America’s Leadership Crisis — Europe and the Middle East

Whichever way the Iran nuclear deal goes, one fact remains certain: There are well over one hundred thousand missiles pointed at Israel by forces indebted to the Islamic Republic in Tehran.

The very thought that the Iran nuclear deal can somehow be divorced from this particular reality is the thinking of fantasists and innocents.

A similar kind of danger is true for the problems of Europe. The US has spent seventy years subsidizing Germany’s defense, only to have those trillions upon trillions of dollars wasted in the aftermath of the Cold War. NATO’s eastern expansion overreach and the falsities of the European Monetary Union have combined to cripple the continent’s economy and to send the security of all of Europe into a tailspin. As Greece crumbles and tilts toward Russia, America’s traditional allies in the Middle East wonder if anyone in the Obama administration understands the relationship between the lifting of Iranian sanctions and its effect on the regional balance of power.

In Europe, the decades-long propping up of the German economy, through US defense largess, has turned Berlin into an economic colossus. As Europe’s chief creditor nation, Germany has become responsible for the future financial health of the EU. This is due to the German near-monopoly on the continent’s export market. This imbalance in trade has led to an unraveling of the various monetary accounts within the Union. But for the highly indebted nations, Germany’s position as the banker of Europe has led to resentment and charges of domination. Still, seventy years after the defeat of Hitler, Europe is not ready to take orders from Berlin on economics or anything else. There is not much difference in the case of Germany between being a creditor power and being perceived by its impoverished debtors as a predatory power.

But the crisis in the EU has not engendered any significant American response. This is a strange occurrence, because for the last seventy years, European leadership has rested with Washington through both NATO and the IMF. The US, however, is preoccupied with its own economic stagnation and has neither the money nor the political will to bail out the EU. The same holds true in the Ukraine. Russia’s near-abroad has become off-limits for NATO expansion.

Meanwhile, the poor quality of US economic prospects has placed tight constraints on Washington’s ability to organize a serious financial commitment to the dire-straits economic forecast in which the Ukrainians find themselves. This has had a severe geopolitical consequence for all of eastern Europe. Now with the crisis in Greece, NATO’s vital southeastern flank finds itself mired in economic chaos. This bodes ill for both Germany and the US because the relationship between NATO and the EU has always been complementary. For nearly seventy years, as one goes, so goes the other.

Similarly, American leadership has been hamstrung in the Middle East since before the Obama administration pull-out from Iraq. This has placed a serious vacuum for Iran and its Shiite proxies to exploit to their own advantage. One could only assume that the Obama administration tolerated this and other Middle East crises in order to placate the Iranians into signing a nuclear deal.

But instead of the prospect of a democratic Iraq under the leadership of a secular and pluralistic government, the US fiddled away any hope for a successful end to the Iraq war by allowing Iran to hold sway in the aftermath of the Iraqi election in 2010. Then came the revolution in Syria. Once again Obama failed to connect the local and regional context with the framework of the Iranian nuclear negotiations. As Iran supplied Assad and Hezbollah, the US did next to nothing to help the fledgling Free Syrian Army.

Again, the hope of a secular and pluralistic Arab democracy was rebuffed by Obama’s hesitancy and lack of connection between values, the regional balance of power, and the Iranian nuclear negotiations. All along, Israel watched in horror as its strategic partner has wavered with concession after concession and has tilted toward Tehran.

Like the Middle East, Europe also suffers from a crisis of American leadership. What has become of US policy and vision? With Germany as creditor-in-chief, anti-American and anti-German populism grows steadily across the European continent. The weakening of the EU could have a dire impact on the current struggle between Russia and NATO. But the strengthening of EU institutions (even if that is even politically possible) will not arrest the security dilemma at the heart of Europe. At the bottom line, US and NATO nations’ security cannot be underwritten by Russian insecurity.

Meanwhile, the days of a large US presence on the European continent are over. An ugly kind of chauvinism is on the march in Europe, and this bodes ill for the peace and integration of the continent. But the US is ill equipped to handle the problems of Europe without a solid partner in Paris, Berlin and Moscow. As American wealth recedes, the desire to place “treasure and blood” in Europe becomes anachronistic.

But isolationism is not the answer to America’s crisis of leadership. And the Obama administration policy of tepid realism and mechanistic tactics are certainly not the kind of 21st century strategies needed to solve the planetary issues that the president correctly champions. What America requires is a radical policy of peace through partnership and respect with Russia and China.

The US and EU-led Ukraine debacle is a prime example of tactics without strategy and purposeless realism that has backfired. Without a US-Russia-China partnership, the Middle East will also continue to deteriorate. This is not in the interest of any of these three countries. And now with Greece in its own kind of chaos, the division between the permanent powers on the UN Security Council could become really dangerous. Unless the current US policy of containment of both Russia and China is rolled back, the countries of both Europe and the Middle East will continue to fluctuate toward one or the other power poles.

If America’s policy has become a kind of winner-take-all realism, then Russia and China are certainly well equipped to play the same game as well. This would be especially true if an impoverished Greece decides to leave NATO or the Obama administration continues to allow Iranian hegemony to advance. If the US considers itself to be Israel’s strategic partner, it must begin to construct a Middle East policy that is not centered on allowing Tehran to become a nuclear threshold state. Perhaps it is too late for that (I pray that it’s not). But sooner or later, Israel and the Sunni Arab states will have to make grave decisions with regard to their own security in the face of America’s leadership crisis in Europe and the Middle East.

Those one hundred thousand Iranian missiles are exhibit number one. So too is Iran’s advanced missile technology. Hopefully Obama or his successor will make the necessary adjustments before that fateful day arrives.

But if current or future leadership fails, I fear for a world once again on the “realistic” geopolitical brink. With the global economy maneuvering between calamities and the earth’s balance of nature swaying in dangerous gyrations, the last thing the youth of this planet need is a bunch of old politicians spreading around nuclear weapons and missile systems. Realism might work as an intellectual exercise, but the current international system is an anarchy that needs change and redemption.

The old game of “politics as usual” with all kinds of rabid nationalists playing fast and loose with world peace is a replay of the past two world wars. Can the United States help to change this scenario? Obama claimed that he could. But so far, all he has done is fiddled while both Europe and the Middle East have fallen into deeper and deeper trouble. It’s time for dramatic change. The old solutions are just not working.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).