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America, Friend Or Foe Of Europe?

the European Court of Justice in Kirchberg, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg.
The Court of Justice of the European Union, Luxembourg. Photo by Katarina Dzurekova.

We are enjoying a baby boom at my firm this year. A little math leads to the conclusion that this is not a byproduct of the pandemic, and a little more math yields the insight that this year’s crop will turn 25 exactly 100 years after the end of World War II.

Which leads me to consider: What responsibility, if any, should our all-American wunderkinder undertake to maintain the freedom of a European continent that their great- or great-great-grandparents fought to liberate from tyranny? An appraisal of today’s Europe makes it easy to conclude that the answer ought to be “not much.”

The European Union exists mainly to magnify the influence and protect the markets of its economic drivers, Germany and France. The British are exiting the carousel after this year’s transition period, and the other 25 member states are pretty much along for the ride. They are all sovereign nations. We Americans ought to respect their choices and wish them the best.

That need not mean American children born in 2020 must someday storm a French beach or face a missile barrage on a continental battlefield to defend Western Europe’s democracy. We have been there and done that. Our NATO obligations currently demand that we do it again if needful circumstances arise, and I am sure we would. I am equally certain that in the reverse situation, Germany, France and the majority of their EU partners would not. Most are so reliant on America that they couldn’t be much help, regardless of their intentions.

Beyond simple military neglect, Europe – particularly its power centers in Berlin, Paris, and the EU hydra with heads in Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Frankfurt – seems unable to distinguish friend from foe. Last week the EU’s highest tribunal, the Court of Justice of the European Union, essentially declared the United States an adversary when it struck down the “Privacy Shield” agreement. That agreement, which replaced the earlier “Safe Harbor” arrangement, allowed companies on both sides of the Atlantic to move user data in bulk to and from U.S.-based servers, subject to Europe’s strict privacy law.

The court’s objection was not to the companies’ behavior. Instead, it found that American security interests effectively overrode European citizens’ privacy rights, despite ostensible safeguards the agreement put in place to balance the two. The court determined that the American national security surveillance activities disclosed in 2013 by Edward Snowden “[condone] interference with the fundamental rights of persons whose data are transferred” to computers in the United States.

One might observe that 2,977 people in America had their fundamental right to live terminated on Sept. 11, 2001, in a series of attacks launched by a terrorist cell that originated in Hamburg, Germany. Or that thousands of Europe’s residents flocked to the Middle East to serve the banner and the butchery of the Islamic State group. Whatever the excesses of the data-gathering that Snowden revealed, the program’s objectives were to prevent a recurrence of such carnage.

Here is a cold way to look at the world in the first half of the 21st century: China is an emerging threat to free people everywhere, due to its huge population, expanding military footprint, and propensity to use its economic heft and captive judiciary to exert pressure. The United States and our “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing allies (Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand) have been the most assertive in standing up to China. The U.K. last week joined us in barring equipment from China’s Huawei from 5G data networks. Continental Europe, characteristically, has done little more than talk.

As a three-ocean power, America has a vital interest in maintaining freedom of navigation worldwide. That requires cooperation with countries including Norway, a NATO ally that is on the front lines with a post-communist, China-aligned Russia – and potentially with China too. Beijing has declared that China is a “near-Arctic” country, which is not an actual thing, but which hints at its ambitions in that region.

Russia’s navy, like China’s, is a potential threat America must confront. The Russian army, not so much. If Moscow’s tricolor banner ever hangs from the Brandenburg Gate or the Eiffel Tower, it will be an extremely bad day for the residents of Berlin and Paris. Folks in Chicago or Dallas could probably live with it.

As I write this, Facebook seems to be prohibited from transferring EU citizens’ data to the United States (although it can set up processing facilities in Europe and continue operating that way). But Huawei remains free to play whatever role local European governments want it to play in their own data networks.

President Donald Trump took flak from his own party, as well as from his usual critics, for his recent announcement of plans to reduce American troop levels in Germany. Many think he went too far. In 20th century Cold War terms, he probably did. But in addressing 21st century realities, he may only have taken a logical first step.

Europe belongs to the Europeans. They can make whatever sovereign decisions they want, and we must respect their choices. But compared to the Five Eyes, or to a few other reliable nations like Japan and Israel, they are American allies mainly when it is convenient. At other times, they treat us as economic rivals or even a potential threat to their way of life.

By the time a century after World War II has passed, Europe should be responsible for itself. It should presume that American youth born in 2020 will not be sacrificed to defend a continent that cannot distinguish friend from foe. Europeans can keep their data for themselves if they choose, and we can keep our kids.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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