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One of the tenets of the realist school of international relations is the “rational-actor assumption”: the notion that states, or at least great powers, think and act strategically, in a manner that they believe will advance their own interests. The current Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the wider NATO-Russia proxy war playing out in the background, largely validates this theory. The conflict’s three main actors—Ukraine, Russia and the United States—are all pursuing strategieFazis that one may or may not agree with, but which can hardly be considered irrational. Ukraine understands itself to be fighting for its survival, while Russia believes it is pushing back against an existential threat: Ukraine’s de facto integration into NATO. The US, even if it doesn’t say so, is clearly using the conflict to gain a geopolitical advantage in the Eurasian region by bleeding Russia, driving a wedge between Moscow and Brussels, and revamping NATO. In all three cases, the rational actor assumption holds.
There is a glaring exception, however: the European Union. A rational, self-interested approach, at least from the perspective of Western European countries (which have no reason to share their Eastern counterparts’ existential fear of Russia) would have focused on reaching a diplomatic solution to the conflict and re-normalizing economic relations with Russia as soon as possible. Instead, since the start of the conflict, European nations have unquestioningly deferred to US strategy in Ukraine, placing heavy sanctions on Russia and joining America’s proxy war by providing ever-growing levels of military aid to Ukraine and supporting the narrative that the conflict can only be resolved with Ukraine’s total military victory. This strategy, contrary to that of the other major actors involved, has jeopardized Europe’s strategic interests, from both an economic and security perspective.
From an economic perspective, it was obvious at the outset that cutting off economic relations with Russia was going to hurt Europe more than its adversary. Indeed, Russia has emerged largely unscathed from the sanctions, if not strengthened, while Europe is still reeling from the knock-on effects of that decision, which caused a “massive and historic energy shock” that crippled industry and households alike. Just last week, the eurozone officially fell into recession due to saring inflation. (The US, in contrast, is profiting from the situation, which has forced Europe to rely on importing much more expensive American natural gas).
Meanwhile, by engaging, through NATO, in a de facto military confrontation with Russia, Europe has exposed itself to a greater risk of nuclear conflict than ever before. Even excluding the worst-case scenario, the current strategy puts Europe on a path of permanent military tension with Russia that is likely to cast a shadow over the continent for decades to come.
So why has Europe followed this apparently irrational strategy? One obvious answer is that the rational-actor assumption applies to states—that is, relatively autonomous political entities capable of synthesizing the interests of different social groups and classes into something akin to the “national interest”. But the European Union—a hybrid political entity that combines supranational, quasi-federal and intergovernmental features—is not a state. It has never been able to express anything akin to the “European interest” for the simple fact that the often divergent or even conflicting economic and geopolitical interests of almost thirty states cannot be rationally synthesized into a “general interest.” Hence the rational actor assumption does not apply.
The years leading up to the Ukraine war reveal the lack of any coherent shared interests among EU member states. Since they emerged from decades of Soviet domination, Central and Eastern European states, especially those on or close to the border with Russia, have remained suspicious of Moscow’s intentions. By contrast, Western European nations, with Germany at the forefront, boosted economic ties with Russia, especially over energy. Some even envisaged building an integrated Eurasian geopolitical bloc theoretically stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. From a Central or Eastern European perspective this might have seemed crazy, but from a Western European perspective it made perfect sense, given the strong historical and cultural ties between Western Europe and Russia.
For a long time—until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the geoeconomic interests of the dominant Western European states prevailed. But if the rational-actor assumption can’t be applied to the European Union as a whole, it should still hold for its individual member states, especially insofar as they formally retain a relative degree of autonomy in the management of foreign affairs. For some states, this would appear to be the case. Specifically, the reaction of Central and Eastern European states to Russia’s invasion—building up their military capacities, providing unflinching support to Ukraine, and gearing up for a conflict with Russia deemed all but inevitable—was rational in light of the region’s history.
The same, however, can’t be said of the countries of Western European states, which have adopted policies that went clearly against their economic and security interests and can’t be explained in terms of historical antagonism with Russia. So how can we account for their actions? There are clearly several factors at play, but one has been brought into stark relief by recent events: Western Europe’s complete subordination to Washington. This point may seem like an obvious one, but it isn’t obvious why America should still wield massive influence over Western Europe almost eighty years after the end of the Second World War. It’s therefore important to understand how such influence is wielded.
One key factor is the US establishment’s influence over European public discourse, which easily outweighs that of any European country. Firstly, English remains the lingua franca in Europe, and all mainstream English-language media outlets—which are mostly based either in the United States or Great Britain—have a strong Atlanticist bias.
The only major English-language publication that is not Anglo-American-owned is Politico, which the German publishing and media firm Axel Springer bought from its founder, the American banker Robert Allbritton, in 2021. The outlet’s editorial line, however, has remained unchanged. As The Guardian noted, as a subsidiary of Axel Springer, which has long-standing ties to the CIA, every employee at Politico is expected to be “pro-US, pro-NATO, pro-Israel, pro-austerity, pro-capital, anti-Russia, anti-China.” Springer said that they would not require Politico employees to sign documents in support of a transatlantic alliance, though this policy is enforced at the German newspaper Bild, another Springer subsidiary.
A good illustration of the power of English-language media in Europe was the reaction to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent call for Europe to reduce its dependency on the United States and develop its own “strategic autonomy.” Macron’s words were met with scorn and ridiculein the English-language press, the influence of which over European politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels and the various national capitals far outweighed whatever support Macron might have drawn from the press in Germany, France, or other countries.
However, control of much of the English-language media isn’t the only way the US influences European public opinion. The transatlantic intellectual ecosystem revolves around American think tanks such as the German Marshall Fund, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute, all of which in turn have known ties to US intelligence agencies. In his book Presstitutes, late German journalist Udo Ulfkotte, a respected reporter for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for nearly two decades, explains how the US establishment—through the aforementioned think tanks, the intelligence agencies to which they are linked, US embassies, the NATO press office, and other entities—enlists the European media to support US policy goals.
As Macron’s case shows, any attempt by European countries to defy US policy, or develop a more autonomous position, especially on matters of foreign or defence policy, is bound to be met with huge resistance from the powerful transatlantic establishment. Preventing any form of European “strategic autonomy” has been official US policy for at least thirty years, dating all the way back to a 1992 policy statement drafted by then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz. The document, which became the basis of the so-called Wolfowitz Doctrine, asserted that “America’s political and military mission in the post-Cold War era would be to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia, or the territory of the former Soviet Union.”
This approach was reaffirmed in 2005 by the influential journalist and defense intellectual Robert Kaplan: “NATO and an autonomous European defense force cannot both prosper. Only one can—and we should want it to be the former, so that Europe is a military asset for us, not a liability, as we confront China.” In the face of America’s increased isolation vis-à-vis non-Western countries, and China’s growing global influence, US officials are even more committed to this stance. NATO itself—which is de facto controlled by Washington despite the formal equality of its members—is, of course, a very effective tool for ensuring that Western Europe remains aligned with US strategic interests.
Perhaps more surprisingly, another institution through which the United States exercises its influence over Western Europe is the European Union. This is the result of long-standing institutional linkages developed out of Washington’s long-standing support for the cause of European integration—which derived from the assumption that exercising control over a single supranational “government” would be easier than dealing with dozens of national governments. The Brussels bubble’s greater reliance on English-language media is another factor accounting for why the European Commission and the rest of the EU establishment has always tended to be even more aligned with the United States than national governments.
This alignment has become embarrassingly apparent under the presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, approvingly dubbed “Europe’s American president” by Politico late last year. Over the years, von der Leyen has worked tirelessly to keep Brussels committed to America’s hawkish stance toward Russia and China.
The “mutually reinforcing roles” (in the words of the January 2023 EU-NATO joint declaration) of NATO and the European Union are particularly evident in the case of eurozone countries. By ceding their currency-issuing powers to the European Central Bank, euro area nations have put themselves in a position where they have little choice but to go along with policies dictated by the European Union, which has consistently shown no qualms about engaging in financial and monetary blackmail to force governments to adhere to its agenda. Those same pressures could easily be applied to any eurozone country that attempted to defy NATO policy on Ukraine. It’s no coincidence that the only EU and NATO member country that has dared to defy those institutions’ policies is Hungary, which is not in the euro.
All of this is compounded by the fact that, over the years, NATO and the European Union have engendered an infantilized political class. By largely delegating the management of their countries’ economic and foreign policies to Brussels and NATO respectively, European politicians have become unaccustomed to, and fearful of, making high-stakes decisions—presumably a necessary precondition for acting in a country’s national interest. This makes European politicians particularly easy to manipulate, especially given America’s carrot-and-stick approach, where incurring Washington’s wrath can carry very serious consequences, while playing along can open the doors to a wide array of incentives.
All of these factors help make sense of, for instance, the silence of Western European leaders in the face of the growing evidence of America’s involvement in the bombing of the Nord Stream pipeline, one of the worst terrorist attacks ever to be carried out on critical European infrastructure. To be clear, the official narrative—probably an attempt to whitewash America’s direct involvement in the attack—is now that Washington had prior knowledge of Ukraine’s intention to bomb the pipeline, but did nothing to prevent it. In normal circumstances, this information would surely trigger a political and diplomatic response, but European leaders seem to want nothing more than to sweep the whole thing under the carpet.
The rational-actor assumption assumes that the actors in question possess autonomy, as is the case with any relatively cohesive nation-state. But this is precisely what Western Europe, in its gradual transformation into an American protectorate administered from Brussels, has lost.