Interview by Caroline J. Hanna

French workers strike on Oct. 12, 2010, in Paris over the government's pension reforms. "The case of France is a turning point," Tiersky says.

In a world in which the United States remains central and new great powers—China first of all—are rising, where and how much does Europe matter? Ronald Tiersky, the Joseph B. Eastman ’04 Professor of Political Science, who co-edited the new book European Foreign Policies: Does Europe Still Matter?, spoke recently to Amherst magazine.

Q Does Europe still matter in American foreign policy?
A The center of gravity in the world order is moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But Europe remains important to global balance. The European Union is a global economy, and Europe is a continent of geopolitical and strategic consequence. The main issue in the long run is whether the Europeans really want to matter, whether they have the political will and are prepared to pay the price of refounded influence in a refounded world order.

Q What kind of clout does Europe have in the world today?
A Europe’s current strategic weakness is obvious. The rise of China is obviously the most important new element in the world order and the U.S.-China relationship will be the crucial bilateral relationship of the 21st century. Given the speed and depth of China’s arrival in international economics and politics, the U.S. can’t deal with China and rising Asia alone. Moreover, the domestic incentive for a greater European role, that is, self-interest, will intensify. My judgment, a contrarian one, is that Europe is likely to matter more in the medium- and long-term future than it does today.

Q What social challenges could affect Europe’s international influence?

A The fundamental long-term problem is demography. Birthrates in European countries are among the lowest in the world. Declining population, in modern times, has usually meant a declining economy and a less consequential foreign policy.

Connected to this is the fact that financing retirement pensions in aging societies is the most serious fiscal problem for many European governments. Pensions are the biggest government budget expense, far more significant than health care. The case of France is a turning point. In spite of massive street demonstrations, strikes and shutdowns of energy companies and educational institutions, the recent French pension law passed in parliament and has been accepted by the country.

Q  Will the euro survive?
A The euro is the crowning achievement of European integration thus far. The fate of the euro is important not only in financial terms; it indicates the trend-line of commitment to European integration. In the past, crises of common institutions have always led to more rather than less Europe. Despite the reluctance of the deep-pocket EU countries—Germany above all—to bail out the profligates, that’s the direction where the euro crisis is probably heading: more rather than less Europe.

Q Has the financial crisis led to any important changes in leadership?
A  The new prime minister of Greece, George Papandreou [’75], finally told the truth about how bad the Greek government’s deficits had become. This, I think, was a rather astounding innovation. George Papandreou has earned great respect among European Union leaders. He was a student in my European politics course. Amherst can’t take credit for his decision to tell the truth, but having known him fairly well, his sense of responsibility doesn’t surprise me.

Q What does the future hold for the EU?
A Europeans are being pressured by globalization further into an existential crisis that began with the collapse of communism and the big-bang eastern enlargement of the EU.  The ultimate result of Turkey’s application for membership is an even greater decision about what the EU, and “Europe,” will be.

It’s a matter of ambition. Will the meaning of “Europe” be a clear-cut matter of geography or something larger? Will Europeans be satisfied enough with an exceptional quality of life and an extraordinary continent to inhabit? Maybe so. But the choice of comfort and complacency is a recipe for decadence and historical decline. A strategy of riding the trend is, in other words, to their increasing peril. But reconstituting the appetite for ambition requires exceptional determination. We’ll see what happens.

Photo by Franck Prevel/Getty Images