European Futures in the Shadow of American Disengagement, with Andrew Michta

March 13, 2018

U.S. and NATO military members, Adazi Military Base, Latvia, June 2017. CREDIT: U.S Air Force/Senior Airman Tryphena Mayhugh

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome to the latest podcast produced by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs' U.S. Global Engagement program.

My guest is Dr. Andrew Michta, dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. This is an interesting institution of higher learning, operated jointly by the United States and by Germany, not only for their own officers, but to educate military officers and national security personnel from across the broader Euro-Atlantic region.

I would also note that Dr. Michta today will be speaking only in a private capacity, so the opinions that he will express will be his own personal views and observations and will not reflect any official position of the United States government or the Department of Defense (DoD).

To start with, given your unique perch in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Southern Germany at the Marshall Center, which is this unique collaborative effort between the United States and Germany, you have had a front-row seat in many ways to look at the impact of the 2016 elections and subsequent developments in the Trump administration in terms of this discussion of American withdrawal from the world or American rebalancing and the like.

Prior to 2016 these were all academic discussions that we would have: What would American withdrawal from Europe look like? If America shifted to becoming an offshore balancer, what would it look like? But now we have had a year or so of on-the-ground, concrete observations. So in your own personal opinions and observations, what have you detected or seen in the last year from the administration and from this discussion of America perhaps pulling back from its European allies?

ANDREW MICHTA: Thank you for having me, Nick.

Again, since I am the dean of the college here at the Marshall Center, I not only interact with our German hosts. We are a German-American partnership; we are the only one of its kind within the family of five DoD centers that is an international organization. Our German partners play a very active role in what we do, and this is actually an opportunity, both engaging with the policy community here in Germany, but also with people we have in our programs and our resident and our non-resident events to essentially say—and I am not being tongue in cheek—don't believe everything you read in the papers. In this day and age, this might be misconstrued as me trying to make an ideological statement, but what I'm simply saying is that U.S.-German relations, and especially the U.S. presence in Europe, look very different from the kind of day-to-day interaction that I have.

A couple of things are very important here, I would argue. One is that there is a very large part of the German policy community—and, I would argue, more broadly across Europe—that I would still say has an incredibly keen sense of the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship. This is not only not abating—and again, this is a community that sees a very different security environment in Europe, both along the Eastern flank and the Southern flank.

Europe is no longer what we used to call "whole, free, and at peace." In fact, it is in a lot of flux today. People who have traditionally looked at trans-Atlantic security relations as critical to the security of Europe, I think, remain very much engaged and very much concerned that we do not start devolving into the kind of rhetoric that we have heard over the past several months from different segments in Europe, especially the kind of conversation that followed Brexit, the British decision to vote to leave the European Union. This seems to have triggered another stream of conversation in Europe, which is the need to become more self-sufficient, the need to become more autonomous, the need to become "more European."

So, rather than saying that there is a sense of American engagement or disengagement, I would argue that there are two parallel tracks that are running through the European conversation. One that I would call very much a trans-Atlanticist track, and that is people who are—I find myself, to be quite honest, with a lot of my colleagues in Europe—who are very much engaged in trying to maintain and strengthen the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Then, there is probably this kind of inward-looking part of conversation that talks in terms of Europe 10, 15, 20 years going forward, a Europe that needs to have more focus on itself, a Europe that has to be preoccupied more with its internal issues. Remember that it is not just a question about security, it is a very fundamental conversation about what is likely to happen to the European Union going forward. Is the European Union federalism as a concept actually going to endure, or is there some fundamental change over the horizon?

This conversation about engagement with the United States and the larger trans-Atlantic security community is here interconnected with this other conversation, which is about Europe becoming more inward looking and, quite frankly, more preoccupied with the stresses along its periphery.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That brings up a parallel question, which is, if Europe is turning inward and the focus is on its own security, then the idea that was part of the American conversation over the last 10 or 15 years—which is that Europe will partner with the United States to do more, not simply in Europe but around the world, the idea that Europeans will carry more of the "fair share" of the global security burden—then that is called into question by this as well, is it not?

ANDREW MICHTA: But this part of the conversation—and again, remember we use these terms "Europe," and these are collective shorthands, and they help us navigate in these shorthands the conversation about European and trans-Atlantic security issues—but, in reality, that is more of a kind of overarching abstraction. Europe is, in the final analysis, a collection of countries and a collection of regions and a collection of a very different set of security optics, depending on where you are.

Case in point: If you are in the Baltic States, if you are in Poland, if you are in Slovakia or Romania, you are much more focused on what is happening across the border, what is happening in Ukraine, what is happening in Russia. If you are in France and you are looking at where most of your potential instability is coming from, or if you are in Germany that saw 2 million people walk through in this May migration wave, about 1 million staying, from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the largest single mass migration since the end of the Second World War and the first of its kind that is predominantly not from Europe itself, then you have very different security optics.

If you are in this part that looks south, you realize that Europe's frontier—if you will, Europe's Southern border—now is in the Sahel and in MENA. It is no longer just on the Mediterranean.

If you are on the Eastern frontier, you are looking to potential pressure from Russia and the kind of developments you see in the Baltic.

There is a very diverse set of views, and I think one of the largest questions that we have is how countries in these different clusters tend to view their relationship with the United States.

If you talk to countries on the Eastern flank, if you go to Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics, there is no question that the relationship with the United States is absolutely essential. It is a sine qua non to their security. They look at NATO and continued American engagement as absolutely critical, and the fact that you have NATO forward deployments, you have multinational battalions in the Baltics, you have our brigade combat team in Poland, and we are rolling into the next NATO Summit this summer in Brussels, the perspective of how important this trans-Atlantic relationship is is strong.

If you look to countries that are more south-looking, southern-oriented, if you look at countries that are more preoccupied with the kind of domestic issues of what is going to happen to the European Union—and, as you know, there is a lot of discussion about the core versus periphery or a two-tiered European Union, one of the ideas that is being discussed out there—then there will be more of an inward-looking aspect to this.

As you know, we at the Marshall Center, together with the Munich Security Conference, have set up in collaboration with them what we call the Loisach Group, which is a platform for continued German-American strategic dialogue.

During one of the most recent conversations we had in Munich, one of our participants made, I think, a very cogent point when he said: "There is a sense of a very uneven distribution of power in Europe. Nothing new there. The question is how the weight of individual countries, especially countries like Germany, will translate into actual power, leadership, and a larger strategy."

What we are trying to do through the Loisach Group, through our engagement—and you have been part of these conversations, so you know what our agenda is here—is to make sure that we are in the forefront of this strategic dialogue, and that, especially the German-American partnership, which is central to our longer-term relations with Europe just as much as if you go in the direction of the United Kingdom, that special relationship is there, and increasingly our relationship with Poland and the Baltic States because of their flank position.

We have a number of these what I would call "bilateral relationships" under the larger NATO umbrella that are critical to how we move forward. This is a conversation that we need to have, and this is a conversation that, I think, we will have especially in the run-up to the NATO summit.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to build on that, both on the Loisach Group and then on the Munich Security Conference more generally for this year, which is the sense that you had about the message brought by Americans, particularly American officials, American members of Congress, that were our European partners reassured by what they were hearing? Were they skeptical?

Certainly we now have the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, which perhaps throws some of those assurances into question. What is your sense, your personal observations, on that in terms of the message being brought from the United States to its European partners and how they have been receiving it?

ANDREW MICHTA: There are a couple of things that were pronounced during the Munich Security Conference from our perspective, and it was brought, I think, both by our congressional delegation (CODEL) and also when our national security advisor spoke actually in the plenary, when General McMaster spoke.

There are two things at play. One is that we need for Europe to contribute more, to spend more, to do more. If you look at our National Security Strategy, we are talking about Europe not just spending the magical 2 percent across the board on defense. In and of itself, that 2 percent is more of a symbol of commitment. You have to break it down into what it actually buys and how it actually is going to contribute to a larger security environment. That is why we're expecting that by 2024 the Europeans will spend about 20 percent of that on usable military capabilities. One part of the message was that we expect Europe to do more.

But a second important message, I thought, was—and this was especially delivered during the panel with our congressional delegation, Senator Graham in particular, who said he is very much in support of the Europeans exploring initiatives that make European stronger, period. In other words, there is a lot of conversation in Europe, especially around the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defense (PESCO) and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) ideas, the idea that the Europeans want to increase security cooperation and coordinate their defense expenditures within the framework of the European Union but not as an alternative to NATO. The devil is in the details, of course, because every single time we talk about doing more from the U.S. perspective, the overarching concern is the Europeans doing more within the larger NATO framework.

But I think what was different this time was the message that was delivered, that if the Europeans move in the direction of developing their own additional capabilities, investing in PESCO, spending more on defense in that fashion, that will ultimately build up the capabilities of the European militaries, and in the final analysis that is a plus for the entire trans-Atlantic relationship.

The second point I want to make is that it was also interesting to notice that a lot of the conversation during the Munich Security Conference concerned what you essentially have along the periphery of Europe itself. There was a lot of conversation about the situation in the Middle East, there was a lot of conversation about what is going on in Ukraine, and the larger concern that not so long ago we used to celebrate Europe whole and free and at peace. There is a growing awareness among the European policy elite and among European leadership that that time has passed, that Europe is now looking increasingly at state-on-state confrontation. It is looking at a number of non-state factors that are impacting on their domestic security. And the important thing is, how do you translate that then into a serious conversation on defense spending?

Remember that we have gone through two NATO summits where we have talked about getting to 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense from the European allies across the board, and we continue to make that argument, but some of our allies have moved only in very marginal terms. The rhetoric in terms of what the security requirements are and the actual willingness to spend euros and cents are not necessarily one and the same.

That, in my perspective, was one of the most serious concerns from the U.S. delegation when we talked to the Europeans both in public and in private conversations in between sessions: "Make sure you step up, make sure you spend more on defense, make sure you send that message of equitable burden sharing back to the United States."

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Can I pick up on a theme also related to that, the, in a sense, pessimism that Europe is perhaps not as whole and not as free as it might have been?

Certainly one of the concerns that has been raised is that of democratic backsliding on reform in different parts of Europe, and then the question of whether or not that is connected to or related to this perception that the United States itself is downgrading its interests in democracy promotion and in spreading and sustaining values. Is there a connection, or are these events that are happening at the same time but are unrelated, that you would still be seeing a kind of retrenchment in European countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, when it comes to continuing to move forward on the democratization agenda?

ANDREW MICHTA: Actually, I would not link this to what we do. Quite frankly, I think there are a lot of processes that are quite autonomous and intra-European in nature. There are a couple of things to keep in mind, and actually I'm saying this in light of the latest outcome of the Italian election.

There is a larger trend, in my view, across most of the so-called "old Europeans," the countries that were members of the European Community before the collapse of communism, in large part because of immigration issues, because of stresses following the impact of the 2008 crisis, especially in Greece but also how it reverberated and was felt across Europe.

There is a declining level of support for established political parties. Quite frankly, I think I am not overstating if I were to say that, because of these pressures inside the European Union, the traditional middle of European politics is struggling. What you have instead is you have, both on the left and the right, movements emerging challenging the established political order.

If you look at the German election, for example, last September—and Germany only very recently was able to create the grand coalition government—that was in large part because that election delivered the worst outcome for the Christian Democratic Union of Germany/Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CDU/CSU) since 1949. It reduced the level of support for the Social Democrats to around 21 percent, again quite low by all standards. And most importantly, it brought the Alternative for Germany, an anti-immigration party, from virtual nonexistence six years ago roughly to the third-largest party position in the Bundestag.

That tells you, just using Germany as an example of what is happening, how internal politics in Europe is changing. That, I would argue, is not driven so much by whether the United States is promoting this or that agenda when it comes to democracy, rule of law, and so forth, but because there are certain structural changes taking place in Europe.

What is happening in Central Europe in particular is of a different order. Again, to put it in a proper context, remember that we are now some 27, almost 28 years, out since the collapse of communism in Europe and the end of the Cold War. That means, first and foremost, that you have a new generation across the Central European region—in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—that has virtually no memory of communism. I sometimes like to make a comparison that, because sovereignty was so recently regained in Central Europe, Central Europe tends to be more "modern" in its outlook on politics, whereas Western Europe tends to be more postmodern in how it approaches globalization and how it approaches the question of governance.

Again, what is happening in Central Europe and what is happening in Western Europe is more sui generis forces working internally in those countries and a larger intra-EU conversation than what we as a country do or do not do in our relations with the continent.

One more comment, and that is something that gives me a lot of reason to be concerned. The notion of building a two-tiered European Union that you hear quite a bit about has two dimensions to it. One, once the Brits are out of the European Union, in effect, the second-largest EU economy will find itself outside the European Union. That means that, more importantly, the non-eurozone part of the combined European Union GDP will drop from roughly 30-some percent to approximately 11 percent or less, which means the relative weight of the eurozone countries and the countries outside of the euro will shift dramatically. With the Brits still remaining, that balance was maintained differently. So that is number one.

But, number two, if you then look at the economic forces that are going to pull Europe toward this euro core—assuming that is where we are heading—that does not mean that this clustering will be clean. Countries that are in the eurozone, like the Baltic States, which will cluster with the euro countries, and especially with Germany, on economic policy, are going to be very much different in their outlook when it comes to security policy considerations, in my view.

Looking at Russia, they will cooperate probably more closely and align more closely with the kind of security optics you have from the post-communist states. For those countries, in contrast to Western Europe, policy decisions tend to have what I call an existential quality to them—that is, if they get it wrong, the wages of that are orders of magnitude greater than if a Western European country potentially gets it wrong. They have a very keen memory of not being sovereign only about a quarter-century ago. So their willingness to actually align on some other policy priorities with the larger European states when it comes to their core security interests may be less than some anticipate.

The upshot of all of this is that it seems to me, rather than having the kind of neat, two-tiered Europe of the deepening core and then a more slowly integrating periphery, we might actually end up with what I have written about, calling it a "Europe of clusters"—that is, that countries in the European Union itself will be aligning differently, if you will, based on whether we are looking at economic interests or security interests.

Just to sum up very briefly, I do not believe that what is happening internally in the European Union and in Europe as a whole is a direct or even indirect function of our policy vis-à-vis Europe. It is to a large extent driven by, in my view, internal factors, the most important among them being the kind of immigration wave that the Europeans have experienced and continue to try to cope with since essentially 2015 and 2016, and all of that in the context of the repercussions of the economic crisis of 2008.

If you go to Greece and look at the levels of youth unemployment, look at the kinds of prospects that young Greeks have, you don't need to talk about populism or anti-immigration sentiments. Over there, you are looking in that context at pure bread-and-butter issues for the younger generation.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: This has been a fascinating overview, and I think your closing comment points to the fact that we are in fact seeing structural change happening in Europe, within European countries, and in the trans-Atlantic relationship. This isn't something that is going to be changed by a shift in policy or one election here or there, but I think also it helps us to understand both the long-term dynamics that will be unfolding there, and also I think within the United States as well, where I think your characterization of modern versus postmodern politics is a good description of what is happening here as well. I think all of this will bear close watching, with a sense that we are in a period of flux and change in the international order and in the European order that may not fully work itself out within the next six months or a year or even several years.

I'd like to thank you very much, Dr. Andrew Michta, for joining us today with this very insightful look at what is happening in Europe and being able to communicate that across the Atlantic to us here in the United States. Thank you.

ANDREW MICHTA: Thank you very much, Nick. Always a pleasure. Thank you.

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