In the unfolding drama of Ukraine, the Bush administration and the European Union have committed a flagrant act of transatlantic cooperation. If Ukrainians eventually vote in a free and fair election and thereby thwart the reemergence of an authoritarian Russian empire along the borders of democratic Europe, it will be one of those rare hinges of history where looming disaster was turned into glittering opportunity. And it would not have happened without the joint efforts of the United States and the European Union using -- dare one say it? -- "soft power" to compel Vladimir Putin and his would-be quislings to retreat from their botched coup d'etat.
Maybe this is the real future for transatlantic cooperation. In recent years thinkers and diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic have earnestly tried to restore the old Cold War strategic partnership, albeit aimed at a different set of enemies. We have squeezed European troops into Afghanistan, where they are growing weary, and tried to squeeze them into Iraq, where they do not want to go. "Out of area or out of business" was the Clinton administration's mantra for NATO in the 1990s. But consider the possibility that this old formula won't work for the new "postmodern" entity Europe has become. Except in matters of trade, Europe is not a global player in the traditional geopolitical sense of projecting power and influence far beyond its borders. Few Europeans even aspire to such a role. This means Americans should bury once and for all absurd worries about the rise of a hostile E.U. superpower -- Europe will be neither hostile nor a superpower in the traditional sense. It also means Americans should stop looking to Europe to shoulder much of the global strategic burden beyond its environs.
But the crisis in Ukraine shows what an enormous and vital role Europe can play, and is playing, in shaping the politics and economies of nations and peoples along its ever-expanding border. This is no small matter. On the contrary, it is a task of monumental strategic importance for the United States as well as for Europeans. By accident of history and geography, the European paradise is surrounded on three sides by an unruly tangle of potentially catastrophic problems, from North Africa to Turkey and the Balkans to the increasingly contested borders of the former Soviet Union. This is an arc of crisis if ever there was one, and especially now with Putin's play for a restoration of the old Russian empire. In confronting these dangers, Europe brings a unique kind of power, not coercive military power but the power of attraction. The European Union has become a gigantic political and economic magnet whose greatest strength is the attractive pull it exerts on its neighbors. Europe's foreign policy today is enlargement; its most potent foreign policy tool is what the E.U.'s Robert Cooper calls "the lure of membership."
Cooper describes the E.U. as a liberal, democratic, voluntary empire expanding continuously outward as others seek to join it. This expanding Europe absorbs problems and conflicts rather than directly confronting them in the American style. The lure of membership, he notes, has helped stabilize the Balkans and influenced the political course of Turkey. The Turkish people's desire to join the European Union has led them to modify Turkey's legal code and expand rights to conform to European standards. The expansive and attractive force of the European Union has also played its part in the Ukraine crisis. Had Europe not expanded to include Poland and other Eastern European countries, it would have neither the interest nor the influence in Ukraine's domestic affairs that it does.
Cooper, unlike many Europeans, acknowledges the vital role of U.S. power in providing the strategic environment within which Europe's soft expansionism can proceed. Employing America's "military muscle" to "clear the way for a political solution involving a kind of imperial penumbra around the European Union," he suggests, may be the way to deal with "the area of the greatest threat in the Middle East." In the Balkans, Europe's magnetic attraction would have been feeble had Slobodan Milosevic not been defeated militarily. And undoubtedly American power provides a useful backdrop in the current diplomatic confrontation over Ukraine.
Cooper is not alone in his expansive European vision. Among leading European policymakers, Germany's Joschka Fischer seems the most dedicated to using enlargement and the E.U.'s attractive power for strategic purposes. Before Sept. 11, 2001, Fischer was suspicious of bringing Turkey into the European Union and inheriting such nightmarish neighbors as Iraq and Syria. But now he regards Turkey's membership as a strategic necessity. "To modernize an Islamic country based on the shared values of Europe would be almost a D-Day for Europe in the war against terror," he argues, because it "would provide real proof that Islam and modernity, Islam and the rule of law . . . [and] this great cultural tradition and human rights are after all compatible." This "would be the greatest positive challenge for these totalitarian and terrorist ideas."
Americans could hardly disagree. Unfortunately, Cooper's and Fischer's vision of an expanding E.U. empire is not shared across Europe. It finds most support in Tony Blair's Britain, as well as in Poland and other Eastern European countries, and among the current German leadership (though not among the German population). It has least support in France, where even the recent inclusion of Poland and other nations to the east is regarded as something of a disaster for French foreign policy and where the admission of Turkey is considered anathema. Modern, secular, forward-looking France still insists that Europe must remain, in the words of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a Christian civilization. In this and other respects, France is part of what one might call "red-state Europe," a pre-modern bastion on a postmodern continent.
Americans are generally skeptical of or indifferent to the European Union. They shouldn't be. The United States has an important interest in the direction the E.U. takes in coming years. It may actually matter, for instance, whether Britain votes to support the E.U. constitution, as Blair wants. A Britain with real influence inside the E.U. is more likely to steer it in the liberal imperial direction that the E.U.'s Cooper, a former Blair adviser, proposes. That could prove a far more important strategic boon to the United States than a few thousand European troops in Iraq.
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.