The objective of much of US foreign policy toward Europe of the past century was, to use Lord Ismay's phrase, to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. The pithy saying sounds blunt and undiplomatic, but it is still true. It is in the interest of the US to maintain an equilibrium in Europe where no power can reign supreme, to contain Russian imperialist nostalgia, and to maintain a deep level of engagement in the region - all in order to avoid another D-Day, a forceful and costly reengagement in European politics. Liberal and post-modern rhetoric about "global architecture of partners" or about the end of the 19th century balance of power notwithstanding, the nutshell of US grand strategy toward Europe continues to be this.
While NATO was and is the military component of the strategy to achieve these goals, European integration was its political and economic element. The latter is still doing fine, and continued interest by all parties in the maintenance of military interoperability and of security assurances makes NATO an indispensable tool. It certainly has its own problems, especially those stemming from the inability and unwillingness of most of its European members to maintain an adequate level of defense expenditures. But it has a clear mission accepted by all members, responding to a continued need for security. It also makes the US a European power, maintaining a firm American foothold across the Atlantic.
But the other component of US strategy - one of open encouragement for the EU - no longer matches the goal. Washington continues to push in favor of greater EU centralization even though this no longer supports our goal of a harmonious and powerful Europe. By supporting EU's drive to an "ever closer union" at all costs, Washington mistakes the tactical process for the strategic objective. The goal is a balanced, stable and prosperous Europe; the means has been, in part, European integration. But it is becoming clear that the former is not being achieved by the latter.
A readjustment of the policy is particularly important given that the reality on the ground seems to indicate that the Russians are seeping in, the Americans are pivoting out, and the Germans are moving up.
The Russians have been buying their way back into Europe over the past years. It is to a degree a mirror image of the end of the Cold War, when the US approach was, in Robert Gates's words, to "bribe the Soviets out" using the wealth of the West. Now, the Russians are bribing themselves in, using the deep pockets of their natural resources. It is a combination of buying political access by hiring influential political names as lobbyists, of exercising a heavy hand in the energy markets, and of lining up strategic allies as EU candidates (Serbia and Montenegro).
The Americans are pivoting out, moving military resources and political attention to the Asian theater. The Atlantic is losing strategic relevance to the Pacific and the US Navy is sailing to Asia while the remnants of American armored forces have been removed this year from Europe. Moreover, Washington has little, if any, influence over internal EU dynamics, becoming a mere spectator at a time of an economic crisis and collapse of political legitimacy.
Finally, the Germans are increasingly the dominant, if reluctant, strategic actor in Europe. Whether it is austerity plans for the profligate Southern Europeans or future political arrangements of the EU, Germany is the power sine qua non. Political leaders of European states embark on pilgrimages to Berlin, not Bruxelles. The foundational Franco-German axis is flailing, in large measure because of the abysmal political leadership in Paris, and new realignments are forming (notably, a Polish-German rapprochement). The longevity and effectiveness of these new partnerships remains to be seen as they are not based on an equipoise of power or interests, but rather on a plea proffered by weaker countries to Germany. Countries such as Poland fear that Germany will choose to go alone, deeming the maintenance of the euro zone and of the EU as too costly. Hence, they ask for a more proactive Berlin, one that would assume fully and consciously Europe's burden. In brief, this is not a relationship of equals, but of petitioners in front of German uncertain power.
The EU is not to blame for all three. The American "pivot," in particular, is simply recognition of the growing importance of Asia, combined with the perception that Europe is a success story no longer requiring constant American supervision and protection. The Russian imperialist nostalgia is a product of indigenous forces that, despite high hopes of the 1990s, are difficult to eradicate and will continue to motivate Moscow's political leadership for years to come. The weakness of the EU is that there is a lack of a coherent posture toward Russia, in part driven by geography (Germany, France, and Italy will naturally have a different perspective toward Moscow than Riga or Warsaw) and in part by short-term desires to cash in on Russian spending (especially in the military realm).
What the EU is to blame for is the inability to deal with the changing internal balance of power. The post-war equilibrium based on a Franco-German partnership with the UK as a watchful and engaged actor is falling apart. France is running on fumes, while the UK is choosing to be less engaged suffering from a justified "Bruxelles fatigue." And the Mediterranean countries (Spain and Italy) are in deep economic and political crisis preventing them from exercising and authority and influence over European politics; they are not Greece yet, at the mercy of European bailout policies, but they are not meaningful participants in intra-European politics.
This change may be benign or simply not relevant to the future of the continent, as perhaps the most ardent fans of the EU project could argue. If the EU is truly a post-modern creation where decisions are taken by specialized experts and implemented by independent managers, then a new balance of power ought not to matter much. And indeed, if that is the case, the most appropriate policy should be to support the actor - Germany, in this case - that may be the most likely to sustain the EU.