U.S. Could be Courting Trouble in Europe

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Orange County Register

One of the most fascinating aspects of Barack Obama’s presidency stems not so much from his racial background, but his status as America’s first clearly post-European, anti-colonialist leader. Yet, after announcing his historic "pivot" to vibrant Asia, the president, the son of an anti-British Kenyan activist, recently announced as his latest foreign policy initiative an economic alliance with, of all places, a declining, and increasingly decadent, Europe.

Some analysts, such as Walter Russell Mead, suggest the possible "ratting out" of the new Asia focus could constitute "a mistake of historic proportions." In East Asia, leaders, from Vietnam and Singapore to Japan, have been counting on a strong U.S. presence to ward off Chinese hegemony in the region. The idea of a reduced naval presence and a weakening commitment to allies would undermine our influence in this increasingly critical economic region.

At the same time, the president’s desire to integrate our economies more closely to that of Europe reflects a longtime prejudice within the Democratic Party favorable to the old Continent. The notion of a new trade tie to the European Union set longtime Eastern policy types, such as former Bill Clinton aide and onetime Woodrow Wilson School head Anne-Marie Slaughter into rhapsodies about an emerging new "Atlantic Century." Vice President Joe Biden, for his part, told a recent Munich security conference that Europe represents "the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world."

This is delusional, to say the least. Republicans have their faults, but at least they know how to tell historic time. In contrast, largely Democratic Europhiles simply want to relive the glorious past, and consume a legacy of affluence. And to be sure, generally it’s more pleasant to attend – as long as someone is paying the bill – a conference in London, Paris or Zurich than Beijing, Mumbai or Mexico City. Europe, as we know from the debates over compensation of EU bureaucrats, knows how to treat functionaries with the comfort to which they easily can become accustomed.

Pumping for greater Euro-ties seems almost insane under current conditions. The Continent’s unemployment rate, nearly 12 percent among the 17 EU member countries, is already at record levels, and its younger generation suffers unemployment approaching 30 percent or higher in at least five EU countries, including Greece, Spain and France. In Portugal, 2 percent of the population has migrated just in the past two years, not only to Northern Europe but, amazingly, also to Portugal’s booming former African colonies.

This does not seem to be setting up the prime conditions for Ms. Slaughter’s imagined new "Atlantic Century." Although North America retains the resources, demographics and innovative culture to compete with Asia and other rising powers, Europe is in a notably downward trajectory. Its share of the world economy has plummeted from nearly 40 percent in 1900 to 27 percent today and continues to shrink rapidly. By 2050, not only the United States, but China and the rest of the developing world, according to the European Commission, will have surpassed the total of the 27 countries in the EU.

One has to be a cockeyed optimist not to see that the long-term prognosis, even without the current euro crisis, is not good. Manufacturing, long a Continental bastion, is weak and falling behind that of the U.S. as well as Asia. German engineering may still be first-class, but much of the production and design will be moving to Mexico, the U.S., Latin America and Asia.

Energy may prove a particular vulnerability. Although the region has shale and other energy resources, greens are far more powerful in Europe than in America and hostile to the hydraulic fracking that has created the current U.S. boom in oil and gas. The combination of radical green policies favoring expensive, often unreliable renewables, as well the shuttering of the Continent’s once-strong nuclear industries, are creating both high prices and wobbly reliability of electricity supplies. (Ironically, the reluctance to maintain nuclear power and oppose fracking for natural gas has led to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions and even some increased use of coal.) Tulane’s Eric Smith suggests many of Germany’s manufacturing powers are intensifying efforts to shift operations, notably to the southern United States, for cheap electricity and lower overall costs.

Demographics, however, may be Europe’s weakest suit. Although East Asia is now experiencing low fertility, Europe has been demographically stagnant for at least a generation longer. By 2050, Europe’s workforce is expected to decline by 25 percent from 2000 levels; the U.S. is expected to see expansion of upward of 40 percent.

This phenomenon threatens Europe’s lone serious economic power, Germany. The country now produces fewer children than in 1900. Given the expansive welfare state, the fiscal burdens being faced in Germany and other EU countries will dwarf those of the United States; by 2050 Germany will have nearly twice as many retirees per active worker as America.

Yet remarkably, for all its manifest failings, Europe remains a Mecca and role model for many American progressives, like Ms. Slaughter. The past decade has seen the publication of a spate of books, such as Jeremy Rifkin’s "The European Dream" and Steven Hill’s "Europe’s Promise," that see Europe’s regulation state and "soft power" an alluring alternative to America. Some hail the EU as the prototype of a benign "new kind of empire" based on culture and pacifism.

If so, it’s an empire rapidly hurtling into its dotage. The great European historian Walter Lacquer has pointed out that such optimism about the Continent becoming "united and prosperous" is likely "misplaced." In policy terms, for the U.S. to follow Europe’s model is an almost sure recipe for our own decline. Even the usually pro-free-trade Wall Street Journal is concerned that any attempt to "harmonize" American policies with those of the "European model" will simply expand government power and bureaucratic hegemony.

To be sure, there remain parts of Europe, particularly in the Northern rim, that are doing better. These countries – the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany – have enacted significant labor market reforms, retain some strong industries and have tried to be responsible fiscally. If they broke off from the EU and set up a modern-day Hanseatic League, it may make sense for us to embrace stronger ties with them. But that can’t be said of an alliance with the weak sisters of the EU’s southern and eastern fringes, or even dirigiste state-dominated France.

In reality, the EU will never become a giant Sweden. Scandinavia possesses a unique history, shaped by massive outmigration in the past century and a largely homogeneous population; many of these countries possess great natural resources, such as oil, iron ore or hydroelectricity. In contrast, the eastern edge of the zone contains some of the most depopulating parts of the planet, as people seek opportunities in the more economically viable North. The comic political economy of Italy, the political violence of Greece and the mass disenchantment of Spain presage a European future that contrasts greatly with the relative prosperity and order of the North.

None of this suggests that, if the political strings are not wound too tight, that a free-trading arrangement with Europe may prove useful. But if an agreement becomes a wedge for accelerating the adoption of Euro-style policies, it could allow us to squander an opportunity to maintain our pre-eminence in the post-colonial, and post-European-centered, world.