghan debacle, E.U. leaders have begun to air such ambitions. This week, Bernard Guetta, a member of the European Parliament from the party of President Emmanuel Macron of France, called on Europeans to find a geostrategic substitute for an increasingly inward-looking United States. Mr. Macron shows signs of wanting to use recent blunders as a pretext for deploying de-Americanized European fighting units. He told a conference in Baghdad in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Kabul that France would keep its terror-fighting forces in Iraq “no matter what the Americans do.”

Italy and Germany now lean in this direction, too. Late last month, Paolo Gentiloni, a former prime minister of Italy and the current E.U. commissioner for the economy, said, “It’s a terrible paradox, but this debacle could be the start of Europe’s moment.” Ms. Merkel has reportedly been part of intra-European discussions about keeping a “strong temporary presence” in Kabul.

European decision makers have never lacked the ambition for such projects. (In 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and President Jacques Chirac of France issued a portentous “Saint-Malo declaration” calling for an autonomous European strike force.) What they have lacked is a popular consensus for them. Creating an army befitting a superpower is a colossal expense. It makes sense to use the American one as long as it is on offer, rather than bankrupting Europe on a (perhaps quixotic) quest to duplicate it.

E.U. elites today also face a challenge of credibility. The bloc’s interior ministers spent the first days of this month trying to devise a common migration system to handle a possible large flow of migrants out of Afghanistan. It is a priority, but it was just as much of a priority when migrants were fleeing Syria in the hundreds of thousands in 2015, and the European Union managed no durable solution then.

At a time when polls show that Europeans consider immigration their continent’s biggest security threat, the European Union’s reputation for legalism and dawdling does not spread confidence that it can follow through on even more ambitious projects. On the contrary.

That is what proponents of an alternative E.U. defense may have the hardest time facing. Over the past 20 years, Europeans have watched as the United States first led Europe into wars Europe did not want to fight, and then succumbed to a passionate anti-elite politics that culminated in the election of Donald Trump. Frustration is to be expected. The Afghanistan collapse will surely sharpen it.

But the European Union is going to find it difficult to place itself at the center of Western defense arrangements, largely because it, too, has generated among its citizenry a distrust for elites as intense as the one that put the United States on its present path. In this respect, at least, Western countries are united, more united perhaps than they would wish to be.

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