Europe can matter more in global affairs. The issue is less “leadership” than “effectiveness”

[This is a guest commentary in the run-up to Friends of Europe’s annual State of Europe 2014, to be held on October 9th. It examines one of the sessions of the daylong programme of discussions. This and other hot-button issues will be discussed by leading policymakers, thinkers, business leaders and journalists. Read more.]

As a practical matter, only the United States can lead the free world. It, alone, has the economic might, military power, and, most importantly, the singular government to do so. Only in the unlikely event that a Europe of 28 nations rallies behind a singular, strong, assertive, united foreign and defense policy will it be able to go beyond its at times halting, at times supportive, role as America’s most important ally.

It was America that created the architecture of the free world after World War II, led the West to victory in the Cold War, led NATO’s successful effort to stop genocide in the Balkans, rescued tens of thousands from starvation in Somalia, provided the firepower to enable rebel forces to topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and so on. Through its elected leaders, the United States can set its course and stick to it, whether acting on its own or, optimally, in concert with its allies.

Europe has no comparable structure that would make European “leadership” viable on a sustained basis. It is a geographic area, but one with separate nations, governments, histories, cultures, and predispositions. Their separate nations have separate constituencies, each of which would have to support European initiatives. Not surprisingly, they have varied views about military power, economic pressure, diplomatic outreach, and other tools of engagement. Europe has no viable, continent-wide government through which to undertake initiatives that are comparable to what America does on a routine basis. In that sense, the concept of European leadership is unfair to Europe.

Nevertheless, Europe has a very important role to play under the umbrella of U.S. leadership. A U.S.-led West is unquestionably stronger if the United States and its European allies work together, with the latter contributing what they can to collective efforts. As with Iran, economic sanctions work best when the United States and Europe are both enforcing them. As we saw in the Balkans in the 1990s, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011, military action has broader legitimacy when the United States and its European allies both contribute to it.

The world has no shortage of troubles, some of them taking place in close proximity to Europe. For Europe’s nations, the question is whether they will bolster U.S. action to address them, thus making themselves more relevant and the action more effective. How much will they continue to support America in ramping up sanctions as Russia’s Vladimir Putin tests the West’s resolve to confront him? How much will they support U.S. efforts to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, whether by contributing militarily or helping to finance the effort? While Europe can’t “lead,” its nations can make a very significant, effective difference in the success of U.S.-led efforts to ensure global stability and advance freedom.

Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director to U.S. Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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