To be fair, the Syria crisis does illustrate a problematic trend in trans-Atlantic alliance. There are cases in which European nations have been reluctant to engage in military operations without American participation, even in cases when Europe’s interests were more directly involved than those of the United States. Syria, which has helped produce the worst refugee crisis Europe has seen since World War II, and tragic terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, demonstrates the problem: The United States declined to intervene until two years ago, and Europeans did not step in to compensate for U.S. restraint.
Still, not everything is necessarily U.S.-led in Western military affairs. For instance, the French intervention in Mali in 2013 relied mainly on French military assets, with the United States providing some support. Likewise, French interventions in elsewhere in the Sahel, and in the Central African Republic, demonstrate the same willingness by a key European ally of the United States to bear security responsibilities in areas where U.S. interests are not heavily implicated. This model is one that Washington should encourage and praise, even if it contradicts the trope of European free-riding.
Beyond the sphere of military affairs, the significant diplomatic achievements that Europeans and Americans have brought about together in the past year alone also refute the cliché of the European free-rider. The Iran deal struck in July 2015 was the product of diplomatic heavy lifting on the part of the United States as well as the European Union. Washington pushed Europeans to put harsh sanctions on Iran, but the United States itself had little leverage on the Iranian economy, having had virtually no trade with the country since 1979. In many ways, it was the European choice to back sanctions that made them so effective—and it was the Europeans who bore many of the costs. Likewise, the sanctions on Russia that helped Germany and France broker an imperfect ceasefire in Ukraine in 2015 are economically more painful for Europeans than for U.S. companies. The Obama administration has, de facto, relied on its European allies to handle the crisis created by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Finally, the United Nations climate-change negotiations are another good example of a tangible trans-Atlantic achievement. Europeans have talked about and taken action to tackle climate change for many years, and are likely gratified that the United States under Obama has finally joined their efforts. Obama’s outreach to emerging powers made a key contribution to rallying support for the compromise achieved at the climate-change conference in Paris last December. But the United States did not negotiate the deal by itself.
Goldberg’s piece is disturbing because it reflects a vision of the trans-Atlantic partnership at odds with what that partnership, despite its struggles, has managed to produce and still needs to achieve. Europeans are indeed taking a share of the burden and putting skin in the military and diplomatic game, though nobody can deny that they benefit from and welcome U.S. leadership. But at a time when Europe and the United States need to be focusing on common threats, and a worrying rise of nationalism and populism are making the challenges more complicated for both, keeping score and apportioning blame among allies certainly doesn’t make a strong contribution to the alliance.