Bruce Ackerman is a professor of law and political science at Yale University. His latest book is “We the People: The Civil Rights Revolution.”
In his West Point speech Wednesday, President Obama remained trapped by the paradigm that has governed our foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. From the first Gulf War to the ongoing conflict in Syria, the United States has endlessly debated how and whether to intervene to defeat aggression and protect human rights. Obama responded by charting a moderate course between the past decade’s military interventionism and the easy answers of isolationism.
But he failed to address a different problem that should be dominating future debate. The issue is raised by the extraordinary success of the radical right in the recent European parliamentary elections. Until now, we have blithely supposed that Europe was firmly committed to principles of liberal democracy and that the Euro-American example would continue to inspire similar movements throughout the world.
The election reports shatter this illusion. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, famously described the U.K. Independence Party as the home of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists.” But the UKIP won a plurality of British votes in the campaign for the European Parliament with 27.5 percent of the vote, forcing Cameron’s Conservatives into the third spot.
France’s National Front is rooted in a history of blatant, not closeted, racism and anti-Semitism. Like the UKIP, it also beat all its competitors, taking 25 percent of the vote. Even a representative of Germany’s neo-Nazi National Democratic Party gained election to one of the country’s 96 seats in the parliament. Nevertheless, the center-right and center-left continued to dominate the German delegation, and mainstream parties from the rest of Europe will maintain a strong governing majority in parliament as a whole.
So the election has greatly enhanced the extreme right’s political respectability, but only the next few years will determine whether it is a first step toward the triumph of aggressive nationalism and the destruction of fundamental rights in Europe.
Here is where Obama comes in: Will he make the future of Europe the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, or will he press forward with his much-heralded “pivot to Asia” while cautiously continuing the Bush-Clinton-Bush policy of selective military intervention?
The world’s great experiment in constitutional democracy and human rights has its philosophical roots in Europe. If it fails there, the repercussions will be felt everywhere — not least in the United States. The time for creative reconstruction of trans-Atlantic relationships is now.
Given the still-strong support for liberal values on the continent, a Europe-first strategy can generate big breakthroughs that are unlikely on other fronts. When President Obama travels to Brussels next week for the Group of Seven summit, he should not simply rally U.S. allies against the Russian threat to Ukraine. He also should emphasize the need for more constructive action. For starters, he should call for a decisive breakthrough on the long-stalled Euro-American free trade deal — opening the path for job-creating opportunities for workers on both continents.
He also should move beyond economics to recommit the trans-Atlantic community to more fundamental values. Edward Snowden’s revelations, for example, mark a crossroads: They may increase moral estrangement between Europe and America, or they may provoke serious treaty negotiations that will reaffirm fundamental principles of privacy in the sphere of national security.
These things won’t happen easily. A trade agreement requires Obama and European leaders to overcome formidable protectionist opposition; a surveillance agreement requires them to overcome powerful resistance from their respective intelligence agencies.
Without a sense of urgency, nothing will happen. But if political leaders rise to the occasion, they could make a compelling case to the broader public on both sides of the Atlantic, which has not yet forgotten the nationalist tragedies of the 20th century.
These short-term breakthroughs can generate momentum for larger collaborations over the longer run, demonstrating to skeptical Europeans that their union still marks the path to moral and economic progress. A solid record of ongoing achievement is the best way to persuade voters to repudiate right-wing nationalists. The reinvigoration of trans-Atlantic democracy will have a far greater impact on its worldwide prospects than any other initiative on the horizon. If, in contrast, the Obama administration continues to take Europe for granted while focusing on grander strategies, we risk disaster.
Nothing is certain in politics. We may be lucky, and a mighty economic recovery may propel the Europeans to reject aggressive nationalism in the years ahead. But it is folly to trust the invisible hand when the stakes are so high.
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