The US Ignores the European Refugee Crisis at its Own Peril

Time and again, President Obama has applauded Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policies. Yet American policymakers and experts continue to underestimate the severity of the crisis and its potential impact on their country’s own geostrategic outlook. Forget Trump’s attacks on the German Chancellor, calling her insane and predicting riots in Germany. American politicians across the board refuse to share responsibility for the causes and consequences of the current crisis in Europe.

They do so at their own peril. Yet for those unconvinced by humanitarian arguments, perhaps geopolitics will do the trick. Here’s why:

First, any prolongation of Germany’s lonely odyssey will endanger Merkel, America’s most reliable European ally. Merkel is under pressure from both her own party and voters. Recent elections in three German states were widely considered a referendum on her refugee policy. In all of them, Merkel’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), lost substantial ground to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). This weakens Merkel, but it is not only a setback for her, but also a worrying signal for the United States. Although Germany’s policies were controversial during the Euro crisis, the country remains the anchor of European political and economic stability. Yet with its lonely battle to help hundreds of thousands of refugees, Germany is critically overextended. Even traditionally refugee-friendly Green politicians have complained about the strain on their administrations. Losing Merkel, and weakening Germany, puts America’s most important European partnership at stake.

Second, a destabilized and possibly disintegrating European Union would be a blow to US political and economic interests. The EU is the US’s most important trade partner and strategic ally. European cohesion will already be challenged in 2016: by the UK referendum on its membership in the Union, by the Dutch referendum on its policies towards Ukraine, by the growing popularity of the anti-EU Front Nationale in France and by a new Euro-skeptical Polish government and a probable shift to the right in Slovakia. The inability of European countries to agree on a fair distribution of refugees results in the closing of national borders and may bring about the collapse of the Schengen Zone. Such massive destabilization cannot be in American interests.

Third, the ongoing refugee crisis makes Europe vulnerable to foreign interventions. Some of these foreign powers, like Russia, perceive themselves as adversaries to the US. Recently, false allegations that a German-Russian girl was raped by refugees led to a massive misinformation campaign by the Russian media. Thousands demonstrated across Germany. Such blatant intervention sent a clear message: Moscow is ready and willing to use the difficult refugee situation to stir unrest among German citizens. Russian connections to populist and right-wing parties may foster similar actions elsewhere in Europe, and tensions about refugee issues are the perfect launch pad for such interventions. It can only be in the US’s strategic interest to contain the crisis and keep unwanted rivals out of the EU’s domestic politics.

Finally, the US is a player in the crisis simply because a number of European publics deem it to be. Many Europeans blame the US: some due to absurd conspiracy theories, others due to US direct or indirect involvement in the conflicts from which most refugees are fleeing. Europeans are irritated by America’s hesitance to share the burden and accept humanitarian responsibility. Compared to the more than 1.2 million refugees already on German soil, US acceptance of 2,647 Syrians and a promise to welcome 10,000 more is a drop in the bucket—a mockery in the eyes of many Europeans. It is in the interest of the US to increase its involvement and to allay the dangerous anti-American sentiment simmering in Europe.

It is time to think of America’s refugee policy in new terms. The refugee challenge we face is no longer abstract or national. It is real and intertwined. Migration is no longer a soft-policy issue; on these scales, it is a geopolitical factor. Both Republicans and Democrats, elected or running, should be aware of the significant ramifications for the United States when it fails to act in solidarity with Germany and Europe. The US has clear responsibilities toward the refugees and its European partners: it must make a real and substantial resettlement offer, provide generous financial contributions, and exert strategic pressure on Turkey and other European allies to join forces instead of instrumentalizing the crisis for political gain. Every humanitarian tragedy has geostrategic dimensions. If the former is not an argument in itself, the latter should convince everyone. 

By Sergey Lagodinsky, head of EU/North America Department, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung