The European Union (EU) needs to turn its attention to its geo-strategic and geo-economic backyard, the Middle East and North Africa, and share with the United States the costs of securing core Western interests there.
The United States should encourage its European allies to play a more high-profile role in the Middle East. This won’t be easy, and will require Washington to accept, at times, a diminished regional position.
But at the end of the day, the United States will continue to play the Western alliance’s leadership role in the Middle East with the European Union providing more of a supporting role.
The changes in the global balance of power, and in particular, the challenges posed by a rising China, have made it necessary for Washington to shift more diplomatic and economic resources from the Atlantic to the Pacific. America’s allies in Europe have to assume that under any projected scenario in the evolving international system the United States would find it more difficult to maintain its current hegemonic role in the US..-led alliance.
One way in which the European Union (EU) could re-adjust to the new changing global realities is by turning their attention to what is their geo-strategic and geo-economic backyard, the Middle East and North Africa, and share with the United States the costs of securing core Western interests there.
Since the notion of the United States re-pivoting back to the Atlantic isn’t a realistic option at a time when a new cold war is brewing between America and China, the Europeans need to move to begin an EU pivot towards the Middle East.
Moreover, the threat of rogue regimes in the Middle East, including the challenge of a potentially nuclearized Iran, poses a more direct threat to Europe than it does to North America.
Nevertheless, it is the United States that continues to pay the high military and economic costs of securing common interests in the Middle East.
At the same time, when it comes to dealing with the Middle East, Europeans have exhibited the classic case of a “free rider,” by benefiting from the provision of security services by the United States. The United States has paid the costs of several military interventions in the Middle East since 1945 and continues to maintain a huge defense budget of $846 billion while the Europeans have reduced theirs.
In fact, with the exception of the occasional intervention in their former colonies in the Levant and the Maghreb and of taking part in the US-led wars in Iraq, the Europeans have refrained from employing their military power to protect their interests in the region.
That only helped to highlight the vicious circle created when the Europeans got a free ride on American protection in the Middle East. By doing the job themselves, Americans are failing to provide incentives to the Europeans to build their militaries so that they can take care of their interests in the Middle East. That leaves the Americans no choice but to continue doing the job.
Can the United States and its European allies find their way out of this vicious circle? Can Washington depend on the EU to project more military power and diplomatic influence in the Middle East and share with the Americans the burden of securing stability in the region? Or will the constraints operating on both sides make that unlikely and lead to maintaining the status quo in the transatlantic relationship when it comes to the Middle East? Finally, can the United States accept a diminished role in the Middle East?
Europe is no stranger to the Middle East, a region that was divided between the British and French empires after the end of the Great War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. After World War II and the onset of the Cold War, military and economic weakness caused Britain and France to pass the Middle East torch to the United States.
The transition to Pax Americana was lengthy. The humiliating abandonment of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956, recalled later as the “Suez Moment,” when the British and the French sought to recover their hegemonic status in Egypt and the Middle East, proved to be the turning point in Europe’s retreat from Europe. It ensured that the two former Middle Eastern powers would never again attempt military action in the region without first securing the acquiescence of Washington.
The high costs of these policies have ignited an isolationist public backlash, which led in part to the election of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Donald Trump, both of whom attempted in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Iraq to reduce America’s military footprint in the Middle East.
All of which raises the following question: Can an exhausted hegemon, being drawn now by the Europeans into the war in Ukraine, and forced to shift more resources to the Indo-Pacific region, find ways to incentivize its wealthy partners to start taking care of the interests in their strategic backyard?
In reality, a scenario under which the European Union considers deploying troops to that region, having boots on the ground, seems now more unrealistic than ever.
One former EU member—the United Kingdom, which has had a traditional interest in the Middle East—has left the organization. At the same time, the EU’s Central European members and Germany, the most economically powerful member of the European Union, have shown no interest in projecting military power in the Middle East. France continues to pursue its traditional policy of having its cake, benefiting from US protection in the Middle East, while eating it too, insisting that it seeks “strategic independence” from its global ally.
Moreover, notwithstanding French President Emanuel Macron’s talk about achieving that kind of European “strategic independence,” the reality is that the defense forces of the European Union, which implement the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (or CSDP), include an alphabet-soup of military and civilian bodies, with the most powerful one being the permanent European Union Rapid Deployment Capacity (EU RDC) consisting of up to 5,000 troops (the size of a brigade) that is supposed to be operational by 2025.
At the same time, the European Union does have another important tool that would allow it to expand its influence in the Middle East, in the form of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM). It was founded in 2008 at the Paris Summit for the Mediterranean.
Yet the UfM has yet to come up with concrete and realistic plans to form free-trade areas that would associate the Middle Eastern economies with the European markets along the lines of the free trade deal between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Whether the EU will develop a military force that would provide it with the capacity to pursue real strategic independence in the Middle East and move more energetically to expand economic collaboration between the European Union and the Middle East would depend on the political will of the organization’s members; more specifically, on France and the southern European members whose core national interests requires a stable Middle East.
These EU members need to recognize the constraints operating now on the use of US military power around the world—and in the Middle East in particular—in this post-Unipolar Moment, and start doing something about it.
The United States still has the largest and most advanced economy, and the largest and the most powerful military, and no one expects any of America’s potential rivals to overspend the United States on defense and overtake it in the military sphere any time soon. It can therefore be accepted as an axiom that there is no great power—or even a combination of powers—that is ready to challenge the United States for global supremacy at this time in history.
At the same time, the US-led wars in the Middle East have overstretched American forces. Given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, the American people are no longer ready to provide their government with the money and manpower it needs to secure its hegemonic position, including in the Middle East. Washington would, therefore, need to work in tandem with other regional and global powers to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East.
The choice that Washington faces in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is between continuing to strive for strategic dominance in a way that has ignited more opposition at home and resistance abroad, or working together with other powers to contain threats to the international system—to remain still being first among equals (or primus inter pares), which is the next best thing to Number One.
To put it differently, the United States cannot continue to occupy the driver’s seat and ask the Europeans, or for that matter, the Russians and Chinese, to help them in navigating from point A to point B and to check the tires and to change the oil. These powers are going to demand to have more of a say on where points A and B are, and perhaps even insist on occupying the driver’s seat when it comes to their spheres of influence.
That means that if Washington has an interest in encouraging the Europeans to play a more activist role in what used to be one their sphere of influence, so as to discourage them from continuing to free ride on US power in that region, it would need to take their interest into consideration.
From that perspective, the time has come to reassess the conventional wisdom that when something takes place in the Middle East—a terrorist act; a regional conflict; a civil war—it’s the obligation and the right of the United States to resolve it, to “do something,” to impose its dictates on regional powers and deny outside global power a role in the process, or else the Middle East would slide into instability and war.
Indeed, it seems that notwithstanding its rhetoric, the administration of President Joe Biden, very much like that of Trump and Obama, has been muddling through in the direction of adjusting its hegemonic position in the Middle East, recognizing the limits operating on its military power and diplomatic influence. It has accepted with a certain level of benign neglect the successful Chinese diplomatic mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen, and the combined efforts by Russia and Middle East players, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to return Syria to the Arab fold.
There was also not a lot that the United States was able to do in forcing its two strategic allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, to support the economic sanctions on Russia and it’s very doubtful that the United States would go to war against Iran to prevent it from going nuclear. Certainly, any plan for regime change in Tehran is off the table.
In this new international and regional environment, the idea of providing incentives to the European Union to embrace a more activist role in the Middle East would mean that Washington would not launch unilateral wars in the Middle East without consulting and receiving a green light from Brussels if Washington wants the Europeans to share in the burden of stabilizing the Middle East. Or when it launches an important strategy to promote peace in the Middle East, like the Abraham Accords, it needs to bring the EU early on into the picture.
Between having boots on the ground and being a marginal player, there is a long continuum of policy options that would allow the European Union to play a more activist role in the Middle East as a full-fledged strategic partner of the United States, as opposed to being a free rider and the occasional spoiler. The time has come to let the Europeans do something in the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.