Will Austerity Woes Lead to European War?

Despite rising nationalism, German tanks won't be rolling into Paris any time soon.

By SHARE
Paris_120507_1.jpg
German troops march toward the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysees Ave., Paris, France, during World War II on Sept 8, 1944.

As the European Union struggles to regain its footing after years of ongoing economic plight, its member nations are as deeply divided as ever. While rising nationalism has some pointing to the conflicts of past eras, experts say there is scant evidence that divisions spawned by Europe's financial crisis will eventually lead to a war on the continent with scenes reminsicent of German tanks rumbling down the Champs-Elysees in 1940.

"The chances for some kind of return to geopolitical rivalry are minimal," says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations. "We're not talking about French and German tanks positioned along their common borders. Borders as geopolitical dividing lines: those days are gone. What we're likely to see is not about another catastrophe."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

Experts agreed internal unrest emanating from angry and frustrated citizens like what has occurred in Greece is likely to continue and spread until an antidote for Europe's fiscal woes sets in.

"But internal unrest is a police matter, not a military one," says Magnus Nordenman, a senior security analyst at the Atlantic Council.

With European economic giant Germany pushing other nations toward more austere spending as the leading solution to the European Union's woes, French voters pushed back Sunday by electing socialist Francois Hollande as their next president.

Kupchan sees that development as an opportunity for Hollande to push for a new "pro-growth coalition" among other EU members that would support governments bailouts and stimulus packages.

"The optimistic line is that Hollande leads a pro-growth coalition within the EU that can convince Germany to ease off the brakes and tap on the [gas] pedal," says Kupchan. "That could breed new life into the economies of most EU states, and provide relief to electorates that are growing more and more angry."

Of course, every optimistic forecast has a pessimistic counter. One is German Chancellor Angela Merkel who "digs in her heels ... and you get a new financial standoff between Paris and Berlin."

[Rick Newman: Why a Shrinking Government Is Bad News.]

But the operative word there is "financial," experts say.

Even if the EU begins to unravel, "what we would see is a settling back into a Europe that settles back into being a free-trade zone, and a very broad and deep market," Kupchan says.

But lofty ideas of a financially unified Europe emerging as a global economic powerhouse would evaporate. And probably for good.

"If Europe is going to project its power on the global stage, it has to do it collectively," says Kupchan.

Experts say a less-unified Europe will not go to war with itself. But a splintered EU would have national security ramifications for Washington, they say.

"The larger concern would be a Europe less able to respond to a crisis in its larger neighborhood and beyond," says Nordenman. "Libya is the case study: Most feel France and the U.K. probably could not do that," he says, referencing the 2011 NATO-led military intervention there. American air and naval forces led the way in the mission's opening phases before handing off that role to NATO forces, mostly French and British troops.

"Europe needs to forge its common muscle on foreign and security policy, but this re-nationalization makes that more and more unlikely," says Kupchan. "Still, I think Europe will weather this crisis and come out in some ways stronger for it."

Alexei Monsarrat, a former State Department official, says Europeans "do have a lot to work out."

"Nationalism can be seriously re-flamed when a challenge like this hits," says Monsarrat. "They're going to have to deal with that.

"The Euro issue is one everyone knew at the start had problems," says Monsarrat. "This is the first time they've had to deal with it all, and a lot feels more inevitable and permanent that it really is."

The bottom line, experts say, as put by Monsarrat: "I don't see the whole thing falling apart. There is a strong commitment to making this work."

Nordeman says any worries about the economic crisis spawning World War III--or even a smaller-scale hot war--"are quite overstated."

"We simply don't see governments re-aligning their militaries in ways that shows they are planning to launch some continental unrest," says Nordenman. "The thought of a war over this sounds like science fiction."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT. 

  • Opinion: What the French Elections Mean for the U.S.
  • THE RACE: French race may be bad omen for Obama.
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.