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I have for some time wanted to write on this subject, but have felt unable to do so, because without American support, there would have been no European Union. The International Herald Tribune’s leader of 12-13 January 2008, “Looking for an America we can recognize again”, made me change my mind. Strong criticism of US policies is not criticism of the America with whom Europe had a close relationship and shared so much in common. It is of today’s America, with the end of its political and moral, and soon, economic leadership.

A new approach to the US global role was born with George W Bush’s arrival at the White House in 2001 with the primary help of Dr Dick Cheney and midwife Donald Rumsfeld, after two decades of neo-con incubation. This approach is best summarised by quoting from ‘Rebuilding America’s defences: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a new Century: A Project for the New American Century’ September 2000:

“The US is the world’s only superpower, combining pre-eminent military power, global technological leadership and the world’s largest economy. At present the US faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should be to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.”

The US National Security Strategy of December 2002 confirmed that:

“To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense. The United States will not resort to force in all cases to preempt emerging threats.”

This approach inevitably meant unilateralism, and exclusion and containment of ‘enemies’ (including potential ones), underscoring the clash of two distinct approaches: confrontation or dialogue. As Bob Kagan put it in his recent essay, “End of Dreams, Return of History”, Americans have, since 1945, insisted on a “preponderance of power” in the world rather than a balance of power with other nations. They have operated on the ideological conviction that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government. The idea of pre-emptive or preventive action is not a novel concept in US foreign policy. Kagan concludes that “the broad direction of American foreign policy is unlikely to change…”

Kagan’s thesis is that according to history, all countries which have become mutually powerful, sooner or later use that power aggressively. The application of this thesis produces a self-fulfilling prophesy, as ‘he whom you treat as your enemy becomes your enemy’. Containing China through ringing it with military bases (the US has a military presence in 120 countries) will ensure massive Chinese military expenditure. The question as to whom China is arming against, is equally applied to the US.

Despite the improvement in the transatlantic relationship during Bush’s second term, the gulf between Washington and European capitals, with one or two notable exceptions, is still dangerously wide. Many of those anxious to preserve the transatlantic have sought to play down the differences, but that is not how to restore the relationship to its former level. The George W Bush regime has graphically revealed and increased the gulf of misunderstanding that already existed. And a gulf cannot be bridged if its width is underestimated.

American exceptionalism

The speeches and writings of all three candidates for the White House reveal a common thread: American exceptionalism. Expressed in different ways, all candidates see the United States as the ongoing hegemonic power. They see in their different ways the US as providing global leadership and promoting ultimate good. The foreign policy of even Barack Obama is that the US must remain the world’s sherriff, has the right to take unilateral action and that the UN Security Council should not have a veto power over US options.

This has been a constant theme at least since World War II. Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, came to believe “that the United States had an appointment with destiny, from which there was no easy way out but for the nation to lead and bend its whole energies to ordering the world”. President Eisenhower proclaimed that the defence of freedom was one and indivisible, and American policies were an extension of America’s moral responsibilities.

The term “manifest destiny” was coined over 150 years ago, falling out of fashion early last century, but the concept has continued to influence American political ideology. Multilateralism, as practised by George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, meant that every effort was made to garner the support and participation of others but, not to the exclusion of acting unilaterally, if this failed.

There is a tendency to define relationships by reference to common values rather than common interests. The trouble is that the same nominal value usually has different interpretations, such as democracy and human rights. Even when the interpretations are the same, the means to achieve them may be different. The application of values is frequently inconsistent and hypocritical and in fact disguises self-interest. Unconditional altruism is not common in people and inconceivable in a nation as a whole.

Common values clearly defined the transatlantic relationship in the immediate aftermath of WWII; but also common interests. The world has drastically changed since then and so has both Europe and the US. There are now many differences between us, such as:

  • hard or soft power
  • unilateralism or multilateralism
  • economic and social balance
  • forms of democracy
  • balance between security and freedom
  • engagement and containment.

There has been a European tendency to blame the Bush Administration for the increased divergences between the US and Europe and assume all will be well after Bush. But greater realism must be injected into the European approach to the relationship. Such realism has always existed in US policy towards Europe. This does not mean rupturing the relationship: realism, acknowledged and wisely applied, will strengthen the ties.

Multilateralism obviously excludes unilateralism, but it also excludes bilateralism, except as a component of multilateralism. Currently, Europe’s relationship with the US defines to a considerable extent its foreign policy or policies. This is unsurprising in an hegemonic world. Thus, the EU-China relationship is directly influenced by each’s relationship with the US. Trade apart, the overall feeling in Europe is to wait for the 2008 US presidential election after which transatlantic relations will ‘return to normal’. However, the clock cannot be turned back and the world situation today is vastly different from that prevailing when George W Bush became president in 2001.

Economic storm clouds are gathering: The US and China defy the law of economic gravity, one with an unsustainable, rising current account deficit and the other with an unsustainable, rising trade surplus. Economic recession appears to be around the corner. The extent of the sub-prime mortgage crisis is still unknown. There is a loss of confidence within the US. There is no effective international economic and monetary mechanism to cope with an international economic and monetary crisis.

The US must bear substantial responsibility for what has happened. The sub-prime mortgage crisis illustrates that human greed has few limitations. The selling of mortgages to uncreditworthy borrowers and repackaging them as triple A investment packages was fraud. And their acceptance by American and international banking and institutional investors was criminal negligence.

The present Administration’s Greater Middle East policy is in tatters and that part of the world is markedly more dangerous than it was in 1991. This is not the place to analyse how a policy, obviously doomed from the outset, could have been pursued so relentlessly and inefficiently. The long-standing policy of promoting stability was replaced by one promoting democracy in the mistaken belief that democracy would bring stability. Not only has the imposition of western democracy without consideration for historical and cultural differences created chaos but, where democratic elections have taken place (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Algeria in the past) they have produced governments led by or including Islamic extremists. Amitai Etzioni argues (see 16 March post) that the first priority in foreign policy is to provide basic security, not to democratize. Americans and Europeans in general see the Middle East through different prisms. The US is at war with ‘terror’ which it largely associates with radical Islam. Europeans tend to see a more nuanced situation and also focus on how to improve the conditions which form the breeding ground of terrorism.

EU leadership role

After the Iraq débacle, the US cannot in the foreseeable future, whoever occupies the White House, recover its moral leadership. There is a vacuum which the European Union should fill, but on present performance will not, despite the fact that other countries would welcome it. Equally worrying is the silence of our leaders in condemning a possible return to the balance of power games that led to three European civil wars. The recent struggle between Russia, US and China over energy sourcing and distribution in the ’stans has echoes of the ‘Great Game’. American, Japanese and Chinese manoeuvring in East Asia is an exercise in balance of power politics.

Europe needs a foreign policy independent of the US, which does not mean independence for its own sake. It is obviously preferable to agree on as many issues as possible. These remain mere aspirations until the EU is able to speak with one voice. It is to be hoped that the Treaty of Lisbon will seriously influence the formulation of EU external policy. Is it too much to hope that the leaders of 27 democratic states will eventually listen to the people, who in successive opinion polls have confirmed their wish for a European foreign policy?

The EU has not been allowed by the Member States (and in particular by the ego of its leaders) to forge truly common external policies (trade apart), notwithstanding that it is obvious that all the major challenges facing society today are global and the influence of one, even large, Member State, is insignificant. Such external policies that Member States have, tend to be predicated on their attitudes towards and degree of dependence on the US.

We have a year or so to put the new treaty debate behind us and rethink and (re)state our external policy on a number of issues. Monnet’s post-World War II objective was to organise the peace, which required countries to cooperate closely, based on pooled sovereignty and without individual national vetoes. “And the Community itself is only a stage on the way to the organised world of tomorrow” was the final sentence of Monnet’s Memoirs. He saw a successful EEC (as it then was) as a step towards establishing a system of global order.

We can only progress towards this end if there is a degree of trust. Trust needs to be created, but this cannot be done by declaring common values and making rhetorical pledges, but by building it slowly and steadily over the years through working together. Working together effectively requires mutual understanding of each other’s politics, economic conditions, history, culture, thinking…When looking at a problem, it is essential to try to understand how the problem is seen by the other party and in what context. This involves some knowledge of one another’s histories and cultures.

Europe is well qualified to take a lead but cannot begin until it gets its own act together. When will the EU’s national leaders deliver what Europe needs and its citizens want? Will the Member States appoint three strong leaders next year, namely the Presidents of the European Council and Commission, and the Foreign Policy Chief; and will they give them the necessary political support?

How the West handles China will be the supreme test. While there is no guarantee that the ‘soft’ European political approach will succeed, the US ‘hard’ approach is doomed from the outset as it is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The EU-US relationship remains the most important one to both parties but its nature must necessarily change. This should be directly addressed in the early days of the next US Presidency, beginning with the future defence and security roles of NATO and the EU and their relationship with each other. President Kennedy in Philadelphia in 1962 proposed an equal partnership between the US and Europe. This is now as much in the interests of the America as it is of Europe.

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Comments

  1. “Europe is well qualified to take a lead but cannot begin until it gets its own act together.”

    Sadly, the Lisbon Treaty is not commensurate to the need, although it facilitates implementation in the (unlikely) case that there is unanimity in difficult questions of foreign and security policy.

    In addition, the CFSP and the CSDP are the main areas (together with the reamaining areas of special legisltative procedure) where the European Union lacks democratic legitimacy.

    Thank you, for a great post.

  2. Dear Mr. Crossick:

    Where are you getting that quote from Mr. Acheson from? I find that quote particularly illuminating, and I’d like to read the source.

  3. I’m so glad to read this comment in your last paragraph about the EU-US relationship:

    This should be directly addressed in the early days of the next US Presidency, beginning with the future defence and security roles of NATO and the EU and their relationship with each other.

    Why is almost no one else mentioning a need for change in the inherent contradictions and divisiveness caused by having both NATO and the EU? It’s funny how some EU countries aren’t in NATO, yet future EU candidates think belonging to NATO first will help them later gain EU membership! A sticky situation. How is the EU ever going to have one voice, not to mention a common policy concerning energy and Russia? Given NATO members ambivalent reaction to 9/11, and the lack of commitment and lack of truly deployable NATO troops (7-8% of 2.4 million), it’s probably a waste of money.

  4. Dear Nicolette, I think the very issue that prospective or new members seek NATO membership is a real issue that contradicts those who believe that the EU is ready to lead in world politics.

    The 1991-1995 war in Bosnia showed to Central Europeans that only an American lead NATO can bring peace, law and order into troubled European regions. This was the case again in 1999 and today if there were no NATO troops in Macedonia and Kosovo, a region which has a border with the EU than people’s life would be in danger. (And in this case it is actually a member state that stirs the hot pot).

    If you look at past years cyber-war against Estonia and the (lack of) European reaction it also shows that Central European nations are right to base their safety on NATO and not on EU. While EU is a great economic alliance, a less great political alliance, it cannot make or preserve peace.

    Your comment on the lack of commitment and deployable NATO troops is not well founded I think. Also some NATO member states in Europe are as reluctant to make binding commitments as they are when it comes to a common policy (say on Kosovo or Cyprus) it is also European NATO members who make the biggest relative commitment in NATO missions.

    You could also cite the example of the UN. France and the United Kingdom have permanent membership in the Security Council (and sometimes their votes diverge) and none of them would be willing to give it up for a EU membership. Germany also seeks membership on her own right.

    All in all, I believe that Europe is not able to act without the US and NATO in world politics at the moment.

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