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.

Finding a New Strategy

An alternative U.S. approach is required. Such an approach will need to combine pragmatic, unsentimental engagement with the EU with something like a containment strategy aimed at checking negative tendencies in the development of the EU and its external policies. The starting point should be a recognition that European integration will continue in some form and that Europe will seek increased autonomy from the United States. The goals of U.S. policy therefore should be to ensure the survival, within Europe, of a plural order open to U.S. influence and to increase the likelihood that an autonomous EU has neither the incentive nor the means to join or lead global coalitions aimed at checking U.S. power. The key to "containing" the EU is not bilateral undertakings between Washington and Brussels, but renewed efforts by the United States to embed the EU in a liberal, multilateral system in which America plays a leading role.

Multilateralism has been the source of much confusion in the U.S. foreign policy debate, particularly as it relates to transatlantic relations. For a long time, integrating Europe was the problem-child of the U.S.-led international multilateral system--wedded to economic discrimination, resistant to U.S. calls to broaden the circle of Atlantic cooperation to include Japan, Latin America and other regions, and a laggard rather than a leader in efforts to tackle nuclear proliferation, environmental problems and other global issues. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the EU has managed to transform itself from probationer to, in effect, leading judge and jury of what constitutes proper multilateral behavior. European claims in this regard, initially largely self-asserted, increasingly have come to be accepted outside Europe, including in the United States, both by liberals attracted to the EU governance model and by conservatives who tend to equate multilateralism with weakness, and unilateralism with strength. With increased acceptance of the EU's multilateralist credentials has come a growing reverence among many U.S. observers for Europe's "soft power."

Historians will puzzle out how this turnabout occurred. Some combination of factors no doubt was at work: genuine improvement by the EU and its member states in meeting multilateral obligations, declining performance by the United States as a multilateral actor, and a change in how multilateralism itself is defined. However the change came about, the key question for the United States is how multilateralism should be defined and whether it can be reshaped to serve U.S. interests.

If the EU's approach to multilateralism is contrasted with the views of those who argue that any multilateral order is a sham--that the strong do what they like while the weak talk and establish institutions--then clearly the EU has impressive multilateralist credentials. To the degree that the United States eschews or is seen to be eschewing multilateral cooperation, the EU will assume by default the mantle of multilateralism and define its content for the rest of the world.

If, however, EU and U.S. actions are judged against the norms of the postwar liberal order, a different picture emerges. Neither the United States nor the EU has ever conformed perfectly to the ideal. But European multilateralism relies particularly heavily on an array of instruments with a distinctly illiberal thrust: preferential trade agreements, bilateral aid programs with a large element of bilateral conditionality, unequal political dialogue, readmission agreements that push immigration problems onto partner countries, and increased use of strategic linkage whereby, for example, EU trade partners and aid recipients are pressured to support EU foreign policy goals. This is especially true at the regional level: The EU's New Neighborhood Policy, for example, which has attracted considerable attention among soft-power advocates in the United States, is especially redolent of the kind of unequal bilateralism that the founders of the postwar multilateral system so abhorred.

The situation at the global level is more ambiguous, but there as well Europe's claims to multilateral leadership are by no means uncontested. Developing countries are deeply worried about the EU linking trade to issues such as the environment and animal rights. Many large countries with serious security concerns have no intention of joining the ICC or the EU-promoted landmine ban. Even with regard to Kyoto, one of the effects of the U.S. walkout was to obscure the fact that in the negotiations among the industrial countries, it was the EU rather than the United States that was isolated, as Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and others all sought to modify an arrangement seen as unfairly tilted to Europe's advantage.

This is not to say that other countries always prefer American to EU policies. Washington can be as guilty as Brussels of one-sided and protectionist behavior toward the outside world. It is to say, rather, that a facile identification of EU policy and practice with multilateral order is erroneous and not a basis on which to construct U.S. policy. If other countries are forced to chose between an overtly neo-imperialist order that disparages all dialogue and an approach that allows for still-unequal but at least partial dialogue, most will hold their noses and opt for the latter. But these are not the only options. By reaffirming its own historic commitment to a liberal multilateral order, the United States can build bridges to third countries and help to shape international (including European) understandings of multilateralism in directions that better serve its interests.

Those in the United States who argue that the key to dealing with Europe is a revived commitment to multilateralism thus are correct, but for reasons precisely the opposite of the one they usually give. Stronger multilateral engagement by the United States in all likelihood will not create a basis for partnership with the EU. It will, however, stop the slide toward an international order characterized by a bipolar rivalry between a United States that is increasingly excluded or self-excluded from European-dominated initiatives and an EU determined to use those initiatives to check U.S. power and promote its own interests.

Such an order is arguably already starting to emerge, with its alignments visible. Small and relatively weak countries, particularly those on the periphery of the EU, generally side with the Union. Larger and more distant countries--Japan, India, Australia and to an extent Russia--are more likely to keep the EU at a distance. Canada and Latin America split their votes, effectively siding with the United States in their resistance to aspects of EU economic governance, but casting their lot with Brussels on world order issues (landmines, the ICC, use of force) that are domestically popular and cost nothing in economic and political terms. China, the one actor too large to have to define itself with regard to this polarization, carefully hedges its bets, not compromising its autonomy but leaning more toward the EU in a relationship whose underlying basis is a shared commitment to curtailing U.S. power.

A revitalized liberal multilateralism would mitigate this emerging split by bringing the United States back into the center of the international multilateral order. There are a number of ways this might be achieved. First, global trade liberalization through the World Trade Organization by definition blunts the effects of preferential regional and bilateral trade arrangements. Second, the establishment of common regulatory standards in global bodies neutralizes the discriminatory effects of forced convergence to the EU acquis. Third, large, multilateral aid funds lower the relative importance of bilateral aid schemes run from Brussels. These are just a few examples.

Admittedly, effecting such a shift is easier said than done. To be fair, Washington's own commitment to a liberal order arguably has waned over the years. The United States has increasingly bilateralized its trade and aid policies in order to compete with the EU and to exercise greater direct control over and thereby ensure the effectiveness of U.S. assistance policies. Many of the instruments available to implement multilateral policies are problematic, either because of corruption and incompetence, or because they themselves are subject to capture by European interests that pay their bills and pack their governance structures. Global non-governmental organizations also tend to support the EU's version of multilateralism in such forums, which further undermines U.S. leverage. These difficulties do not, however, invalidate the central argument that a revitalized commitment to a liberal international order is the best way to deal with a potentially illiberal multilateralism spearheaded by the EU.

Two elements are important for a new U.S. strategy. First, a renewed attention to liberal multilateralism should make clear the direction that U.S. policy should not take. The United States should not pursue with the EU the kinds of charters, compacts, partnerships and other bilateral arrangements currently being promoted in Atlanticist circles. However well intentioned, this kind of U.S.-EU bilateralism moves away from a more plural and open international order. Within Europe, it cannot help but promote the further centralization of policymaking in and through Brussels that shifts power to the European Commission and member states such as France and Germany, even as it helps to marginalize the contributions of more liberal outliers such as the UK, the Scandinavian countries and the new member states to the east. In the wider world, it increases the likelihood that U.S.-EU understandings will be imposed worldwide, thereby marginalizing the influence of third countries that tend to be closer to U.S. positions. The result is a double loss for international pluralism, both within Europe and at the global level.

Essay Types: Essay