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Informal General Affairs and External Relations Council 2-3/5/03: Contribution on the issue of EU-USA Relations by F. Stephen Larrabee

Reshaping US-EU Relations: Toward a Broader Strategic Agenda

By F. Stephen Larrabee

US-European relations today are in one of their worst crises in decades.  The Iraq crisis has led to a deep rift between the US and its European allies.  However, the winding down of the combat phase of operations in Iraq provides an opportunity to begin to rebuild transatlantic relations and put them on a firmer footing.  The Foreign Ministers meeting in Greece, May 2-3, is a good starting point for initiating this process.


The EU faces a fundamental challenge.  Despite the fact that it is becoming an increasingly important international actor, it does not command high-level US attention -- except in the State Department.  In short, its not on the US radar screen.

Institutional tinkering such as the creation of another EU President will not resolve this problem.  The basic problem is that the EU does not address the key security challenges that are on the mind of most high-level US policy-makers.  Most of these challenges lie outside Europe.  Thus, if the EU wants to get on the US radar screen, it needs to address the broader strategic issues that concern US policy-makers. 
What is needed is a broader strategic dialogue that goes beyond trade issues.  The 1995 New Transatlantic Agenda, signed in Madrid in 1995, provides a framework for doing this.  But it has not really been implemented in practice.  It remains heavily focused on trade and other institutional issues. It needs to be broadened to address critical strategic issues of common interest. 


 Several issues could form the focal point for building this broader strategic dialogue:

• Iraq.  The reconstruction and democratization of Iraq will pose major challenges for the US and the international community.  This is not a task that the US can accomplish alone.  It will need help -- both for economic as well as political reasons (to defuse the perceptions of a US “occupation” and give the reconstruction process broader legitimacy).  The EU could play an important role in the reconstruction process.  The quartet could serve as a useful umbrella for a multilateral approach to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq.

• The Middle East.  A common US-European strategy toward the Middle East is a prerequisite for long-term stability in the region.  The key to stability is a solution to the Palestinian problem.  To date, the Bush administration has been reluctant to actively push for an Arab-Israeli settlement.  But with the winding down of the combat phase of the Iraq war, it may be more willing to re-launch the Arab-Israeli peace process -- something long advocated by EU members.  Thus now more than ever there is a need for dialogue on how to move forward.  This dialogue should concentrate on promoting and elaborating the quartet’s “Road Map.”
• Iran.  US and European approaches to Iran continue to diverge, with many European governments favoring “constructive engagement” and the US pursuing a policy of containment.  But the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq may intensify pressures for change and open up new opportunities to promote democratization in Iran.  This makes US-EU dialogue on how to deal with Iran all the more urgent.
• The War on Terrorism.  A successful war on terrorism requires broad multilateral cooperation, especially in areas such as banking, border control and intelligence.  While cooperation has been quite good in some fields, obstacles remain in some areas such as protecting data, border security, and the development of a common arrest warrant.
• Weapons of Mass Destruction.  The danger of WMD proliferation is growing.  However, US and European perspectives on WMD continue to differ.  If the WMD problem is going to be effectively managed, the EU and US need to develop a common policy, especially toward export controls.
• North Korea.  North Korea is the next looming crisis.  The EU could play a useful role in helping to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula.  But any initiatives by the EU in this area need to be closely coordinated with Washington.  An independent initiative by a self-appointed “peace axis” would cause irritation in Washington and only serve to deepen the current transatlantic rift.
• Turkey.  In the aftermath of the Iraq crisis, both the EU and the US need to begin to rebuild bridges to Ankara and develop a coordinated policy which keeps Turkey tied firmly to the West.  Without such a coordinated policy there is a danger that US and EU policy may work at cross purposes.  Developing a common approach to a Cyprus settlement should be high on the agenda.

Of course, other issues -- harmonization of NATO and EU enlargement, Russia, Ukraine and trade policy -- should remain important elements of the US-EU dialogue. But the agenda needs to be broadened to include less “Euro-centric” issues where common approaches are necessary.


While working to get on the Bush administration’s radar screen, the EU also needs to increase interaction and cooperation with Congress.  The level of knowledge about and understanding of the EU in Congress is low.  Many Congressmen are simply not aware how much the EU is doing in places like the Balkans and Afghanistan.  They also tend to be skeptical about the motivations behind ESDP (see below).  The EU needs to do more to educate Congress about its policies and their goals.  Intensified exchanges between the European Parliament and Congress would be a good start.  More visits by key EU officials with Congress -- and staff -- would also help.

The intensification of contacts, however, should not be limited to Congress.  Party-to-party contacts also should be stepped up, as should contacts with think tanks.  Informal contacts are often as important as formal contacts.  By the time people get into office their perceptions are already formed and it is hard to change them. Unfortunately, these informal contacts have atrophied in recent years.


The lack of a coherent EU foreign policy (CFSP) also inhibits the ability of the EU to get high-level policy attention in Washington.  While there are no easy quick fixes to this problem, merging the positions currently held by Javier Solana and Chris Patten and putting foreign policy in the hands of one official would help give EU foreign policy greater coherence.  So would the elimination of the rotating Presidency.  It is difficult for a US president to take the EU seriously when he has to deal with a different EU representative every six months. 

However, institutional tinkering is not a panacea.  It will do little to address the fundamental problem: the need for the EU to broaden its strategic focus and address the strategic issues that preoccupy high-level US policy-makers.  The EU President or Foreign Minister will not receive high-level attention unless he has something of consequence to say to US policy-makers on issues that concern them.  This highlights the need for developing the strategic dialogue noted earlier. 


The EU needs to clarify and define the goals of ESDP more precisely.  While ESDP does not engender the same skepticism or antagonism in Washington that it did several years ago, doubts about its motivations and goals continue to exist, especially in the Congress.  Many Congressmen fear that ESDP is designed, either consciously or unconsciously, to weaken NATO.

These fears have been strengthened by recent transatlantic differences over Iraq.  There is a growing concern in Washington -- and not just in the Bush administration -- that some EU members, especially France, are trying to develop the EU as a “counterweight” to the United States.  EU members need to make clear that this is not the EU’s goal -- and reject attempts by other members to push the EU in this direction.  If the perception continues to grow that the EU is bent on defining itself in opposition to the United States -- or as a counterweight to it -- then the US will have little interest in developing close ties to the EU and the recent transatlantic rift will deepen.

Unfortunately some recent moves by EU members, particularly Belgium’s call for the creation of a “core Europe” in the defense field, are likely to exacerbate tensions, not heal wounds.  A new push for autonomy in the defense field looks too much like an anti-US, anti-NATO move.  While the US is likely to welcome the proposal to increase defense spending, the call for the creation of a European military headquarters is likely to antagonize Washington and play into the hands of administration hardliners.  The US wants contingency planning done at SHAPE and opposes the establishment of a separate EU planning cell, which it fears could be decoupling.  Adding a collective defense clause to the Constitutional Treaty, as some EU members have proposed, is also likely to deepen US suspicions about the long-term goals of ESDP, since it would compete with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and create a direct conflict with NATO.

In short, the US is not opposed to the development of a strong European Security and Defense Policy.  But it wants ESDP to complement NATO not compete with it or seek to supplant it.  Indeed, in some areas, such as the Balkans, the US has welcomed the EU’s willingness to take on greater responsibility for security -- as it has recently done in Macedonia.  Eventually, the EU may also be able to take over the peacekeeping role in Bosnia.


Some observers have suggested a new division of labor in which Europe would concentrate on managing security problems in Europe while the US would have responsibility for managing security in the rest of the world.  Such a division of labor is wrong-headed and ill-advised.  First, it would erode the core of the US-European partnership, which is based on the “indivisibility of security.”  Second, it would produce an inward-looking Europe:  Europe would have little incentive to broaden its security horizons.  Finally, it would be politically unsustainable in the United States.  Most Americans would instinctively reject a partnership in which the US concentrated on the dangerous high-end of the military spectrum while the Europeans had responsibility for the more benign, low-end of the spectrum -- i.e. peacekeeping in an increasingly stable Europe.

Instead, what is needed is a genuine partnership -- one in which Europe and the EU increasingly share the responsibility for managing global security threats.  But this presupposes that the EU broadens its strategic horizons and transforms itself into a more global actor.  In return, the US needs to show greater willingness to address the non-military dimensions of security and engage in real consultation with its allies, not just inform them of decisions already taken.


Some observers, such as Robert Kagan, have suggested that there is a growing philosophical and cultural gap between the US and Europe, especially in regard to the use of force.  In his terms, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.  This gap does exist.  But it is not as wide as many believe. 
The German Marshall Fund poll in September 2002 -- the most comprehensive poll on US and European attitudes ever taken -- showed more similarities than differences in how US and European publics view the larger world.  Americans and Europeans identified very similar issues (including terrorism, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and global warming) as their primary foreign policy concerns.  Americans expressed discomfort with unilateralism, with 62 percent in favor of a multilateral approach to foreign policy problems and 65 percent saying that the United States should invade Iraq only with UN approval and the support of its allies.  Even on the issue of the use of force, Europeans were at least in principle as ready as were Americans to use force to uphold international law (80 percent to 76 percent), to help a population struck by famine (88 percent to 81 percent), to liberate hostages (78 percent to 77 percent), or to destroy a terrorist camp (75 percent to 92 percent).

In short, while differences between the US and Europe exist, they should not be exaggerated.  Public attitudes on many issues on both sides of the Atlantic are broadly similar.  Hence, there is a solid basis for enhancing cooperation in many areas.  What is needed is to broaden the transatlantic dialogue to include the critical security challenges both sides face.  At the same time, a new mechanism should be developed that allows more frequent and direct contact between the EU and the United States.  The current US-EU summit format does not really satisfy that need.

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