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If Aukus, China and Russia don’t take Europe seriously, guess who’s to blame

ICONICBESTIARY-FREEPIK

IF IT TAKES a cheap phonetic pun to drive home the point, so be it. Last year, the Munich Security Conference, the world’s leading forum on international relations, warned of “Westlessness.” Everything since that report has borne out the danger, because the rate at which the world is becoming Westless — and, therefore, restless — keeps accelerating.

The latest sign is Aukus, the new geopolitical alliance of Australia, the UK, and the US, which has China as the obvious adversary. There it is again: the old Anglosphere, as distinct from the wider West. The undertone is that when it comes to staring down genuine threats — in the 21st century as in the 20th — it’s those ancient ties of language and culture that bind.

France under President Emmanuel Macron, predictably, is as livid about being snubbed as it ever was under Charles de Gaulle or other Gallic roosters. As part of Aukus, Australia will buy nuclear-powered submarines from its fellow Anglophones, instead of conventional ones from France, as previously agreed. Macron recalled his ambassadors to Washington and Canberra and is now preparing for an extended sulk.

You can expect to hear a lot from him in coming weeks about “European sovereignty” and “autonomy,” nebulous slogans he’s been pushing alongside his more evocative ruminations about the alleged “brain death” of NATO, which remains the most concrete manifestation of a strategic West. If it were up to Macron, the European Union, now unencumbered by those pesky Brits, should finally become a distinct geopolitical and military power, at eye level with the US, and presumably led by France.

The usual suspects in a few other European capitals have taken up his rallying cry, especially since the ignominious Western withdrawal from Afghanistan. There, too, the Europeans felt betrayed by the Americans, who didn’t bother to meaningfully consult or coordinate with their allies as they pulled out. Predictably, the call for a “European army” has returned. In this latest iteration, the idea is to start with an EU 5,000, a sort of elite force that could have secured the Kabul airport without American help. Forgive my skepticism, but the Spartan 300 this will never be.

It’s understandable that the Europeans are frustrated about not being taken all that seriously, either by adversaries like Russia and China or by friends like the US and Australia. But rather than fume impotently, they’d do better to take an honest look at themselves to find the reasons.

They could start by asking Lithuania, that former victim of Soviet imperialism which is now a proud member of the EU and NATO. It’s become the latest European country to get the full bullying treatment from Beijing. The reason is that Vilnius allowed Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, to set up a representative office. In retaliation, if that is the word, Beijing withdrew its ambassador, clamped down on Lithuanian trade and generally tightened the vise.

The US immediately offered its support to Lithuania. And the EU? Its member states aren’t so sure. After all, they do a lot of business with China — Germany’s largest trading partner — and feel that Lithuania could have been more diplomatic. It fell to the prime minister of Slovenia, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, to plead with his counterparts to stick up for Lithuania at a gathering in two weeks.

So it goes, country by country, crisis by crisis, threat by threat. The Europeans do not see the world and its dangers the same way, nor do they feel they co-own the West’s problems. Just look at Berlin, which has rebuffed entreaties by the US, Poland, and others and built a pipeline connecting Germany to Russia, the most direct menace to peace on the continent. Moscow plans to start pumping gas through it within weeks.

The shock of Trumpism in the US is certainly one reason for the trend of Westlessness — former President Donald Trump never understood, much less appreciated, the concept of a “West” that stands together for open societies and world order. But the Europeans bear at least as much of the blame. They have not made their armies capable of fighting a real war without the Americans. And they haven’t taken responsibility in managing the biggest geopolitical threats, which now include China.

Germany is the best example. It’s probably the one country, thanks to its economic weight, that could nudge the EU to become stronger and therefore “autonomous.” But it has no interest in doing so. Instead it skimps on its army and pretends that the world’s problems are for others, and mainly the US, to deal with. In the debates between the candidates for chancellor before this Sunday’s election, none had anything to say about foreign or security policy at all. This is disgraceful.

While it lasted, the West — not in an ethnocentric but in a normative sense — made the world, on balance, a better place. Its ongoing fragmentation therefore bodes ill for stability and peace. The US should keep trying to salvage this West, even as others, like the UK and Australia, are wise to draw up a Plan B. But ultimately, it’s the Europeans who have to decide what they want — and then do what it takes to become credible.

BLOOMBERG OPINION

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