Almost a decade ago, Europeans and many progressive Americans were lamenting how the United States was going to miss out on the 21st-century paradigm symbolized by the robust European Union. Neanderthal Americans were importing ever more oil while waging a costly “war on terror” and fighting conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our budget deficit in 2003 hit $374 billion.
The European Union avoided foreign conflicts and embraced soft power. Its declining military budgets and centralized transnational government ensured that it could address climate change and fund ever-expanding entitlements. Even the poorer Mediterranean nations reached new heights of prosperity. The Greek economy soared. Spain’s real estate market was to become the hottest in the world. Italy seemed to resemble Germany more than Portugal.
President George W. Bush was not just hated in Europe, but caricatured as the symbol of backward, free-market capitalism, rank American consumerism and U.S. imperialism abroad. Only with the election of the progressive Barack Obama would Europe finally find a like-minded, sophisticated American president.
Yet European Union prosperity has now proved a phantom — one conjured up by accounting gimmickry, borrowed German money and corrupt EU apparatchiks. Neither the European Union at large nor most individual European nations can sustain their present rate of redistributionist entitlements. To end cash transfers across borders spells the breakup of the union. To embrace austerity at home ensures near-anarchy in the streets of individual nations.
The worry is not that Greece will implode, but whether France can remain financially solvent. More realistic countries such as Germany, Latvia and Sweden are quietly drifting away from the socialist model, preferring balanced budgets, lower taxes and fewer regulations.
The European Union may be worried that President Obama’s United States is becoming more like the EU at the very time many in Europe are starting to take a second, kinder look at the old free-market model of the United States. An America of low taxes, low unemployment and robust growth once meant a huge market for European goods, as the United States drove a prosperous world economy and had enough cash to protect the Western world.
All that has changed after four years of unprecedented $1 trillion-plus U.S. budget deficits. National debt has hit a historic $16 trillion, with no reversal in sight. Unemployment has been at 7.8 percent or above for 48 consecutive months. Gross domestic product growth is calcified at an anemic 2 percent. Record numbers of Americans receive unemployment and disability checks and food stamps.
There is even greater irony in foreign policy. Europe blasted Mr. Bush for his cooked-up war on radical Islam and his needless interventions abroad. With the ascendency of Mr. Obama, however, Europe finally got a mirror image of itself. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have ended according to strict timetables of withdrawal, not with any lasting security on the ground.
France and Great Britain went into Libya, while America “led from behind.” Moammar Gadhafi’s dictatorship was replaced with chaos that has birthed a terrorist haven that threatens to become the new Afghanistan. The odious anti-Semite and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi now runs a near-bankrupt Egypt that looks a lot like Haiti. After the messes in Libya and Egypt, the West watched impotently as Syria became something like Mogadishu.
France is forced to unilaterally intervene in its old colony, Mali, to stop an Islamist takeover of the entire country. America watches from the sidelines as undermanned French forces are offered meager logistical support from EU allies. In Algeria, radical Islamists brazenly executed dozens of Western hostages.
Yet Mr. Obama has found widespread public support for his new isolationism. Apparently, liberals prefer to borrow money at home for more entitlements rather than spend money on interventions abroad. Many conservatives enjoy the Schadenfreude of watching as Europe plays (poorly) the old, thankless, unilateral role of the United States.
Mr. Obama has loudly promised a pivot in the U.S. security profile toward the Pacific region. This change represents the unspoken reality that socialist redistribution has reduced Europe to near-irrelevancy. Supposedly, free-market Asian economies are the new nexus of wealth and power. Oil and gas discoveries in America are providing unexpected energy independence from the Persian Gulf. Or perhaps the new strategic emphasis reflects the demographic realities of the Obama coalition of various minority groups — and fewer European-American voters.
The Hawaiia-born and Indonesia-raised president certainly seems more interested in Asia than he does in the old colonial Mediterranean world of aging and shrinking European nations, Arab quagmires, oil intrigue, Islamic terrorists and the Israeli-Palestinian open sore.
In short, Europe got the European Union of its hopes and the changed America of its fantasies — but both are rapidly becoming its worst nightmares.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.