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Saturday, March 24, 2007

EU politics: The enduring strength of transatlantic relations


Four years ago, the US-led invasion of Iraq triggered the most serious rift in transatlantic relations since 1945 as well as among EU member states themselves. Although some fall-out from the split over Iraq remains, talk of the two continents drifting apart is misplaced. Indeed, relations between Europe and the US are returning to normal.

More to unite than divide

During the traumatic days of early 2003, a great deal of analysis and comment focused on explaining the divisions that had emerged by reference to attitudes towards the use of force, perhaps most vividly captured by US academic Robert Kagan, in his essay “Of Paradise and Power”. Mr Kagan (an advocate of the Iraq invasion) described Europeans as inhabiting the world of perpetual peace envisaged by the German enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. As a result, they had become incapable of dealing with other states that did not play the international relations game by their rules, whereby disagreements are solved in the committee rooms of Brussels by grinding out reasoned compromise.

There was, and is, much to this analysis. Europeans countries spend far less on defence than the does US and they are often reluctant to engage in military activity even when they agree that such action is both justified and necessary. For example, many European members of NATO declined to participate in the 1999 conflict with Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, while the US undertook the overwhelming majority of the military action. To the US, this unwillingness to use force, even in a region bordering the EU, remains a source of frustration. But it would be wrong to overstate this as a factor in undermining transatlantic ties, mainly because this difference has existed for decades--in the 1960s even the UK declined to involve itself in Vietnam, in the 1970s West Germany's policy of "Ostpolitik" towards the Soviet Union was far too placatory for American tastes, and in the 1980s many Europeans feared that the US plan for a “star wars” missile defence system risked upsetting the strategic balance in Europe (an issue that has resurfaced today).

It is hard to argue, therefore, that there is a widening gulf between the sides on resort to force in international affairs. Rather it is one that they have managed to live with for decades. It would also be wrong to overstate European pacifism. Sizeable European contingents fought alongside the US in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, 25 of the EU’s 27 member states have forces deployed in Afghanistan (although most not in the area of fighting) and 12 still have a presence in Iraq. Moreover, Germany, the EU’s largest member state, is gradually increasing its military engagement after decades of non-involvement. This makes the prospect of Europe punching up to its weight in the world more likely in the future.

And what of the US: is it becoming more belligerent and bullying as some in Europe and elsewhere claim? The case to be made that the US is becoming more aggressive is certainly stronger than the case for an ever more cowering and cowardly Europe, but this is based almost entirely on the Iraq war, which was an aberration rather than the start of a unilateralist trend. To see why, one need only consider briefly the context in which 9/11 took place.

Although the cold war had been over for a decade by September 2001, the US was still seeking to define a new posture in a world without a Soviet threat. Competing ideas existed, but the emergence of al-Qaida as a serious menace to the American homeland, and the rapid victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan, gave credence to the view that the US had underestimated and under-used its unique power. These neo-conservative voices persuaded President George Bush that the US's military preponderance meant that the administration no longer needed to shore-up unpleasant regimes, but could sweep them away, leaving fertile ground for democracies to flourish. This, they argued, was the only way to guarantee American security in the long run because in democracies people are too busy enjoying freedom to engage in terror. But the neo-conservative account of the transformative potential of US power has been discredited by its failure to deliver stability in Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, by the electoral success of Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hizbullah in Lebanon. Thus, the brief period in which America attempted to spread democracy through military means now appears over.

More humility and less hubris in Washington

This comes as a great relief to Europe, where even the staunchest Atlanticists in diplomatic circles were appalled by the hubris of some US officials at the height of the neo-conservative influence. In the second Bush term, the humility in foreign affairs that the president had promised when campaigning for election in 2000 has became evident, and a determined effort is being made to mend fences. Mr Bush’s first foreign visit after re-election, for instance, was to the EU. This was significant not only because he was the first US president to recognise the EU in this way, but also because it signalled a definitive rejection of “disaggregation”, a policy of divide and conquer towards the EU advocated by some in his first administration.

The American olive branch has been enthusiastically accepted. Those Europeans who opposed the war—arguing that it would open a Middle-East Pandora’s box feel—vindicated but are not gloating, in large part to avoid transatlantic relations again sinking to that 2003 low point. They are also determined to show that they are serious about tough security issues, which may explain their intense efforts at trying to halt Iran’s nuclear programme and their close co-operation with the US at the UN to impose sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Though there are differences—the US wishes to ratchet up those sanctions rapidly, while the Europeans prefer a more gradual approach—they have remained united in the face of the threat, despite Iran’s best efforts to divide them.

Economic interests are eternal

But because Europeans know that their clout in hard security issues internationally is limited they have often focused reconciliation efforts in other spheres, most notably in economic affairs. Current proposals by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to use her country's presidency of the EU in the first half of 2007 to launch a major initiative aimed at deepening economic integration in the transatlantic space is only the latest example. Even without considering Ms Merkel's big idea, huge energy is already being expended at the political and policy levels to remove many of the remaining obstacles to doing transatlantic business. Though disagreements are plentiful--some intractable, others merely technical--the two sides are talking about the Doha multilateral trade round, bilateral trade issues, competition policy, harmonisation of accounting standards, public procurement, aviation, financial services regulation and much more. Little illustrates the normality of transatlantic relations better than the daily interaction between European and American officials as they go about their problem-solving business.

Business as usual

If transatlantic relations are back on an even keel at the official level, the damage done by Iraq remains at the popular level. Positive European sentiment towards the US is far lower than it was before the Iraq invasion, according to opinion polls, and many of the continent's media often display a visceral dislike of President Bush which distorts reporting of his administration's actions and its dealings with other countries. Four years on, it seems unlikely that he will ever find a place in European hearts. But his term in office ends in less than two years, and a new president is expected to enjoy a rise in European support. Europeans know that in terms of values and interests, they are closer to the US any other part of the world. Although disagreements will inevitably persist, given the unique scope of the relationship, considerable political will exists to solve them. The portentous talk of Europe and America drifting apart has not occurred. Nor is it likely to in the foreseeable future. The ties stretching across the Atlantic are too many and too strong to allow that to happen.
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