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9 Dec, 2022 12:55

Fyodor Lukyanov: How the US has placed Western Europe in a trap over Russia and China

Emmanuel Macron has held extensive talks with Joe Biden but, behind the smiles, this is not an equal relationship
Fyodor Lukyanov: How the US has placed Western Europe in a trap over Russia and China

Last year, France was left out in the cold by the creation of the Anglo-Saxon AUKUS defense grouping of Britain, Australia and the United States. Firstly, NATO members had not been notified. Secondly, the consequence of the arrangement was the breakdown of a contract for Paris to build a large batch of submarines for Australia.

Instead of conventional French-made submersibles, nuclear vessels of American design were now planned. Paris’ anger was so great that the ambassadors from Washington and London were even recalled, although not for long.

The grievances of last autumn seem to have faded this winter as the transatlantic relationship has moved into the category of a “brotherhood of war.” The idea of an indestructible unity of Western Europe and America in the face of the Russian threat is a thesis that is repeated literally daily. According to the interpretation accepted in the West, President Vladimir Putin severely miscalculated in expecting a rift between the Old and New Worlds. And now the Atlantic community has found a new lease of life and a fresh raison d’être.

How prepared Moscow was for such a sharp reaction from the “collective West” to the Ukrainian campaign is an open and difficult question. However, as the aftermath of the crisis is unfolding, cracks are beginning to appear in the monolith of the Western coalition. That said, we shouldn’t get too optimistic – the divergence is not driven by attitudes to Russia, but mainly on the question, if I may say so, of the distribution of the burden.

In this case, it seems that the Western Europeans are starting to develop an unpleasant suspicion.

Biden’s arrival in the White House almost two years ago was greeted with glee in Brussels, Paris, Berlin and beyond. Donald Trump, who himself made no secret of his disdain for the Old World, was a pariah for most of the continent’s leaders. Trump was the perfect embodiment of what disgusts Western European elites and his presence highlighted the differences between Europe and America.

However, this divergence began earlier in the century, when Bill Clinton was replaced in Washington by George W. Bush. It was then that American priorities began to shift from a seemingly benign and relatively unproblematic Europe to an increasingly important Asia, which was becoming the center of events.

Bush and his neocon associates were disliked in most of Europe, but Barack Obama was greeted as the messiah of a New Atlanticism, though the restoration of trust didn’t happen in full.

Trump shocked those across the ocean with his outspoken dislike, so Biden's victory was perceived as a return to, if not the norm, decency. Indeed, the Democratic administration’s rhetoric was reminiscent of the Clinton era, which was arguably the golden era of US-European symbiosis. Back then, Washington regarded the continent as an important priority and made considerable efforts to beautify it in a pan-Atlantic spirit, which was then in line with the overwhelming European sense of what was beautiful.

The current US president, Joe Biden, is an old-school politician, from a time when Europe was the center of American interests. But the old school involves a sober analysis of costs and benefits. And the ability to optimize the former by maximizing the latter.

After the Second World War, and especially the Cold War, Western Europeans abandoned strategic thinking and instead followed policies which ensured a comfortable existence. The US, on the other hand, has retained the ability, if not to think, then, at least, to feel strategically.

Hence an understanding (or rather an instinct) of the changing geopolitical realities. Of course, gut feelings don’t guarantee the correctness of policy, but they do imply an alignment with current needs and circumstances. Ironically, Western Europe, historically famed for its rationalism, is now much less correlated with the consequences of its actions. 

Whether Washington had a cunning plan to shift the brunt of the confrontation with Russia onto its European allies, we may someday find out. However, the behavior of the United States can perhaps be explained not by scheming, but rather by clever opportunism. The fallout from the Ukrainian crisis is spreading all over the place, with the US making decisions to manage the consequences or even to exploit them for the future. This causes consternation amongst the Western Europeans: the Americans can do it, but they themselves can not.

Thus, when the Biden administration passes the Inflation Reduction Act, putting American citizens in a much better position than Europeans, it is perfectly in the interests of the US. So?

Western Europe is caught in a trap and it’s unclear how it can escape. Absolute solidarity with the US on the Russian question implies subordination to a stronger partner. That said, the EU and UK are ready for this, but it means (for objective reasons): 1) that they must bear most of the costs, and 2) they should follow a common strategic position on the other issues of principle for their patron. And the main one here is China.

Beijing will be Washington’s strategic rival for decades to come. However, it’s not a threat to Western Europe, and it’s not a challenge. Indeed, cooperation with it is advantageous. But why should the big brother allow his little sidekick to help someone who is at odds with him?

Biden and Macron shook hands at length in a sign of incredible cordiality. In fact, the US President assured him that the US did not want to offend its European allies. That is all. No more than that.