President Donald Trump’s actions towards the United States’ Western European allies, such as his mocking of German energy policy at the U.N., left relations strained, with a lasting impact even under President Joe Biden, but this may have been because of a structural reason that no one saw. Namely, Western Europe’s place and significance in the international system has declined since the beginning of the 20th century, leaving not only its future relationship with America, but also its future as a whole, ambiguous.
Let’s cover the recent news from Europe to get an idea of what’s going on there.
The United Kingdom, after the economically disastrous Brexit, is allowing Northern Ireland to enjoy an EU customs “green lane” with an effective border in the middle of the Irish Sea. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, projected to win the next election, has promised devolution to the level of federalization just to buy over Scottish voters. In terms of foreign policy, although the British were among the first to support Ukraine in resisting Russia, new doctrines like Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” have failed, leaving the island nation adrift in a sea of uncertainty.
France, of course, is facing nationwide protests over President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular bill to raise the retirement age, which have damaged national unity and undermined strong French leadership at precisely the time when Europe needs it. Abroad, France has decreased its influence in Africa which it, for decades, considered its backyard even after decolonization.
And Germany, behind the scenes, has been condemned to a split government that cannot agree on foreign policy but has agreed on shooting itself in the foot by closing nuclear power plants essential to the future of German energy independence, as Russian gas is out of the picture.
Those are just the traditional big three Western European powers. Italy, for one, is cracking down on migrants reaching its shores even as it faces retirement into mass obsolescence. All this news, as hinted to by Italy’s predicament, is undergirded by a horrid demographic situation. Currently, the only two major countries with relatively healthy demographic pictures are France and the U.K. This has, of course, been reflected by Europe’s great decline in its share of global gross domestic product. Internationally, too, Europe has become apparently sidelined. After looking at contributions to Ukraine’s war effort, there is no doubt that the U.S. is driving the train instead of Europe.
Where does this leave us? None of the above information is necessarily the death knell for Western Europe or a definitive sign that the United States should absolutely abandon its relations with Europe, as former President Trump seemed inclined to do under his administration. American public opinion still bends toward supporting the transatlantic alliance, and a possible outcome of this could be, as Harold Macmillan predicted just under a century ago, Europe becoming to the United States what Greece was under Rome. This is not a guaranteed outcome and likely is not even what most want. But for both sides of the alliance to come to a better mutual understanding, Western Europe especially will bear the brunt of turning its ship around and reversing well entrenched current trends, engaging in the soul-searching task of the millennium.