Regime Change in the Transatlantic Relationship: Part II: From Transatlanticism to Post-Atlanticism

In order to understand the transatlantic crisis over Iraq, the blame game is just not very useful, because it rests on the 40 year old paradigm of "transatlanticism" and fails to take into account the emergence of a new regime in U.

 In order to understand the transatlantic crisis over Iraq, the blame game is just not very useful, because it rests on the 40 year old paradigm of "transatlanticism" and fails to take into account the emergence of a new regime in U.S.-European relations, something that could be called "post-atlanticism". It has been made possible by the structural shifts of recent years, including the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the growing military power of the United States and 9/11. And, it has been actively promoted by the Bush administration.  

Last week, I focused on French foreign policy motivations and tried to dispel a few myths that often serve to hide the profound changes under way in transatlantic relations. But even with a better understanding of what actually motivated France, one is left with the question: why did these motives constitute sufficient reason to go against the established laws and habits of transatlantic relations? Many experts applied the old narrative of French-U.S. relations to the recent crisis. They thought that in the end, however reluctantly, France would go along as it did in the Cuban missile crisis, in the Euro missile crisis and in the Gulf War. Here, however, France did not conform to this "bad-weather friend" role. On the contrary, it badly overplayed a weak hand. But it is even more indicative of the new transatlantic game that the U.S. didn't conform to its traditional role either - and badly overplayed a strong hand.  

To put it succinctly, if the Soviet threat had still been present, that is in the old transatlantic regime, France would never have so clearly opposed the U.S. on an issue presented by Washington as vital for its national security. Similarly, Washington would never have claimed that it faced a vital threat from a country without first achieving consensus from its allies on the threat, or at least would not have requested absolute loyalty from its allies on this shaky basis.   

Under the old system of "transatlanticism", before the fall of the Berlin Wall and, for most of the decade that followed, a set of norms, rules, and habits of intense consultations went hand in hand with an American leadership that oscillated between sharing decisions on matters of common interest and cleverly pretending to do so while acting largely on its own. A dense network of first- and second- track diplomacy ensured that even when they disagreed, allies would understand each other's position and make adjustments to avoid conflict and keep the fiction of an alliance of equals alive.  

The new system, an era that can be called "post-atlanticism", has very different rules, which derive from hegemony, not leadership, and these rules have been pragmatically applied by the Bush administration since it came to power in January 2001. Washington decides unilaterally, and European allies are expected to conform without having a say, sometimes without proper information and discussion. Automatic support is required, and dissent is not tolerated. In other words, there is no more agreement to disagree and minimize spillover into other issues and in the public domain.  

As a result, "diplomatic contact across the Atlantic is dropping precipitously in terms of quantity and quality", writes Ivo Daalder. Whereas, in the 1990s, secretaries of state traveled to Europe, on average, nearly once a month, Colin Powell went to Europe just six times in 2001 and a mere three times in 2002. In this respect, the diplomacy preceding the First Gulf War and the Iraq war were strikingly different.   

The best metaphor for the new system is probably the royal court, where the power of each courtier is not based on his capabilities but on its proximity to the person of the king, which in turn is based on his unconditional loyalty to the king. Power and relevance radiate from the center, and no matter how able you actually are, if you belong to the inner circle, your importance is enhanced. That is why instead of hearing talk of "discussions, agreements, disagreements, negotiations," words that imply an alliance of democratic nations, one now hears talk of "punishment, reward, scolding, the cold shoulder," words that imply an absolutist central authority that has its favorites and its sycophants.  

From the standpoint of international relations theory, such an evolution is perfectly normal given the disappearance of the Soviet threat. Indeed, only cultural factors can explain the delay in updating the transatlantic relationship according to the new division of power. Washington maximizes its power by taking advantage of European disunity on important questions (one administration official even defines the new policy towards Europe as one of "disaggregation"), and prefers dealing with each European country on a bilateral basis where its relative power is greater. This, as well as the multiplication of different informal fora where participants are hand-picked by Washington, allows a much freer hand. Of course, one can wonder if this system is really in the long term interest of a country whose power has long depended as much on legitimacy and consent as on military and economic power, but that is another question. 

The evolution from the old to the new transatlantic system should also be put in the context of the declining importance of Europe in military and strategic terms for the United States, reinforced by 9/11. It is, however, noteworthy that when America needs help for something - be it peacekeepers, financial support, intelligence about terrorist networks and the like - the continent where it finds its allies is Europe. Given the overextension of the U.S. Army, some lawmakers have even suggested giving old Europe a significant role (such as a sector to patrol) in Iraq.  

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