The Electric Commentary

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Transatlantic Rift: Why? So What? What Now?

To say there are no cultural differences between Europe and the United States would be akin to saying that there are no cultural difference between New Yorkers and Texans. There are differences, that is undeniable, but is this to blame for the recent enlargement of tensions between Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Washington? Christopher Layne denies the cultural impact is a root cause calling the cultural divide “alleged." No, we have more in common than we do in difference.

Perhaps it has more to do with our policy decisions. The Iraq war was incredibly unpopular in Europe and support of the United States was made into a campaign issue in both Spain and Germany (where being anti-American was the vote getter); however, we have made policy decisions before that stressed our relationship with the Old World, Vietnam for example, but never to this degree. Fareed Zakaria states that the “strains [on the U.S.-Europe relationship] go well beyond the matter of Iraq, which is not vital enough to wreak such damage." I would argue that policy decisions of late have allowed the deepness of the divide to manifest itself, but they are not in and of themselves responsible.

Although policy decisions and cultural differences do play some part in the growing divide, the most likely explanation is good old-fashioned realist power dynamics, specifically a way to counteract American hegemony.

America emerged as a world power by the end of the 19th century and emerged unscathed at the end of World War II as the stronger of two super-powers. From that time until at least the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe, and the rest of the world viewed the U.S. as more of a “benign power than a predatory hegemon." But the presence of U.S. troops in Europe after the fall of the Wall suggest another less benign side of U.S. policy towards Europe: the desire to preserve American primacy. Indeed, Christopher Layne argues that the U.S. could have pulled troops back from Europe in the early 1960’s, as they Europeans themselves could have deterred a Soviet advance. In this light, the well-worn NATO critique “to keep the Soviets out, the Germans down, and the Americans in” boils down to keeping the Americans in (and on top) and keeping the Germans down.

The American presence in Europe was designed so the Europeans would not have “any pressing incentive to unite politically," but absent the presence of the Soviet Union the Europeans did so almost immediately at the Maastricht summit in 1992. Without the USSR in the way, the Europeans could, collectively, re-ascend to great power status, a position clearly threatening to American primacy. In the words of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, “Europe’s citizens need Europe to be strong and united. They need it to be a power in the world. Whatever it’s origin, Europe today is not just about peace. It is about projecting collective power.” With this return to great power status and political unity the Europeans are challenging the U.S. in several different ways, hence the growing rift between the two powers. The European challenge through economic channels, international institutions, and eventually an indirect military force, is responsible for the majority, in power-politics fashion, of the rift between the U.S. and the EU.

The Europeans (and a majority of the rest of the world) are wary of “living in a world shaped and dominated by one country, the United States,” and have become “deeply suspicious and fearful of us," hence their desire to unite politically and challenge the U.S. This is what international conflicts are made of, not a McDonald’s opening in Paris, or even the Bush Administration’s rejection of the EU supported Kyoto Protocol. But American power is nothing new, and neither is the European desire to amass power, so why does it seem that the divide is so stark now? This is where the secondary player of the rift, policy disagreements and the exercise of American power, comes into play.

According to John Ikenberry the western order has depended on the American willingness to commit itself to international institutions that force the U.S. to neither threaten nor abandon its allies. That order is being threatened by current U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has been a power for quite some time without Europe feeling the need to challenge the U.S. politically, but U.S. policies have turned it into more of a threat to Europe and Europe’s great power ambitions have made it more of a threat to the U.S. As Stephen Walt has theorized states don’t always balance against other powers, but do balance against threats.

When the U.S. emerged dominant at the end of WWII and Roosevelt and Truman had the possibility of establishing “an American imperium,” they chose to instead create the United Nations and the Bretton Woods economic systems thereby bucking the balancing trends of history. The Bush Administration’s outright disdain for working in international institutions (invading a country without UNSC approval, withdrawal from Kyoto, withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, etc.) coupled with a flexing of American power on a “scale almost unimaginable” to most countries, has illuminated the fact that although the U.S. has chosen not to mobilize all of its resources to get what it wants in the past, that does not mean it will not do so in the future. Any determined American government could get whatever it needed whenever it wanted because of the unbelievable resources possessed by the U.S. In light of the death of multilateralism and the recent unambiguousness of the reasoning behind keeping U.S. troops in Europe, the Europeans have marshaled their collective resources to form a union that can challenge the U.S. economically and politically if not militarily.

This active balancing caused by a new American policy and Europe’s desire to re-emerge as a great power has strained the relations with Europe at a time when greater cooperation is necessary to provide for the security of both continents.

Many of the terrorists who struck the U.S. on September 11 emigrated to the EU and were nurtured there by an unwelcoming populace and radical Islamist mosques. Europe’s Muslim population is growing and the xenophobic policies of anti-immigrant political parties, such as Le Pen’s National Front in France (a country with a 7.5 percent Muslim population) are doing nothing but stoke the fires of anti-western thought. The U.S. must work together with the EU to track down these radical Islamists and make sure the borders of both the U.S. and the EU are secure to prevent a flow of terrorists. When Europeans were asked what the EU means to them more than a fifth said the EU had lax border controls. Nine in ten Americans believe that the Europeans can help solve global problems (of which terrorism is one) even though they are not as militarily powerful as the U.S. When Europe helps to solve problems, it would be beneficial to both parties to agree on where and how they are solved.

While there is no denying that the EU is currently nowhere in the realm of the US military (the $50 billion increase in the U.S. defense budget following 9-11 is greater than the total military budget of the UK or Germany), the EU has proposed a force of 60,000 to be mobilized. While Charles Krauthammer is right that throughout the 1990’s the EU focused on integration and building a social infrastructure at the “expense of military capacity,” what now that that integration is slowing and will eventually halt? With the social infrastructure built, the next logical project would be to develop a military or “peace-keeping” force. The U.S. opposes this “Rapid Reaction Force” because it is a threat to U.S. military dominance in Europe; this is another bad policy decision that exacerbates the underlying power balancing problem between the continents. It is in the best interests of the U.S. to have influence over this EU force, perhaps through cooperation with an international institution such as NATO, because as some scholars have suggested, the U.S. military is great at breaking Humpty Dumpty, but lousy at putting him back together.

The EU is actively reducing U.S. participation in international institutions, most likely as a reaction to increased American unilateralism, at a time when they should be working together. The irrelevance of NATO and the expulsion of American troops have not happened, but there are events to foreshadow it. Both American and European officials have warned that NATO can “no longer be taken for granted." The U.S. has been voted off the UN Council for human rights and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) with the EU taking the lead. The less influence the U.S. exercises in these international institutions, the less control the U.S. has in formulating international law and policy. Bush backers may scoff at the very idea of international law, but being involved with an organization such as the INCB is crucial to stopping the funding of terrorists (often derived from the sale of illicit narcotics) and the breaking up of organized crime. The United States is shooting itself in the foot by pursuing such a flagrant unilateralist policy and the EU is doing the same by discarding American resources in what are global causes.

With the European drive for great power status not likely to subside, is there anything that the United States can do heal the rift? The answer is, of course, yes. The European desire to balance the U.S. will not recede, as it has been in existence since de Gaulle and Adenauer signed a treaty to do so over 40 years ago. The answer then lies in American policy, which causes the ever-present rift to manifest itself. Several of the strategies outlined by Stephen Walt to alleviate the world’s uneasiness with American power can also be applied to healing the rift with Europe.

First and foremost, the United States must retain its immense power. By maintaining its immense resources the U.S. can continue to offer states benefits whose interests are in line with its own, including the EU. The EU would do well to do the same as having the EU and U.S. as the preeminent global players in the future is entirely beneficial for both sides as the societies that the two support are for the most part compatible and very similar.

Second, the U.S. must use force more selectively than it did when it hastily invaded Iraq. The U.S. already has the reputation as the “trigger happy sheriff,” so there is no need to attack without ample evidence. Some may argue that pre-emptive attacks are necessary to secure American national security. This may or may not be true, but there are things our government could have done in light of our WMD ignorance and bungling of the post-war environment to heal our “lone gunman” image. George W. Bush could have sacked the Secretary of Defense, but he repeatedly vocalized his support for Rumsfeld, even in the light of Abu Ghraib. Bush could have axed George “slam dunk” Tenet due the fact he was the head of the CIA, yet was completely wrong about Iraq’s WMD, but instead he gave him a medal. These bold actions do not go unnoticed in Brussels.

Third, the Americans must encourage an emergence of European power, both economically and militarily. Europe is still America’s biggest export market and the wealthier Europe is, the better it is for America. On the military front, it would be nice if the United States did not have to act as the “world policeman” at all times and could look to the Europeans to compliment the western order, even if it may be at the expense of determining exactly how the operation is executed.

The “transatlantic rift” is, at its roots, a power struggle between two states (we’ll call the EU a state for illustrative purposes) in a classic realist sense. There is nothing that will ever stop the competition between the two continents given their mutual fondness for free markets, which will always cause political and economic competition at the very least. There are, however, intelligent policy decisions that can be made to cool the conflict down to a continental sibling rivalry. The power of the United States is not likely to dissipate any time soon, and neither is the EU’s desire to attain more power in the geopolitical arena. The U.S. must: stay powerful; exercise its power wisely and sparingly; encourage the Europeans to amass power of their own. The disease of realist balancing is going nowhere, but the continental powers can make intelligent and healthy decisions so that the disease does not manifest itself.

Quotes and information drawn from:

Bacevich, Andrew. The Imperial Tense.
Fergusson, Niall. Collosus: Costs and Consequences of the American Empire.
Ikenberry, John. America Unrivaled.
Layne, Christopher. "America as European Hegemon." National Interest Summer 2003. Issue 72.
Nye, Joseph S. Jr. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politcs.
Zakaria, Fareed. "The Arrogant Empire." Newsweek. March 24, 2003.

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