A Reckoning

April 16, 2003

A Reckoning

Shortly after the war in Iraq began, British prime minister Tony Blair noted that, given the bitterness on both sides surrounding the war with Iraq, there would need to be "a reckoning about the relations between America and Europe.

Shortly after the war in Iraq began, British prime minister Tony Blair noted that, given the bitterness on both sides surrounding the war with Iraq, there would need to be "a reckoning about the relations between America and Europe." He undertook to discuss with President Bush how to "get America and Europe working together as partners and not as rivals."  The question then arises about how transatlantic relations, and such key institutions as NATO and the European Union, will weather this storm.  Can ties be mended, as in the past, or has the relationship ended?

So far the U.S. and Britain have not exacted retribution for what they perceived as a betrayal by NATO. However, neither France nor Germany took any steps to impede the coalition's military effort. France permitted the coalition to use its airspace, and Germany aided the coalition's logistical efforts, providing troops to relieve American forces guarding bases for other duties elsewhere. Despite the harsh words, governments and the foreign policy establishments on both sides have sought to confine the dispute and prevent it from interfering with cooperation on other issues. A complete break serves no one's interests and remains highly unlikely. 

Much of the friction within NATO would have been avoided if the question of Turkish reinforcement had not been raised in the Council but had been referred from the outset to the Military Committee (France has not belonged to the NATO military command since 1966), where the motion finally succeeded. Workable NATO agreements on divisive issues have been achieved in the past and still can be: the recent problems may indicate mismanagement by Washington rather than structural flaws in the alliance.

But is NATO still relevant? In theory, the world's most effective permanent coalition is still capable of coordinating military action. An integrated military alliance pools the capabilities of its member states for mutual benefit, including specialties from minesweeping to special forces and aerial reconnaissance - where American forces welcome the support. European bases remain a vital asset for many American operations beyond NATO's area of immediate responsibility, and logistics provide another integrated function not easily duplicated. However, NATO's clumsy record in the Balkans and America's reluctance to use the alliance at all in Afghanistan suggest that its capabilities do not translate easily into action beyond the alliance's treaty area. The Cold War-era formula of using the alliance to build coalitions to act out of area works more effectively than seeking formal NATO endorsement.

Beyond NATO, some commentators see in the EU a potential counterweight to the United States, but this concept lacks broad support. The EU Common Security and Foreign Policy was languishing even before the crisis over Iraq, and a strong case might now be made that it cannot work well beyond those areas, such as the West Bank, where checkbook diplomacy using the EU substantial foreign aid budget still matters.  Farther-reaching EU initiatives would require investments in military capability at the national level and agreement by member governments on their use. Beyond their unwillingness to fund military capability improvements, European countries also show little desire to risk key security relationships with the U.S. for the uncertain prospects of an independent EU force.

The split on Iraq within the EU that came to involve its candidate members highlights the existence of an "inner" (defined by the relationship between France and Germany) and an "outer" Europe.  Divergences in the geopolitical perspectives of the two had been obscured from view by the idea of Europe as an isotropic surface progressing toward greater integration. National governments adopt positions on the basis of perceived interests, and they will not cede authority to the EU executive where it does not promote their national interests or political position. Foreign policy initiatives serve domestic political purposes. Any proposed European policies are liable to founder over national differences. Talk of Europe's transition from nation-states to "member states" and progress toward "finality" reflects the wishes of interest groups more than political reality. The Iraq crisis has driven this point home again.
Neither the U.S. nor its European allies want to broaden the conflict over Iraq to the point where the basic relationship is impaired. Few European governments take the French popular view of American power, and fewer still (including Paris) will choose to break security ties. NATO remains available for properly conceived missions, especially those that rely on the old formula of building coalitions before resorting to various international organizations that work best by ratifying a consensus developed privately. Despite ambitions for a larger political role, the EU continues for the most part to be an economic enterprise, and the "European Constitution" being drafted under Valery Giscard d'Estaing's leadership has been overtaken by events. Relations can indeed be mended, and both sides appear to be feeling their way toward doing so. The course of postwar reconstruction will demonstrate the sincerity and effectiveness of those efforts to repair transatlantic relations. 

William Anthony Hay is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (www.fpri.org). His article on the "Geopolitics of Europe" appears in the Spring 2003 issue of Orbis.