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.


For the United States, such a loss might be worth paying if it meant "pinning the EU down", both with regard to substantive principles (concerning regulation, global governance and so forth) and procedural norms to ensure that these principles would be universalized in a cooperative rather than competitive manner. This is unlikely to happen, however. Any bilateral U.S.-EU understanding is certain to be ambiguous enough to preserve both the EU's internal autonomy and external freedom of action, even as it diminishes the importance of other mechanisms (such as NATO or the U.S.-Japanese relationship) that are valuable in their own right and that give the United States levers of influence over the EU.

The second element of a U.S. containment strategy must be a long-term effort to influence what might be called the "ideology" of European integration. Unlike the Soviet Union, the EU obviously does not represent a military or security threat. Nonetheless, there are parallels between the post-1945 struggle between East and West and what is fast becoming a defining split within the West. Both the Soviet Union of the 1940s and the EU of today can be regarded as revisionist powers, albeit ones with deep insecurities about their internal dynamism and legitimacy. Both began as elite-driven political-bureaucratic projects with a tendency to see themselves as entitled to increased influence in world affairs. Soviet propaganda claims need not be recalled, but some fairly representative European aspirations are worth noting: The EU must "become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world"; "Europe must have faith in the prospect of becoming the most important global power in twenty years"; "The building of Europe has become the precondition for securing prosperity, peace and justice not only in Europe, but across the globe"; The EU "is forging a European Dream that promises to endow humanity with a global consciousness. . . . In doing so, the European Union might become the real superpower of the post-modern world in the 21st century." And so on.

These extravagant claims co-exist, however, alongside enormous insecurities--nowhere more evident than in the overwrought reactions to remarks such as Rumsfeld's or the even less consequential pronouncements of analysts and pundits. As in the Soviet case, this combination of overarching ambition and crippling self-doubt leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with the United States and thus to a drive to polarize and bilateralize a relationship that, whether one of rivalry, partnership or some combination of both, is seen as validating the European project.

This is fundamentally a matter for Europeans themselves to resolve, but how the United States acts toward and talks about the EU can play a role in placing, as it were, both a floor under Europe's insecurities and a ceiling on its ambitions. Talk of disaggregation is obviously harmful, in that it both fuels anxieties and stokes ambitions when U.S. efforts (largely imagined) to thwart Europe's aspirations are defeated. Talk of partnership is less damaging but also problematic. It raises fears of being locked in an unequal embrace, even as it reinforces the impression of a rising Europe moving to a position of equality or--who knows--perhaps a bit more than equality. Instead of endlessly debating the merits of a more or less unified EU, or the conditions under which a satisfactory partnership finally might emerge, the United States should take a pragmatic approach that emphasizes solving concrete economic and political problems to the extent possible in broader multilateral forums where the views of third countries can be brought to bear as well.

Such an approach does not preclude direct engagement with, and the further development of, bilateral relations with the EU. Indeed, the opposite is likely to be the case. Freed from concerns about nailing down the terms of a future partnership, Washington would be able to take a more relaxed attitude toward issues such as membership for Turkey and Ukraine, thereby removing one irritant in the relationship. Saving NATO would remain a U.S. objective, but less energy and emotion could be expended on defining the terms of EU-NATO cooperation (terms that the EU is certain to demand be revised as the common European security policy reaches new stages of development) and on correcting deficiencies in European forces (unlikely to be addressed in any case) and more on using NATO as a forum for political consultations.

The pursuit of a more plural European order also would provide incentives on the U.S. side to defuse bilateral conflicts with the EU. Clearly, the United States needs to fight to protect its national interests in some cases. But U.S.-EU conflict tends to be asymmetrical in its political effects. Those in Europe most interested in building up the EU as a counterweight to the United States arguably have a vested interest in a certain level of tension with Washington--one that encourages them to pick fights on various issues. If Europe "wins" in any given dispute, the value of European unity is demonstrated for all to see. If Europe loses, the familiar arguments for a stronger Europe are trotted out. Either way, there is little downside to conflict. For the United States, a different logic applies. Wins, while sometimes necessary to protect concrete interests or to uphold legal positions, garner nothing in the way of good will, even as they spur the same calls for efforts to counterbalance U.S. power. And losses, well, are losses. Conflict avoidance thus would be a key element of a pluralistic strategy toward Europe.

Finally, a strategy to preserve an open, plural environment in Europe should provide both added incentives and opportunities for increased consultation with a range of European political actors. Calls for partnership from the U.S. side inevitably reinforce centralizing tendencies in the EU, providing the European Commission, the European Parliament and the more ambitious member states ready-made arguments that "more Europe" is needed to meet the demands of co-equal cooperation with the United States. Disaggregation, ironically, contributes to the same result, as European leaders feel a need to increase solidarity to counter U.S. tactics.

Fostering a plural order entails avoiding either extreme. Washington thus should welcome expanded consultation with Brussels, using the mechanisms established under the 1990 and 1995 U.S.-EU agreements, covering both matters of bilateral concern and matters relating to regions and issue areas where U.S. and EU interests intersect. But the United States also should cultivate bilateral ties with the EU member states as well as use other multilateral forums--NATO, the G-8 and the OECD--to expand consultation. Without overtly challenging EU prerogatives, such consultations quietly reinforce the existing reluctance in national capitals to relinquish bilateral ties to third countries and to channel the pursuit of national interests exclusively through Brussels.

The U.S. debate on Europe has gone badly off the rails. As U.S.-European relations have deteriorated, most participants in this debate have stepped up the familiar calls for partnership, without seriously considering how difficult achieving a real partnership is likely to be, the ambivalence that exists in Europe about the concept, and the terms on which the EU would want to establish such a relationship. A small but growing minority of commentators has sensed that the problems in the U.S.-European relationship go deeper and are at least partly rooted in the internal development of the European Union. They cannot, therefore, be wished away by calls for partnership. But these commentators have not proposed policy alternatives that go beyond frontally assaulting the EU in ways that are bound to fail and that belie the best traditions of American diplomacy. A new approach is needed.

Essay Types: Essay