Stanley's blog

I have for some time wanted to write advocating that Europe re-examine its relationship with the United States. Hitherto I’ve felt unable to do this, because it is not possible to forget that, without US support, Europe would not have been free after WWII. Without US foresight, generosity and encouragement, it is doubtful that the European Coal & Steel Community would have come into being. Without US support, the UK could well have derailed the integration efforts. Historically, European integration and Atlanticism have been two sides of the same coin.

However, I have decided to post my thoughts for several reasons. First and foremost, there appears to be a widely held view that the relationship is fundamentally sound and will return to its historical level of mutual understanding and cooperation, after the present administration, even under President McCain; under President Obama, the future is seen to be rosy. I don’t agree. There are substantial underlying differences between our two societies which spread beyond Washington and Brussels. It seems sensible to start addressing the subject ahead of the Presidential election, so as to be prepared for the new occupant in the White House.

The International Herald Tribune’s leader of 12-13 January 2008, captioned “Looking for an America we can recognize again”, made a pertinent point when it rightly argued that 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, now it seems financial and soon, economic leadership. The America of Kyoto and Bali, of the ICC Treaty, of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, of rendition flights, the great American nation which has lost it’s way.

Until 1989, Western Europe and the United States stood side-by-side in the defence against communism. The dismantling of the Berlin wall symbolised the beginning of a new era of further EU integration and expansion, and the hope for a peaceful and increasingly prosperous world. But it was not to be. The undesirable side of human nature took over and the lack of international governance could not change human behaviour. Max Kohnstamm’s warning (EPC publication of February 1992) that a thaw carries more danger than the freeze has sadly proved to be prescient.

The 1991 Gulf war did not dramatically change the world order. George Bush Senior took great care to assemble a genuinely international force and honoured his commitment to the Arab states to stop at liberating Kuwait and not securing regime change. There followed eight Clinton years of cordial transatlantic relations, even during disagreements. The president and his team knew Europe and were comfortable with Europeans.

George W Bush Administration

The environment was drastically transformed in January 2001 upon George W Bush’s arrival at the White House. A new approach to the US global role was born 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’ of 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. Our preference is that nonmilitary actions succeed. And no country should ever use preemption as a pretext for aggression.”

This approach inevitably meant unilateralism, and exclusion and containment of ‘enemies’ (including potential ones) and underscores the clash of two distinct approaches: confrontation or engagement.

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 sought revolutionary rather than gradual solutions to problems and have, therefore, often been at odds with the more cautious approaches of their allies.” Kagan characterises the “Bush Doctrine” as referring to the idea of pre-emptive or preventive military action; the promotion of democracy and “regime change”; and a diplomacy tending toward “unilateralism,” a willingness to act without the sanction of international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council or the unanimous approval of its allies.

Kagan asserts that it is worth asking not only whether past administrations acted differently but also which of these any future administration, regardless of party, would promise to abjure in its conduct of foreign policy. The idea of pre-emptive or preventive action is not regarded by Kagan as a novel concept in American foreign policy. He argues that every administration in the past half-century has attempted to engineer changes of regime in various parts of the world. And if by unilateralism is meant an unwillingness to be constrained by the disapproval of the UN Security Council, by some of the NATO allies, by the OAS, or by any other international body, which presidents of the past allowed themselves to be so constrained?

Bob Kagan concludes that “the broad direction of American foreign policy is unlikely to change, absent some dramatic – indeed, genuinely revolutionary – effort by a future administration.” His 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 in US foreign & security policy 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 and, since 9/11 has built or expanded bases in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia; in Bulgaria, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania in Europe; and in the Philippines, Djibouti, Oman, and Qatar.) will ensure massive Chinese military expenditure. The question as to whom China is arming against, is easily reversed and applied to the US.

The public rhetoric of the second George W Bush administration has been far more multilateral and inclusive in tone if not in deed. Personal relations have improved, with a greater degree of agreement, but 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 relationship 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 both candidates for the White House reveal a common thread: American exceptionalism. Expressed in different ways, they 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 sheriff, 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 American 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 and fell 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.

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. In 2002 all EU Member State publics opposed the war without UN approval, even UK (68%).

Equally worrying is the silence of our leaders in condemning a possible return to the balance of power games that led to three great European civil wars. The recent struggle between Russia, US and China over energy sourcing and distribution in the ’stans had echoes of the ‘Great Game’. American, Japanese and Chinese manoeuvring in East Asia is an exercise in balance of power politics.

Clausewitz’s definition of peace as the interlude between wars was valid until 1945 in Europe, if not elsewhere. The new, post-war Europe put an end to this, but doubts now arise as to whether this is permanent. Europe is allowing the United States to lead in what has become a balance of power game with Russia over Georgia and, no doubt, Ukraine. Elsewhere, we see the US – with its military presence in 120 countries – steeped in the objective of maintaining American hegemony which inevitably encourages balance of power games, certainly when linked with regarding China as a geopolitical rival.

Values and interests

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; sometimes to the extent that this may reduce the reality of the common values.

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 so did 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 v soft power
  • unilateralism v multilateralism
  • economic and social balance
  • forms of democracy
  • balance between security and freedom
  • confrontation v engagement.

There has been a European tendency to blame the Bush Administration for the increased divergences between the US and Europe. But this is more in style than substance. Europeans should stop papering over these differences. 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, but it is a way of reducing the surprising lack of mutual understanding. 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. 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 thoughts until the EU is able to speak with one voice. It is to be hoped that the Treaty of Lisbon will eventually be ratified and 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?

Trade apart, as I’ve said, 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.

Today, the struggle is no longer against Communist authoritarianism. The struggle is against climate change and environmental degradation, poverty alleviation, migration, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation …

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 to our citizens 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 tended to be predicated on their attitude towards and degree of dependence on the US.

Economic and financial outlook

Both currently appear pretty grim. How the US copes with the current financial meltdown is likely to have far-reaching effects on the transatlantic relationship. It is to be hoped that it will be easier in future to cooperate more closely financially and reconcile the European tendency to over-regulate and the ZAmerican tensency to under-regulate. There is no effective international economic and monetary mechanism to cope with such a crisis, and hopefully this can be rectified. .

EU leadership role

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, ie a Union which speaks with one voice and has a common foreign and security policy?

The EU-US relationship remains the most important one to both, but its nature must necessarily change. This should be directly addressed in the early days of the next US Presidency. 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 US as it is for Europe. However, an equal partnership involves equal rights and responsibilities. An effective one requires each partner to speak with one voice.

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