I have written many articles about Europe on this blog, especially the economic stagnation and decline taking place there. I have warned repeatedly that Europe as we know it is withering away, being replaced by a "new" continent the political and economic landscape of which is hard to predict.
In times of uncertainty, the first order of business is to always assume that the worst possible outcome is as probable as the best one. It is time for America's political leadership to grasp that worst-possible scenario, and proactively adjust our foreign and security policies to it.
That worst-possible scenario is far more sinister than our political leaders understand. I am frustrated by the shallowness with which our country approaches Europe. My frustration is fueled by my European background: born, raised and educated in Sweden and Denmark, (I came to America 18 years ago), a policy scholar, a writer on European affairs, and with long experience of politics in Europe.
Bluntly: in a not-distant future, the Europe we know as prosperous, peaceful and America-friendly will not be the same. This shift is already happening, and the transformation for the worse will continue.
It is high time for our government to adjust our foreign and security policies accordingly.
Americans perceive Europe as a pinnacle of stability. We see nation states that have been there "forever" and we simply assume that they will remain there "forever". That is not the case, though; the transformation taking place now will revamp Europe in ways unimaginable within conventional American foreign-policy wisdom.
The current debate over whether to keep American troops in Germany, or bring them home, must be informed by this tectonic transformation of Europe.
We know the Old World as a nation-state continent of high achievement and peace. That Europe is the product of the 18th century. It was back then that France, Germany, Britain, the Scandinavian countries and other nations matured into what is largely their current forms. For sure, boundaries have been moved around, and Germany was not formally unified until circa 1870, but the entity itself began forming about 300 years ago.
The Napoleonic and World Wars badly disrupted Europe, but the nation states healed and forged themselves as a result. The Cold War divided Europe into two parts, but - again - as cultural and social entities, the nation states remained largely intact. This is worth keeping in mind not because the nation state is inherently important (it is instrumentally, but not inherently important) but because Europe's nation states have formed the continent into what she is today. They have provided stable, predictable social, legal and economic frameworks for industrial, financial, scientific and cultural evolution. They have fostered prosperity on a level surpassed only by America.
Today, the European nation state is in a permanent state of decline. Its geographic representation, the jurisdiction if you will, is not going to go away any time soon, although fragmentation is already underway in Spain and we can almost certainly expect it to happen in Italy at some point. No, the decline is political, economic and social, and it all plays into President Trump's decision on where to station U.S. troops in Europe - if at all.
The political decline has been underway for a good long time now. Already during the Cold War, as far back as the 1970s, the European left refurbished itself from being Soviet friendly into being more mainstream "democratically socialist". Rather than leading to a decline of the socialist movement in Europe, this led to its reinforcement. Socialist thought galvanized the welfare state (leading to Europe's slow but inevitable economic decline) and inspired both the environmentalist and peace movements. The latter called for disarmament and for Europe to cut its ties to America; the former has risen to become the "Green" movement with its often very radical political agenda.
As a result of their commitment to democratic socialism, the European left has been able to shape the continent politically for a good 40 years now. The European Union, constituted in the early 1990s, is basically the brainchild of this Soviet-free left. Just like the nation states governed by the left, the EU is a colossal government machinery suffering from a glaring democratic deficit. This has slowly but inevitably changed the character of Europe and slowly weakened traditional pillars of societal strength: family, Christianity, social responsibility, academic integrity and capitalism.
The economic decline has been a long time coming. I explained this in detail in my book Industrial Poverty, where I pointed to how the welfare state - the practice of democratic socialism - has had unintended but systemic consequences for Europe's economic performance. Today the continent is essentially stuck in economic stagnation (a problem that, for the record, preceded the short but disruptive coronavirus epidemic by decades) and they will not get out of it without equally systemic economic reforms.
When an economy is stuck in stagnation, its young generations grow up to a life less prosperous than what their parents enjoyed. This is already happening in Europe, in the second generation now. Some countries have been set back badly, while others are just on the precipice of that decline. Regardless, with only a couple of exceptions - Hungary and Poland being the foremost of them - the trend is undeniably negative.
An economy in stagnation is bad enough; an economy in stagnation while trying to support a welfare state, is a recipe for social implosion. Stagnation means more people get stuck in dependency on, and eligibility for, welfare-state benefits. Stagnation also means fewer people will produce the tax base needed to fully fund that welfare state. The result is an endless series of deficits, something Europe has experienced in spades in the past 25 years. With deficits come demands for austerity; with austerity come social tension as benefits are cut; with social tension comes social unrest.
France has been home to the yellow-vest protests for most of President Macron's term in office. It is, however, far from the only eruption of social tensions. Europe is also home to some of the ugliest ethnic clashes we have seen outside of war zones. Large immigration is in itself not a problem; the problems begin when there is no economy to absorb and integrate those immigrants. America is a fantastic example of how a country can welcome immigrants, like me, and let us work our way into this great society. But when immigration is combined with a welfare state, handing out generous entitlements while stifling productive work with its high taxes, it is far more likely that immigrants get stuck in passive dependency.
When that dependency is on an increasingly stingy welfare state, and when taxes only go up, not down, the opportunities to self determination never materialize for these immigrants.
Add to this the complicating ingredient that many European immigrants come from cultures that tend to segregate naturally, based on religion and ethnicity. They do this much in the same way as some cultures segregated here in America: my Swedish ancestors who came here gravitated toward areas that were either similar to where they came from, or where Swedes had already set. If you ever get a chance to visit Holdrege, NE or the Chisago Lakes area in Minnesota, you will see exactly what I mean. You will also find pockets of Catholics, Baptists and other religious affiliations that drew new immigrants solely based on that affiliation.
Not to mention the Mormons, whose amazing migration to Utah is worth every bit of admiration.
By the same token, Muslim immigrants to Europe tend to enclave themselves and form their own communities. There is nothing wrong in this per se, but when those enclaves are trapped in poverty by a government that promises a lot and delivers little, tensions will gradually emerge:
- On the one hand, frustration arises over economic strife among those who have believed the welfare state's promises;
- On the other hand, frustration arises among those, whose economic contributions are increasingly being taxed away to fund the welfare state.
The result of self-imposed social segregation and government-imposed economic segregation, is political segregation. We see this in rapidly growing Islamic parties across Europe. We have already seen it in surging support for nationalist parties, which gained a significant foothold in the European Parliament last year.
Neither the Islamic parties nor the nationalist parties are to be confused with violent extremists. Islam is not islamism, and nationalism is not racism. However, both types of parties are segregationist and will eventually be mutually exclusive. They both capitalize on the ongoing fragmentation of Europe's social and economic fabric; as these factions - to use a crude but not far-fetched term - gain more support, they will demand legal and economic carve-outs for their constituencies. This will lead to more political tensions, more social strife and further weakening of Europe's nation states.
Eventually, in the next several years, some European nation states will begin to de facto disintegrate from these tensions. Wherever disintegration proceeds, political stability will recede. Add to this the rise and persistent presence of an increasingly radical left in national politics across Europe, and we have a recipe for instability at a more systemic level.
It is with this future in mind that President Trump shall make his decisions regarding the U.S. military presence in Europe. He has been criticized for his intention to withdraw a third of our troops from Germany, with Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) among them. The Hill quotes Cheney as tweeting that the president's decision to take home a third of our troops from Germany is "dangerously misguided". (They also report on her remarks in a video, although there they embarrassingly misname Cheney by her mother's first name...)
Cheney is correct: we need to have troops in Europe, but not for linear, post-Cold War reasons, and we have to station them there based on the changing European political landscape. Specifically, there are calls among German politicians to sever the country's national-securities ties with the United States. While the party leading this charge only represents about ten percent of German voters, they have as many as a third of the seats in some German state legislatures. They also have allies in other parties and could exercise significant influence over German foreign policy in the near future. In fact, their influence stretches deep into the European Parliament, where they are parts of broader political coalitions.
We are still far from the point where a German government would openly demand America exit the country militarily, but the very fact that this is a topic of serious discussion within a parliament in a NATO country should be a warning signal of Europe's ongoing transformation. It raises the question about when our troops go from being there to support an ally, to where they are stationed on unfriendly soil. The former is a noble, implicitly understandable policy goal; the latter is different in purpose.
We need troops in Europe because Europe is destabilizing, but it would be more reasonable to station them in a country where the long-term political, social and economic trajectory is friendlier toward America. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria are good candidates. So are Slovenia, Croatia and Denmark. While Cheney is correct in criticizing an outright withdrawal from Germany, she should make the constructive contribution of proposing other countries to which we can reallocate our presence.
At this point, the question obviously emerges: why do we need troops in Europe in the first place? Again, Cheney has made a point we all need to remember. If we defend freedom abroad, we can preserve it at home. That does not mean that we need troops in 50 countries around the world - Senator Rand Paul has raised some valid points on that - but it does mean that we need to continuously establish that we will not waiver when it comes to defending liberty and prosperity.
We need to constantly reassure the world that there is no military mightier than ours.
Why? Because there are others with more sinister political agendas that otherwise will fill the vacuum. That is happening in Europe as we speak. Extremists from all corners of the political spectrum are moving their positions forward: the nationalist movement is inadvertently paving the way for racists and neo-Nazis; the Islamic movement is inadvertently paving the way for radical Islamists; the aggressive socialist movement has brought with it a resurrection of revolutionary, violent communism.
Add to this the growing presence of Chinese interests, both financial and political, all over Europe. This Sino-nationalist expansion comes on top of perennially present Russia. There is no doubt that Putin's Russia is far less of a threat to Europe than the Soviet Union was, and in some ways almost culturally aligned with Europe. That said, it is unclear to what extent Russian nationalism will influence Europe in the future, and it is far too naive to dismiss Russian military ambitions, especially in a vacuum created by an American all-out troop withdrawal.
Today, Europe is in slow but apparently unstoppable decline, but that won't last. It only takes one disruptive event to turn an almost glacial implosion into rapid Balkanization. It is too early to say what that event will be, but here are two candidates that Americans - including too many of our political leaders - candidly overlook:
1. The implosion of the European Union. This institution, created to much fanfare three decades ago, was put to a test ten years ago, during the Great Recession. It did not pass that test. Since then, its political legitimacy has been in decline, taking a big punch on the chin from Brexit. The political narrative around the EU is no longer about how the union can be strengthened, but how it can be held together so that more of its members do not decide to leave. The question is how long rhetorical duct tape can do the job: policy issue after policy issue is causing more ruptures, from immigration to taxes. At some point, this disintegration process will reach a momentum beyond which Europe will be hurled into a point between ordered chaos and the fragmentation that preceded the 30-year war.
2. A civil war in an unexpected place. Sweden is the prime candidate here. A country plagued for decades now by economic strife and increasingly weaker government institutions, is only one economic crisis away from open instability. Crime is at stressfully high levels, the economy is limping at best, social tensions are very high and political leadership is weak and fading. Government has de facto lost jurisdiction over large stretches of the country, including more than 50 urban areas. With a strong, resilient nationalist movement - including unrepentant neo-Nazis - and with established islamist enclaves, Sweden is a prime candidate for armed conflict between extremist groups. A civil war, even a proxy one, would quickly attract the attention of the Russian government, which hates instability along its borders with the same fervor as we do. Once Russian troops land on Swedish soil, for example by annexing Gotland in a "Crimean" maneuver, then all bets are off.
In short, it is foolish to make single-minded decisions on our foreign and security policies toward Europe. Neither a troop withdrawal nor a status-quo will do it. We need to rethink our ties with, and strategy for, the Old World, and we need to do it now. Trump will have to increasingly deal with a new, weaker and more dangerous Europe during his second term; his successor will be sitting right in the middle of it.