Containing Europe

Containing Europe

Mini Teaser: America and Europe compete to influence the international system. The U.S. response should be a new formulation of an old strategy.

Ever since Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld drew the invidious distinction between old and new Europe, Europeans have been alert for signs of a new American strategy to dominate their continent through a policy of divide and rule. President George W. Bush has declared that the United States "welcomes the growing unity of Europe" and has taken a number of symbolic steps to indicate U.S. support for European integration, notably his visit to EU headquarters during his stop in Brussels in February. Nevertheless, suspicions persist that the real U.S. policy is reflected in articles advocating "disaggregation", "cherry-picking" and other approaches aimed at challenging Europe's progress toward union.

European reactions to Rumsfeld's remarks and the anti-EU strain in the U.S. policy debate have led in turn to calls by U.S. commentators for efforts to reassure Europe that Washington's commitment to supporting integration remains intact. Bush's remarks were a partial response to such calls, but administration critics argue that more should be done. Some even claim to have discerned a battle within the EU between "Atlanticist allies" of the United States and those who would turn the EU into a counterweight to U.S. power. Only renewed U.S. commitment to partnership with a co-equal--and necessarily unified--Europe can assure victory for the Atlanticists.

The emerging debate in the United States between the "disaggregators" and the "reassurers" risks obscuring the real choices that U.S. policymakers are likely to face as they deal with a more assertive EU against the background of an increasingly complex world. Neither the pursuit of disaggregation nor the unconditional embrace of the EU as a partner is likely to serve long-term U.S. interests. Rather, the United States needs to steer a course between, on the one hand, an unseemly and in the end probably futile attempt to weaken the EU and, on the other, accepting a partnership on terms essentially set in Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

Such a policy must address the key challenge facing the United States in relations with the EU: the deepening transatlantic divide over how multilateralism is defined and the objectives it should serve. For the EU, "effective multilateralism" includes promoting an international order characterized by preferential economic and political ties between the EU and various partners, all of which can be seen as aimed, at least in part, at creating a more "multipolar" order in which U.S. power will be constrained. The United States, in contrast, remains committed to an older version of multilateralism aimed at fostering a liberal international order whose fundamental tenets have always been economic non-discrimination and the sovereign equality of (preferably democratic) states. A key objective of U.S. policy should be to bridge the transatlantic divide over multilateralism or, at a minimum, to limit the damage to U.S. interests likely to be caused by EU efforts to promote a global order based on a competing version of multilateralism.

The U.S. Interest

Disaggregation is easily dismissed as a U.S. strategy for Europe. It flies in the face of U.S. diplomatic tradition and is unlikely to appeal to top-level policymakers. For reasons of style alone, it is hard to imagine leaders of the stature of Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles or Dean Rusk trying to advance U.S. interests by fanning differences between Denmark and Germany or favoring Estonia over France. No American secretary of state will want to be seen as trying to sustain U.S. economic and political pre-eminence through the essentially petty exercise of trying to disrupt European unity. There always will be occasions, to be sure, when the United States will look to individual EU member states for support on various issues and seek to build understanding for its views in national capitals. But this is consistent with the traditional pattern of U.S. policy toward Europe and must be distinguished from a strategic attempt to weaken the EU for its own sake, which would be a sharp reversal of policy.

Whether disaggregation would work is in any case doubtful. Europeans are increasingly bound by political, legal, economic and human ties. Any attempt to sever such ties or to exploit areas where intra-European links are frayed will almost certainly fail. America has no seat at the table when decisions are made about the EU budget, the passage of EU legislation or the apportionment of leadership posts. It thus has fewer carrots and sticks with which to influence European governments than these governments have to influence each other. If anything, a disaggregation strategy could have the opposite of its intended effect, as real or feigned fear of U.S. interference could bolster efforts to centralize power in Brussels, discredit leaders seeking to maintain strong ties to the United States, or increase pressures on more supportive member states to prove their European loyalties by distancing themselves from Washington.

Finally, even if disaggregation were feasible, it is not clear that its long-term effects would be positive for U.S. interests. In a world of emerging economic and geopolitical giants, and with the traditional great powers of Europe all in demographic and, in relative terms, economic decline, the only way to prevent total marginalization is through some form of unity. A tightly integrated Brussels-run counterweight would not serve U.S. interests, but neither would a weak agglomeration of states vulnerable to pressures from the east and south. Such a Europe would lack the self-confidence to deal with instability along its periphery, raising the prospect that the United States could be drawn into further conflicts in the Balkans or other potential trouble spots. Over the very long term, a fragmented Europe would be more vulnerable to "Eurabization" or other nightmare scenarios raised by some commentators.

The Perils of Partnership

Forming a partnership that would satisfy both sides is also likely to be difficult, if not impossible. Stable partnership between an established Number One and a second power that sees itself as on the rise is inherently difficult. The rising power is sensitive to signs that the hegemon will use partnership to lock it into a position of extended inferiority. For its part, the established leader invariably worries that momentum will carry the ascending power a little past equality and into a reversed position of dominance. To the extent that the two powers bring different and hard-to-measure strengths to the putative partnership, managing these insecurities is all the more difficult.

On the EU side, fears persist that any U.S. offer of partnership risks trapping Europe in a secondary position. This explains why the EU tends to deflect U.S. proposals, often to the frustration of well-intentioned advocates of closer transatlantic cooperation. Partnership is pushed into the future--to when the EU has achieved the legal competence, political cohesion and bureaucratic structures to realize what earlier in the postwar period was referred to as the "dumbbell" model of transatlantic cooperation. The European Security Strategy, for example, calls for the EU to develop "strategic partnerships" with five powers--Russia, Japan, China, Canada and India--but notes that with the United States it should aim to establish "an effective and balanced partnership", which will require it to "build up further its capabilities and increase its coherence." European leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac are also careful to avoid any implication that partnership with the United States will be exclusive or even privileged. When Europe is ready, bilateral U.S.-EU agreements may well replace older agreements such as the North Atlantic Treaty. But even then, such agreements will be only one of a set of such arrangements with other key actors such as China, Russia, India, and regional groupings in Africa and Latin America.

Furthermore, an institutionalized partnership acceptable to Brussels and the member states probably would have to be a kind of "partnership plus" in which the United States would cede a great deal more influence than U.S. policymakers are likely to regard as reasonable. It would mean more than improved consultation and a reining-in of what Europeans see as U.S. unilateralism. From the EU perspective, a satisfactory partnership that would qualify as "equal" and "balanced" would be an acknowledgment of a new order in which the EU would play an increased--and the United States a correspondingly decreased--role in setting the global "rules of the game." The EU would expect to call the tune in multilateral settings, much the way it already does in forums such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the trade area, such EU-pioneered concepts as the precautionary principle, the cultural exception and the multifunctional role of agriculture would have to be accommodated in some form.

A partnership on terms likely to be acceptable to the EU would have significant economic disadvantages for the United States and would complicate the ability of the United States to meet its global commitments. The United States would remain the target of revisionist forces elsewhere in the world--whether Islamic radicalism or a rising China--but it would be forced to defer to a greater extent to European views and interests with regard to these areas. While those who favor partnership argue that one of its main advantages would be to provide the United States with added resources to deal with precisely these challenges, it is not clear that the phasing-in of European contributions would keep pace with the decreased freedom of action that partnership on European terms might entail.

Essay Types: Essay