Hubris is definitely one of Barack Obama’s strong suits. Having broadly retreated in the global war on terror, failed to stem nuclear proliferation and watched the Middle East descend toward chaos, his Administration has nonetheless found time to lecture the United Kingdom on the finer points of its relationship with the European Union. Even Obama admirers have noticed that, as the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently, “. . . sometimes he governs like a visitor from a morally superior civilization”. Now you know first-hand how many Americans feel.
And while Britain has been a particular target for Mr Obama’s disdain, it is hardly alone. Just ask Israel. Or Poland and the Czech Republic, after they supported US missile defense plans. Or the people of Iraq, trying to build a representative government to stand against Tehran’s encroaching influence. Or Afghans who fear that America’s withdrawal inevitably means the Taliban and al-Qaeda will return to power. The list is depressingly long. Under Mr Obama, being a US ally is obviously not what it once was.
In fact, re-evaluating Britain’s approach toward the listing EU ship is entirely sensible. But the White House decision to opine publicly before David Cameron’s impending speech is both diplomatically ham-handed and divorced from the EU’s worsening governance crisis. America’s State Department has been a stuck record on European integration since the Marshall Plan, heedless of changing, post-Cold War circumstances, or the EU’s many failings.
But this is more serious than simply asserting the default EU position. Challenges to the West continue to grow, and our adversaries — proliferators and terrorists among others — have not waited graciously while we revive our flagging economies. Instead, they have measured our distraction and weakness and recalibrated their policies to exploit our inattention to security requirements.
On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians supporting “ever closer union” in Europe proclaim endlessly that America needs a “strong European partner”. America does indeed need a strong Europe, but that is most assuredly not the same thing as a strong EU. While it has been a sustaining, post-Cold War myth that the EU could be an independent pole in a multi-polar world, that myth has been shattered time and again. The EU has utterly forgotten de Gaulle’s vision of a “Europe des patries”, creating instead the opposite: a weakening Europe of weakening nations.
Europe today is less than the sum of its parts. The very nature of consensus-based decision-making drives it toward hesitancy, timidity and ultimately ineffectiveness. And the EU’s cumbersome decision-making mechanism — slow, awkward and rigid — subtracts from the influence its individual member states could project, acting on their own or in concert with others.
Mr Obama’s placid acceptance of, or even enthusiasm for, declining US global influence plainly accelerates the West’s enervation. He was deadly serious when he vowed in 2008 to “fundamentally transform” America. Only a president who sees national security as distracting from his primary agenda of moving the United States toward European-style social democracy could admire the EU’s trajectory. Mr Obama has repeatedly shown his lack of interest in traditional alliances and partnerships as fundamental building blocks for US security and, now safely re-elected, his discomfort with national sovereignty is free to flower.
Debates about America’s domestic direction during the next four years will be highly contentious. Similarly, in international affairs, Mr Obama’s impact is already profound negative, with more of the same ahead. Whether or not budget sequestration takes effect on March 1, his first term has already brought massive defense cuts of nearly a trillion dollars, while domestic Federal budgets have ballooned. And even Leon Panetta, the Defense Secretary, laments that another $500 billion of reductions through sequestration will be devastating.
Unfortunately other NATO countries already know what Mr. Panetta means. With few exceptions (until now, at least, Britain and France), European military budgets for decades have foreshadowed Mr Obama’s path. Reducing defense outlays in favor of social welfare spending was easy for Europe, because ultimately the US nuclear umbrella and conventional forces provided shelter for its collective retreat from responsibility. As America undergoes its own retreat, however, no one will provide us with shelter and most certainly won’t shelter the EU either.
It is simply wrong for Washington to say that Britain (or any other EU member) has no choice but to accept the EU as is, or face isolation. In fact the logic is compelling that the EU has grown increasingly sclerotic precisely because its members have accepted this false dichotomy. The internal political dynamic would change fundamentally if EU proponents truly believed that Britain and others were in fact negotiating a substantially different kind of relationship, not leaving the EU but restructuring it. That would be good for Britain and actually also stimulating for the rest of the EU. And the State Department should remember that Thomas Jefferson, its first Secretary, once wrote: “It cannot be to our interest that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy.”
In any event, restructuring is already under way because of the euro crisis. If eurozone members really want to cede fiscal as well as monetary policy to Brussels, and thus even more of their core national sovereignty, so be it. Not everyone else in the EU must follow suit. The idea of European co-operation proceeding at several different speeds is hardly the exclusive preserve of misty-eyed traditionalists.
Until America once again has a president prepared to deal effectively with global threats to US interests, there is obviously little that those of us in opposition can do to support a United Kingdom determined to preserve some measure of democratic sovereignty. But rest assured, you are far better off making up your own minds than having Barack Obama make them up for you.
John Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former US Ambassador to the United Nations. This article was originally published by the Times of London.