A few good lessons for Europe

Posted: Jan 31, 2003 12:00 AM
As the squabbling between the United States and "Europe" intensifies, I keep thinking of the movie "A Few Good Men." Full disclosure: I think "A Few Good Men," while well-crafted and entertaining, was a steaming pile of liberal swill. But I'm not wearing my movie critic hat today. Instead, what comes to mind is a long speech delivered by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays the courtroom drama's bad guy, Col. Nathan Jessup, a career Marine. When being cross-examined by Tom Cruise, a pretty boy, smart-aleck lawyer, Col. Jessup explains: "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I prefer you said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand to post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!" Now, I know Nicholson's supposed to be the villain, but in many ways, this speech neatly summarizes my attitude toward many of America's European critics. By the way, when I say "Europeans," I really mean the mostly French, German and Belgian bureaucratic political elite of the E.U. For most of the last 60 years, Europe -or Western Europe -has slept under the blanket of freedom provided by America. America challenged the real threat of the Soviet Empire, and after the U.S.S.R.'s downfall, America has been the chief guarantor of global stability and prosperity. We didn't achieve the peace and prosperity of the last six decades by charming everybody and saying nice things with a big Tom Cruise smile. We accomplished this incredible feat by risking American blood and treasure around the globe. We occupied Japan militarily and co-occupied Germany. We made assurances to nations across the world that if they resisted Soviet aggression we would get their back. Now this effort had costs and benefits, Vietnam being the most obvious example of a high cost. But at the end of the day, the United States saved the world, literally. We rescued our European allies three times in the 20th century -twice from German domination and a third time from Soviet conquest. Eventually, even Germany and Japan prospered mightily thanks to our efforts. It's also worth pointing out that we were not always alone. There was a time when many, if not most, of our European allies understood that their interests were advanced by "standing a post" with the United States. But that conviction ebbed over the years. As many critics of NATO argued in the 1970s and 1980s, the overwhelming mismatch between American and European investments in defense allowed Europeans to let their own defense budgets go slack. Indeed, some American critics of NATO rightly argued that America was funding the welfare states of Europe by picking up the tab for their national defense. If someone else is going to pay for our soldiers, the Europeans reasoned, why shouldn't we take our defense dollars and put them into free health care? This sort of mooching is annoying, but at least Europeans used to say "thank you." Since the end of the Cold War, they not only don't say thank you, but they seem to think the protection the U.S. provides is trivial, even a hindrance. "Europeans have done something that no one has ever done before: create a zone of peace where war is ruled out, absolutely out," Karl Kaiser, director of the Research Institute of the German Society for Foreign Affairs, wrote in the Chicago Tribune a few months ago. Well, the problem is that this is bunk, as we learned when concentration camps sprouted up again on European soil after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, Europeans were honestly flummoxed about how to stop men with guns from killing people in their own back yard. It took the United States -without the support of the United Nations, by the way -to stop the slaughter. Europeans have accomplished a great deal in the last 50 years. But the suggestion that they created a "zone of peace" -or what Jessup would call a blanket of freedom -without the United States and its military might would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous. This misunderstanding is dangerous because America needs allies and Europe needs America. If we continue to see Europe as a bunch of freeloaders, we will say good riddance to friends and partners at a time when America dearly needs them. And if the Europeans continue to treat us like the villain in a bad movie they will learn what it's like to lose the security they've taken for granted.