Jeremy Shapiro, ECFR Research Director, 27 Jan 2022
On a fundamental level, Europe’s lack of agency in the Russia-Ukraine crisis stems from a growing power imbalance in the Western alliance.
Europe, as EU High Representative Josep Borrell has loudly lamented, is not really at the table when it comes to dealing with the Russia-Ukraine crisis. But, given Europe’s need to prevent catastrophe, how is it possible that Europeans have so little say in the matter?
Several explanations spring to mind. There is never a good time for war, but the Russia-Ukraine crisis comes at a particularly inopportune moment for the key governments in Europe. The British prime minister is absorbed by a domestic political scandal that threatens his hold on power. The French government is in full election mode and sees everything through that lens. And the German coalition government is brand new and divided, particularly on the question of Russia. So, they have effectively outsourced diplomacy on Russia and Ukraine to Americans.
All that matters, of course. But it is important to understand that there are more fundamental forces than poor timing at work here. All the focus on the United States’ decline relative to China and the recent upheavals in US domestic politics have obscured a key trend in the transatlantic alliance in the last 15 years. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the US has become ever more powerful relative to its European allies. The transatlantic relationship has not become more balanced, as seemed to be the trend in the early 2000s, but more dominated by the US. On a fundamental level, Europe’s lack of agency in the Russia-Ukraine crisis stems from this growing power imbalance in the Western alliance.
One can see this power shift in virtually every area of national strength. On the crudest GDP measure, the US has dramatically outgrown the European Union and the United Kingdom since 2008. In 2008 the EU’s economy was slightly larger than America’s: $16.2 trillion versus $14.7 trillion. By 2020, the US economy had grown to $20.9 trillion, whereas the EU’s had fallen to $15.7 trillion. From rough parity in 2008, America’s economy is now one-third bigger than that of the EU and the UK combined.