Will Europe Be the Last Superpower? (Don’t Laugh!)

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Jan. 23 2013 4:57 PM

Europe May Be the Last Superpower (Don’t Laugh!)

They probably aren’t the best choice for the world’s policeman, but they may be the only one we’ve got.

French and Malian soldiers interact
France is using air and ground power in a joint offensive with Malian soldiers launched on Jan. 11 against hardline Islamist groups controlling northern Mali

Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.

“A decade of war is now ending,” President Obama declared on Monday. Maybe that's true in America, but it isn't true anywhere else. Extremists are still plotting acts of terror. Authoritarian and autocratic regimes are still using violence to preserve their power. The United States can step back from international conflicts, but that won't make them disappear.

Fortunately, there is another power that shares our economic and political values, that possesses sophisticated military technology, and is also very interested in stopping the progress of fanatical movements, especially in North Africa and the Middle East. That power is … Europe.

Don't laugh! I realize that even a year ago that statement would have seemed absurd. I certainly couldn’t have written it in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Libya operation, during which France, Britain, and a dozen other states were barely able to sustain a brief war, involving no ground troops, against a poorly armed and unpopular regime. Unverified reports at the time alleged that the French ran out of bombs and were dropping lumps of concrete. Without the intelligence and coordination provided by American warships, airplanes, and the CIA, the French planes wouldn't even have known where to drop them.

Yet here we are in 2013, watching the French air force and troops come to the aid of the formerly democratic government of Mali, which is fighting for its life against a fanatical Islamist insurgency. Furthermore, this French intervention has (so far) broad national support. Although there have been public criticisms of the operation's logistics, preparation, and ultimate goals, almost no one in France questions the need for intervention. Hardly anyone is even asking "Why France?"     

The French have a special, post-colonial sentiment for Francophone Africa (and, according to a French friend, for Malian music) and have intervened there militarily more than 40 times since 1960. But the context of this intervention is different from many previous ones. The aim is not (or not entirely) to prop up a pro-French puppet regime but to block the progress of al-Qaida in the Maghreb, the brutal organization that fuels the Malian insurgency and took hostages at an Algerian gas complex last week.

In other words, the French are in Mali fighting an international terrorist organization with the potential to inflict damage across North Africa and perhaps beyond. Not long ago, this sort of international terrorist organization used to inspire emergency planning sessions at the Pentagon. Now the French have trouble getting Washington to pay attention at all. Some U.S. transport planes recently helped ferry French soldiers to the region but, according to Le Figaro, the Americans at first asked the French to pay for the service—“a demand without precedent”—before wearily agreeing to help.

But other Europeans are offering money and soldiers. The European Union has authorized funding to train African troops who will assist—and it does have more experience than you think. European Union forces, operating far beneath the publicity radar, attacked pirate bases on the Somali coast last spring—successfully. "They destroyed our equipment to ashes," a man described as a “pirate commander” told the Associated Press. All told, the European Union has intervened militarily in more than two dozen conflicts. Not quite as much as the French since 1960, but getting there.

A number of obstacles must be overcome before the EU could become the world's policeman. Although combined European military does make the EU the world’s second largest military power, it still isn’t enough for any kind of sustained conflict. Some Europeans, most notably the Germans, would have to overcome their post–Second World War abhorrence of soldiers. Other Europeans, most notably the British, would have to be made to believe, as others have concluded, that Americans just aren't that interested in NATO anymore. An added complication emerged this week when British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his intention to renegotiate his country's relationship with the European Union. However it unfolds, this process is unlikely to be conducive to the development of a common European foreign and defense policy.

These are big obstacles. But what's the alternative? If America is to enjoy "peace in our time"—an expression now deployed by both Barack Obama and Neville Chamberlain—while the rest of the world remains at war, then someone else will fill the vacuum. A glance at the other candidates—China, Russia, or perhaps Qatar or another Gulf state—ought to make us all stop giggling about cheese-eating surrender monkeys and start offering logistical and moral support. Europe may not be the best superpower. But it's the only one we've got.

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