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Sacrificing the health of Western Europe for the sake of Ukraine?

Sacrificing the health of Western Europe for the sake of Ukraine?

The longer the US helps to prolong the war, it risks the stability of its strategic transatlantic interests.

Analysis | Europe

The existing trajectory of U.S. policy risks sacrificing Western Europe for the sake of Ukraine, and U.S. policymakers need to wake up to this risk.

If this were to happen, it would be one of the worst bargains in the entire history of U.S. strategy. Western and Central Europe, and not Ukraine, are and have been for more than a century the area of truly vital U.S. interests on the European continent. Moreover, the crippling of Western Europe and the European Union would destroy Ukraine’s own real chances of future democratic prosperity and stability; for these depend chiefly on links to the E.U., not the United States.

All the evidence at present suggests that the Ukrainian counter-offensive has failed, with only very small gains and enormous losses. Nor is there any evidence-based reason to hope for greater Ukrainian success next year, given the balance of military and economic forces between Ukraine and Russia.

Faced with this reality, there is increasing official and unofficial talk of arming and supporting Ukraine for an indefinite struggle (though of course this cannot in fact be guaranteed given the opposition of one faction of the Republican Party). An analogy has been made to the case of Israel, which developed as a prosperous and secure quasi-democracy while remaining in a state of frozen conflict and unresolved territorial disputes with its neighbors.

Quite apart from the dreadful events of recent days, there are many reasons why this idea is profoundly foolish. They include the fact that if Syria were Russia, Israel would not be Israel. In other words, if Israel had bordered not on a shambolic and impoverished country with a fraction of its GDP and technological capacity, but a nuclear armed power with fourteen times its GDP, Israel would most certainly not have developed as a successful and prosperous democracy. There is no way that the U.S. can secure Ukraine permanently in an open-ended war with Russia.

Perhaps most important of all however is the way in which this vision totally ignores the effects on Europe, and U.S. interests in Europe. This would not matter much if European countries were economically successful and politically stable, but this is rapidly ceasing to be the case.

In the old heartland of the EU, liberal democratic politics are crumbling. Italy is ruled by a radical conservative government. Opinion polls in France suggest that if elections were held today, Marine Le Pen would win by a wide margin. In Sweden — almost unbelievably for someone who lived through the long dull summer of Abbaesque Swedish social democracy — the army is being called on for help in combating violence by immigrant drug gangs, and the radical nationalist Sweden Democrats are the second largest party.

Above all, there is Germany, without which no stable and successful European Union is possible. As German historian Tarik Cyrul Amar has written:

“Germany's perfect adherence to Western policy on Russia and China has an ominous price…We have assumed that the first country to buckle under the economic strain of the war over Ukraine would be Russia. But what if it is Germany that stumbles first? Germans stressed about their economy, distrusting their elites as favoring foreign interests, and disenchanted with centrist values and methods— a picture too familiar for comfort.”

The state elections in Bavaria and Hesse this month showed a surge in support for the right-wing nationalist Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) and Freie Waehler (Free Voter) parties. According to opinion polls, AfD now has the second largest support nationwide, behind the Christian Democrats but pushing the Social Democrats into third place, and far ahead of the Greens and the Liberals.

Up to now, all the traditional mainstream parties have been united in their refusal to form coalitions with the AfD. If continued, the rise in the party’s support will however make this approach increasingly unworkable. Either the CDU will have to form governing coalitions with the AfD (as the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, has already done with the Freie Waehler in Bavaria), or all the mainstream parties will have to form permanent coalitions to keep them out of office.

The latter course would recall the last years of the Weimar Republic, and would almost certainly strengthen the radical parties still further, since critics of government policies would have nowhere else to go. The most radical proposal is to dub AfD a neo-Nazi party and ban it, but this would lead to massive protests and drive its supporters towards violence. Whatever happens, Germany seems set for a prolonged period of deep political instability and polarization.

The original roots of support for AfD and similar parties in Europe lie in fear of mass migration and hostility to the centralizing (and sometimes dictatorial) tendencies of the European Union. Their support has however been greatly increased by the deepening economic recession into which Germany has been plunged by the rise in energy prices consequent on the war in Ukraine. German economic success in recent decades was largely built on cheap, plentiful and reliable Russian gas.

This factor helped mask worsening structural defects in the German economy, which the present crisis is exposing. Coupled with the end of the Chinese boom and U.S.-driven economic warfare against China, the result is that there is now serious talk in Germany of “de-industrialization.” Should this in fact occur, the political, social, cultural and psychological results could be catastrophic; for the rebuilding of the German national identity after 1945 took place largely on the basis of the “economic miracle,” and the belief that this reflected a superior German model of cooperation between capital and labor, and a strong industry-based middle class (the so called Mittelstand). If belief in these collapses, we could be looking at something akin to a national nervous breakdown.

An unending semi-frozen war in Ukraine would drastically worsen Germany’s — and Europe’s – economic decline and consequent political disorder. Especially if coupled with repeated crises in the Middle East, it would make the restoration of stability in energy prices impossible. Such a conflict would inevitably break out periodically into major battles, possibly leading to new Russian victories. There would be the perpetual risk that an unintended collision between Russia and NATO could escalate towards nuclear war. It should not be hard to imagine what this would do to business confidence in Europe.

There is a tendency now for Americans to congratulate themselves on the submission of Europe to American strategy as a result of the war in Ukraine. This underestimates the threat to Europe and of U.S. interests there. The threat, as described, is overwhelmingly an internal one, resulting from a deadly cocktail of economic stagnation, uncontrolled migration, and political extremism, worsened by the war in Ukraine. If present patterns continue, the result will be to cripple Europe both economically and politically.

Economic prosperity and liberal democracy in Europe form a key pillar of America’s own power in the world and therefore a vital U.S. national interest. Without them, America’s own economic power will be gravely weakened, and the prestige of democracy in the world shattered. There will be little point in the U.S. presenting itself as the leader of democracy in Asia if it has collapsed in Europe.

Moreover, the United States waged two world wars and a Cold War in Europe to prevent the great economies of Western Europe from falling under the control of a hostile great power. Until a decade or so ago, no American ever dreamed of seeing Ukraine in this way. If therefore the U.S. analysis is that Ukraine cannot win, for the sake of Europe and U.S. vital interests there, Washington should lend all its efforts to bring about an early peace.

Sophia Ampgkarian contributed to the research for this article.

Photo: On October 2, 2023, AfD held an election campaign event in Munich, Germany, at Marienplatz. Several left-wing organizations called for a counter-protest (Reuters)
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