Belfer Center Harvard University

Europe’s Paralysis Problem

It is seductive to think that the Russian war in Ukraine—and NATO’s sluggish response—is a crisis wholly tied to Russian nationalism and power politics. But in reality, the current crisis is neither simply a function of personal leadership nor political decision-making. As this crisis slowly expands and escalates, we must look at the deeper and far more consequential forces at work upon which the future of Europe—and Ukraine—rest. Russian President Vladimir Putin deals in the currency of force and power. He has found the nations of Europe to be weak, self-indulgent, irresolute, and intestinally unfit for confrontation.

And he is right.


But the more critical question is how Europe—collectively and nationally—has squandered the dream of its founders. Why has Europe lost the courage to confront Russian expansionism? The hard truth is that Europe’s paralysis—and those of its leaders—is rooted in deeper long-term policy choices. Only by facing the hard facts and reversing bad policies can Europe and the United States grapple with current and future acts of aggression.


Make no mistake: Putin has calculated his actions based on Europe’s tepid response to past acts of aggression ranging from Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia, and Ukraine. Since the Second World War, European leaders have followed a flawed logic where fewer armaments mean fewer conflicts and where arms embargo freeze conflicts. While Bosnia and Kosovo proved both axioms wrong, European leaders persist with such logic. Underneath this fallacy lies the more inconvenient truth that Europe has used NATO—and the American taxpayer—to avoid the hard costs of national defense and political realism.


The abdication of national defense to NATO has allowed European leaders to avoid reforming their social welfare programs, restructuring their economies or modernizing their militaries. In a word, telling their voters—No. As late as 2010, Robert Gates emphasized that a real alliance requires shared burdens as well as shared benefits. Yet European nations have still failed to meet the agreed military spending commitments for their national conventional forces. Europeans can no longer expect America to defend them when they are unwilling to defend themselves. They cannot expect Vladimir Putin to respect, if not fear them, if they have no defense but their rhetoric. Europeans must expand and unify their military forces within NATO without delay.


Make no mistake: Europe’s failure to confront eventual political federalism has also undercut its credibility when dealing with Putin and when supporting Ukraine. Despite its work during the Great Recession, the European Union has failed to resolve its central dilemma: political sovereignty. The EU is now a treaty organization masquerading as a government. Its survival requires that it hold democratic legitimacy. Doing so requires an elected European Parliament and President with a clear democratic mandate, allowing Europe to speak with one voice and mean it. Simply put: where there is no accountability and authority, the people perish.


Make no mistake: Putin is counting on the fecklessness and weakness of European public opinion to eventually consent to his acts of aggression. Preventing such an act of infamy requires confronting the most critical and consequential policy issue at hand: European cultural dysfunction. In short, Europeans have been taught to be ashamed of their past. This is particularly true when addressing the historical role of Judeo-Christian ethics in public life and policy choices. This extends to issues touching upon work-life balance, family life, generational equity and the demographic future of European nations. It also intersects with the role of religious freedom in Europe. There is a deep cultural sickness at work in a society whose universities place Camus above Aquinas and Foucault above Augustine. A society that does not embrace its past has no future. Europe must place Judeo-Christian ethics at the heart of its laws and political identity.


Make no mistake: this war in Ukraine is a war against Europe. It will continue so long as Europe is physically and mentally disarmed. Europeans have been led to believe that speaking softly is better insurance than carrying a big stick. They have become prisoners of history rather than students of history. And now, they must rediscover their past to save their future.


Jeremy Schwarz is an Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy with the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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