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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 Scott Barrett


The Future of Transatlantic Relations

by Scott Barrett  (Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies)

Recent world events bear witness to a qualitative change not only in transatlantic relations but in international relations more generally. The trigger point for this change seems to have been the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks. Also important were the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendance of US power in a new, unipolar world. Suddenly, the institutions developed for a different world seem ill suited to the new one, and the strains are showing. Some European countries see institutions like the UN as serving to restrain US power. Precisely for this reason, however, some people in the US sees these institutions as being harmful to US interests.  When forced to choose, the US, like any country, can be expected to put its own interests first.

Two examples: The Bush administration saw Iraq as a threat to US security. It was prepared to go to war to stop this threat, preferably with he support of other nations, but alone if necessary. It sought approval from the UN to enforce previous Security Council resolutions, and got this in Resolution 1441. But it failed to get a second resolution, and so acted “minilaterally,” with Britain and the support of some other European countries. I opposed this war on the basis that Iraq was not an imminent threat to the United States, that Iraq’s use of WMD against the US could be deterred, and that a policy of pre-emption was destabilizing (the aim of regime change coupled with the policy of pre-emption provides an incentive for countries like North Korea to acquire WMD in order to deter the US from attacking). However, it was plain that Iraq only allowed international inspectors to return after the US had amassed forces in the region. Ironically, unilateral action by the US (and Britain) impelled Iraq to take the UN seriously.  In declining to support a second resolution, however, the Security Council weakened the UN threat of “serious consequences.” It also failed to restrain the US (and Britain).

Though unhappy with certain aspects of the Kyoto Protocol, I opposed the reasons given by the US for rejecting this treaty. Even worse was the manner in which the US view was communicated. At the same time, however, European insistence on US acceptance of key provisions of this treaty made participation by the US almost impossible. Of course, George W. Bush never supported the agreement. But it is highly unlikely that even Al Gore could have gotten the US Senate to ratify this agreement. Again, an international institution was used to try to restrain US behavior, and the effort succeeded only in alienating the US from the institution. This is bad for Europe. It is also bad for the US. A climate treaty without US participation is doomed to partial success at best.

I don’t see these and other ruptures as foretelling US abandonment of multilateralism. There are numerous issues that require multilateral remedies, including the fight against terrorism, surveillance of diseases like SARS, controls on WMD proliferation, and climate change mitigation. The US and Europe both gain from collective action in these areas, and progress in addressing these problems requires joint leadership by the US and Europe. It would be of great symbolic importance for the US and Europe to initiate agreement for a new multilateral framework which addresses a problem of common concern.

It might seem that Europe and the US have reached an impasse on climate change, but the choice is not between the Kyoto Protocol and unilateralism. There is much that both sides of the Atlantic can gain from collective research into new energy technologies, and such a program would be compatible with both the Kyoto Protocol and the Bush administration’s domestic climate policy. Progress on R&D may in turn lead to further cooperation. A successor to the Kyoto Protocol will need to be negotiated in the next few years, and it is essential that this effort be led jointly by the US and Europe.

That is how the transatlantic relationship should be repaired. By making small achievements in particular areas of common concern.


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