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Informal General Affairs and External Relations Council 2-3/5/03: Contribution on the issue of EU-USA Relations by Sherle R. Schwenninger

Note to the EU Presidency and EU Foreign Ministers

Sherle R. Schwenninger
Senior Fellow, World Policy Institute
Director, Global Economic Policy Program, New America Foundation

In this short note, I would like to offer for your consideration three observations and suggestions relating to U.S.-European relations.

1.  In the United States, the question of U.S.-European relations has emerged as a key political battleground issue over which the future direction of American foreign policy will be fought.  The alienation of our friends in Europe is cited by critics of the Bush administration as the principal failure of a unilateralist foreign policy that emphasizes ad hoc coalitions over established alliances, that seeks to marginalize the United Nations and opportunistically use NATO, and that seeks absolute security through American dominance and preventive wars.  Any dialogue the European Union undertakes with the United States must therefore not just be with official Washington but with the larger American polity. 

The domestic political base for the current administration’s foreign policy has not yet solidified into an enduring coalition of values and interests, and could erode further in response to new perceived domestic and international challenges.   Indeed, there are a number of factors, from America’s worsening fiscal position to the fact that the American public has little appetite for empire building to the possibility that the occupation of Iraq may be more difficult and costly than originally portrayed, that may constrain American policy and move it in a more internationalist direction in the coming years. 

In light of these facts, it would be a mistake for European leaders to try to paper over current differences with Washington or to try to appease the Bush administration by acquiescing in its worldview.  The United States is a diverse and multi-faceted society, and the positions EU leaders espouse on many issues represent not just legitimate European interests, but uphold important world order values that are shared by many Americans, particularly by many influential Americans.  The majority of Americans want an America that abides by international law, that is a constructive partner in international institutions, and that can work cooperatively to solve world social and economic problems.

This part of America sees Europe as its political partner in an effort to bring a degree of genuine internationalism and common sense to American foreign policy thinking.  Europe is important because it offers an alternative multilateralist policy approach that reflects both European and American interests.  If Europe fails to actively promote such an alternative or worse seems to be accepting the fallacies of current U.S. policy, it weakens those in the United States who are pushing for a more enlightened policy and reduces the prospects for a new transatlantic partnership.

2. The first priority of EU diplomacy with regard to transatlantic relations must be to more accurately reflect the true relative power positions of the United States and the European Union upon which a transatlantic relationship must rest.  Supporters of the Bush administration like to focus attention on Europe’s military weaknesses and the lack of a unified European foreign policy.  But the emphasis on the ability to project military power misrepresents not just the nature of power and influence in today’s world but also exaggerates American dominance, particularly in relation to the European Union, and understates the European Union’s many contributions to world order. 

In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, Europe enjoys an attractive position vis a vis the United States in that Washington needs the help and support of Europe much more than Europe needs the United States.  If looked at objectively, Europe no longer needs the United States for any real security or defense needs.  Indeed, the European nations of NATO and the European Union now have primacy over their own security and over the security of the immediate European Rim region stretching from the Ukraine in the north to the Balkans in the south.  As much as certain Europeans might like the United States to do more in helping create stability in the Ukraine or maintain peace in Kosovo and Macedonia, the United States has essentially removed itself from these security-related concerns.  Indeed, Europe’s main security worry vis a vis the United States today is of entirely different nature—not that Washington will abandon Europe but that it will use its power in the Greater Middle East region in a way that will destabilize the region and create greater Western-Islamic tensions.

But even in this case, Europe may have more influence and leverage than has been commonly recognized.  Even though Washington is trying to build a flexible military structure that is less dependent on its allies, the United States still needs and relies on European bases and infrastructure for non-NATO missions, and it still needs a measure of European support and participation to gain domestic support for those missions.  Beyond this, Washington depends upon European Union members for peacekeeping and nation-building not just in the Balkans but in Afghanistan and most likely soon in Iraq, and it benefits from European assistance for other U.S. security-related concerns, such as support for the Palestinian Authority.   It needs Europe’s active cooperation in tracking international terrorists and disrupting their networks and in dealing with countries suspected of having nuclear ambitions.  It is dependent upon European as well as East Asian capital to fuel U.S. growth and to pay for its international policies.   In addition, the European Union now has as much or more influence with other key members of the international community--such as Brazil, Russia and Turkey--and often better reflects their interests in world policy issues.

The occupation of Iraq may very well expose the limits of American power and show that the United States cannot successfully establish a stable, pro-American government in that part of the Arab world.  It has greatly underestimated the costs and difficulties of establishing a democratic government in Iraq, and will probably increasingly welcome European and United Nations help and expertise in state-building.  Indeed, the American weakness is that it has had very little successful experience in helping create stable democracies in any part of the world over the last two decades, including in its own neighborhood.  By contrast, the European Union has an impressive track record when it comes to democracy-building, particularly as it relates to the candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe.  For much of the last decade, the world has heard repeatedly about the superiority of the American model.  But it has been the European Union that has had the most success in exporting democracy and economic reform.  To create a true transatlantic partnership, Americans need to hear much more about these successes of European Union policy and about the many contributions to world order the Europeans make. 

3.  The true test of transatlantic relations in the coming months will be whether Europe and the United States can develop a common policy toward peace in the Middle East and toward the modernization of the Arab world.  This will not be an easy task especially given Washington’s decidedly pro-Israeli leanings and the desire of some leading foreign U.S. policy figures to limit European influence in this part of the world.  Yet EU members have no choice in my view but to come to grips with the fact that the center of American foreign policy has moved from Europe (and East Asia) to the Middle East and that this represents both a danger and an opportunity for them.  The danger stems from the fact that the United States is determined to redraw the political map of the Middle East and that its policies could easily destabilize the current order in a way that harms European economic and security interests.  Indeed, if the current position in Washington continues to prevail, there are likely to be bitter differences between Europe and the United States over policy toward Iran, Syria, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

On the other hand, the opportunity for Europe lies in the fact that the United States will soon recognize that it has taken on more than it can handle in the greater Middle East and that it lacks the legitimacy to promote democratic change in this part of the world.  The Bush administration is correct that the current order in the Middle East is neither acceptable nor viable but it is wrong that it alone can steer a process of reform in the region or that its Likud-like policies will succeed.  Certain U.S. groups may not welcome Europe’s participation but if the United States wants peace in the region and democratic modernization then it will need Europe’s critical help and more balanced perspective.

In this connection, European leaders must be willing to speak candidly to both the American leadership and the American people about the Middle East.  In so doing, they should make the following points.  First, Europe has as much or more at stake in the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as does the United States.  After all, the region is Europe’s neighbor, and any conflict or chaos there directly affects European interests and security.  Second, American policy in the region has been most successful when it has been internationalized, when it has actively involved European powers, Russia, and the United Nations.  Such was the case with the progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Madrid conference in 1991 to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.  Third, Europeans need to point out to the American public what the rest of the world knows but what American leaders won’t tell them:  namely, as long as there are Israeli tanks in Hebron and Ramallah and as long as Israeli settlements occupy Palestinian territory no American will be safe from Arab anger.  Finally, European leaders need to make clear that there can be no double standards for Israel.  If Israel chooses to ignore U.N. Security Council resolutions then it too must be subject to international pressures. 

Engaging the United States in this way will require some courageous and determined leadership on the part of the European Union leaders.  It could very well lead to a more permanent rift in U.S.-European relations but given the importance of this issue to both the United States and Europe, I do not think Europe has a choice but to take a more active leadership role in the Middle East as a balance and complement to the United States.  Helping the United States succeed in this part of the world would be the ultimate act of transatlantic partnership.




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