NEW HAVEN: Europeans have control over their own fate, yet at no point since the end of the Cold War has their collective fate seemed so precarious. The threats are diverse as the continent’s political institutions and way of life are being tested by Islamic State–linked terror attacks, Russia’s hybrid war on Ukraine and the continuing agony of economic depression in southern Europe. Each challenge has separate causes, but all are exacerbated by the chasm between Europe’s goals and its capabilities.
For years, many in Europe have called for the continent to take charge of its own destiny. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States played significant roles in European politics, but since 1991, Washington has been the significant outside player, cajoling European states into participating in American-led efforts at global governance. US predominance has occasionally grated, and many Europeans advocated that their continent become an influential geopolitical actor in its own right. Some even hoped that Europe could act as a counterweight to what many Europeans perceived as an overbearing America. With the creation of the European Union and its expansion throughout Central and Eastern Europe, by the early 2000s it seemed that Europe had the tools to act independently of outside powers.
In the aftermath of the second Iraq War and the election of Barack Obama, the United States seemed more willing than at any point since World War II to relinquish many of its responsibilities in Europe. Even under the George W. Bush administration, Washington had begun redeploying combat troops from Western Europe to other theaters. The Obama administration has continued to disengage from Europe, because it, too, prioritizes other regions, and hopes that reducing US commitment will force allies to bear more costs of their own defense. The last several years, therefore, provided a test of the European project, as US disengagement gave Europe ample room to chart its own course in political, military and economic terms. So far, the results of this experiment have disappointed. Europe bungled its response to Greece’s debt crisis while relying on the International Monetary Fund to help fund the bailout. Meanwhile, the continent continued to rely on American resources to attain Europe’s geopolitical goals. Even as the United States reduced defense spending, most European countries declined to better fund their own militaries.
In Ukraine, for example, Europe faces a contradiction between its desire for a peaceful neighborhood and unwillingness to take steps needed to realize this goal. Russia’s invasion Ukraine in March 2014, lopping off Crimea, caught most Europeans off guard. They had hoped the prospect of trade and economic growth would encourage Russia and Ukraine to play by Europe’s rules. When Russia chose to reject these rules, using what Western officials have criticized as 19th century behavior to assert their influence in Ukraine, European capitals were divided about whether to respond with diplomacy and sanctions. Military intervention was out of the question.
On the one hand, Europe continued to insist that Ukrainian sovereignty is inviolable and that Russia should not…