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Informal General Affairs and External Relations Council 2-3/5/03: Contribution on the issue of EU-USA Relations by Professor Christopher Hill

The Choices in Euro-American Relations

By Christopher Hill (LSE)

The issue in Euro-American relations seems clear in the light of recent events (Iraq and the four-power defence initiative) viz. whether to look towards a multipolar world with Europe as one of the major poles, or to accept the hegemonic position of the United States, with Europe working to ensure a benign hegemony through a partnership which implies not just support but also a voice which is listened to seriously in Washington. This is the new power politics, arrived on Europe’s doorstep.

In practice the choice is not so simple, for various reasons:

We cannot rival the US in military power in any maneagable timescale and, indeed, have no wish to do so.
The idea of a major stand-off between Europe and the US is unthinkable – indeed a nightmare scenario. Who wants to make an enemy of the hyperpower, even if its current policies are distasteful?   The prospect is too unlikely to be worth worrying about unless we find that even moderate Republican or Democratic administrations are showing no interest in a rule-based international system. But it would be a serious mistake to risk creating a permanently alienated, aggressive American foreign policy.
In terms of identity and interests, we have a great deal in common with the US. Whatever our differences we also share some common threats, in terms of the fanatical enemies of the West for whom the differences between European and American capitalism or culture are a matter of mere pedantry.
The only real issue before European governments at present in this context is therefore the terms of a redefined relationship with the United States, not whether or not to seek such a relationship. If we accept that full superpower status is unachievable and undesirable (what did Mr Blair mean by it in his Warsaw speech of October 2000?) then we still have three broad options before us:

 (i)  The Europeans can swallow their reservations, and row along with Washington, on the calculation that the protection on offer compensates for the extra enmity incurred on a wider front by association with ‘the great Satan’.  US leadership is then legitimate, NATO and bilateral relations remain more important than the ESDP, and the traditional attempts to prevent excessive linkages between economic competition and politico-military issues must continue.

(ii) They can continue along the current ‘civilian’ path, towards the goal of Europe as  a civilian superpower - if they can increase integration and make better use of their resources of soft power. This would involve putting a positive spin on Michael Mandelbaum’s designation of ‘foreign policy as social work’, that is, trying to ameliorate the system within a structure determined essentially by US power. Enlargement might make the EU into a more impressive geopolitical presence in the world, at the same time as it makes more difficult the build-up of a European military-industrial complex (the precondition of true superpower). Yet Europe would still be an energetic global actor in this scenario.

(iii) Europe can pull up the drawbridge and behave like a large neutral, not agreeing with Washington, but not opposing it, except perhaps in their own Near Abroad. In the post Cold War world we need have no fear that great power conflict in east Asia or elsewhere will lead to Europe being a battleground, and so the EU can safely sit on the sidelines over Korea, or Taiwan, or even Kashmir. We can try to avoid the worst of terrorism by behaving collectively, if not like Switzerland,  then perhaps like Sweden or Germany, that is by a reluctance to go to war and by avoiding excessive exposure in international politics. This behaviour carries the risk of all neutralism, namely that the bluff may be called and pressure exerted by aggressive outsiders.  The EU is big enough to defend itself if roused, and if given sufficient warning, but it would have to gamble that it did not attract the attentions of a powerful and hostile state – including the United States.

The second of these options appears the most plausible path for the EU to follow, although the great challenges of enlargement, constitutional upheaval and an uncertain international environment make it difficult to make a confident judgement. It is more possible than at any point in recent years that the European project might seriously stumble, and fall back to be what Michael Stürmer has called ‘a customs union de luxe’, which would force us into the first or the third options. What is clear, is that Europeans themselves need to do more serious thinking about the future international role of the Union, and its relationship to American power. A ‘new Transatlantic bargain’ may be too specific and grandiloquent to achieve, but there are at least four sets of issues which the EU ignores at its peril, even discounting the perennial problems of trade and agriculture:

Firstly, some ground-rules need to be established within CSFP about who speaks to the US on behalf of Europe. Looking back it was understandable that the UK should have occupied the vacuum left by the EU’s failure to have a proper debate over policy towards Iraq, but it had disastrous consequences in terms of intra-EU relations. The US itself would benefit if we could clarify what is a legitimate matter of bilateral discussion and what should be left – in the first instance at least – to the Presidency, the High Representative, or whoever might succeed them. It might also be useful to look at the demarcations between EU-US relations and the roles of those other useful organisations, the OSCE and the Council of Europe.

Second, we have to reduce the incentives for the US to divide and rule Europeans – an irresistible temptation, but one where the damage can be limited. Yet this has to be done without merely appeasing Washington. Avoiding provocative gestures, calming gratuitous anti-Americanism, and stressing – not least to the Americans themselves – the positive elements in the relationship, such as the quiet work being done together in the war against terrorism, should gradually undermine the position of those in the US administration who now actively want to derail European foreign policy.

Third, the issue of security cooperation evidently needs hard thought if we are not to descend into farce over multiple RRFs and constantly changing inner groups. Given Europe’s resource problems and the public antipathy to war it would seem vital that we stress a division of labour with the US, rather than competition, and gradually build on what we can honourably and practically achieve – along the lines of what is being done in the Balkans. Competition is inevitable in the area of arms procurement and aerospace, but here change can be managed over a long period, as has been done with the emergence of Airbus.

Last is the problem of relations with third parties. The EU needs to address the issue of geopolitics more directly. That is, where should Europe be active, and where does it leave matters more to the United States, or indeed other powers? The US is already content in some respects to have the EU taking more of a lead in the Balkans, as it does in Africa, within certain agreed parameters. Conversely, with the exception of Cuba (and central America in the 1980s) the EU has not engaged in turf disputes with Washington over Latin America. Asia is a more mixed picture and represents some important dilemmas for the EU. It should, nonetheless, be possible here as elsewhere for some agreement to be reached. This would be on the basis of neither side being necessarily committed to full-hearted support of the other in an area where it does not itself ‘lead’; at the same time it undertakes not to oppose the other unless: (a) the rules (of the bilateral bargain, or of international society) are being flagrantly ignored; (b) a new vital interest has emerged – in which case the Euro-American channels of communication should have improved to the point where they can prevent open conflict, of the kind we have just witnessed, flaring up. The EU should not forget that ‘conflict prevention’ applies just as much to its own relations with the US as to third states.

EU-US relations are vital to both sides, whatever the ebb and flow of rhetoric. Yet we should not, in our eagerness to address the problem, give the impression to the rest of the world of a cynical western deal, insouciant over the interests and perceptions of the other 164 or so members of the UN, to impose a particular order on the highly variegated international system,. There is also the small matter of ‘milieu’ problems – or those which cannot be settled even by the most powerful single actors - such as the environment, economic stability, and standards of international civility. On these both Europeans and Americans would do well to listen as well as to advise or instruct. Hubris, of beliefs as of power, is the great risk.

CJH/30 April 2003


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