Does the United States Have a European Policy?

Does the United States Have a European Policy?

Mini Teaser: Is the United States becoming more skeptical of the EU, or just more confused?

by Author(s): Gerard Baker

Since the earliest days of the European Union, at the outset of the Cold War, it has been an axiom of U.S. foreign policy that an integrated Europe is in America's global strategic interest. The central theater of world war twice in a generation and the expected theater of a third conflict, fractious Europe cost the United States more in blood and treasure than any region on earth in the republic's history. What could better fit U.S. national security goals than the prospect of an ever closer union of a growing number of European states in which ancient enmities, national rivalries and ideological conflicts were submerged in a pan-European identity based on the same principles of democracy and free markets that have animated America's own success? There is too, in the American geopolitical psyche, something gloriously redolent about the spectacle of Europeans coming together to forge a common entity, just as Americans themselves coalesced from fissiparous states nearly two centuries earlier.

It was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the liberator of Europe, who articulated this spirit most emphatically more than half a century ago. In a July 1951 speech in London--five years before the founding of the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union--the general told an audience of diplomats and politicians of his dream of a unified Europe. In a letter a few days later to his friend and adviser Averell Harriman, Eisenhower observed, "I most fervently urged the formation of the United States of Western Continental Europe." Eisenhower's presidential successors never went quite so far in their enthusiasm, and the U.S. commitment to the European project has seemed more rhetorical than practical at times.

But Washington repeatedly stated its belief in a united Europe--a Europe "whole and free", as President George H. W. Bush put it in 1991. It publicly applauded each move toward deeper European integration, as western Europe moved from coal and steel community to common market to single market to single-currency area. As the union acquired increasing political saliency and began to find a voice in foreign and security policy, the United States continued to welcome its role in world affairs. There were disagreements aplenty--over Vietnam in the 1960s, intermediate nuclear forces in the 1980s and the Balkans in the 1990s, to name just a few. But Washington never actively sought to foment disagreements within Europe.

All that changed this year with the explosion of transatlantic tensions over Iraq. As European nations themselves split apart on whether to support the U.S.-led military action, the Bush Administration happily highlighted the differences and pointed up the distinctions between "Old" and "New" Europe. As the French government enunciated a Gaullist vision of Europe acting as an alternative pole to the American superpower, the United States urged other European nations to reject France's agenda for Europe. When the initial hostilities were over, U.S. officials lavished praise and new responsibilities on loyal allies such as Britain and Poland and talked of a new strategy of "punishing France and ignoring Germany."

In Europe, powerful bureaucratic and political forces are pressing hard for a much tighter alignment of the member-states' foreign and security policies. As Europe debates its first ever draft constitution that aims, among other things, to institutionalize more effectively a common European foreign policy, it does so in an atmosphere tinged indelibly by the Iraq debacle. A number of European political leaders are increasingly convinced that the Bush Administration is actively seeking to divide Europe, to undermine the institutions and relationships that underpin European unity. U.S. officials from the president down insist that the United States remains a friend to the European project, but not on any specific terms.

Many questions thus arise about the present state of U.S.-European relations. Has U.S. policy toward Europe really changed? With the end of the Cold War and the September 11 attacks, have U.S. priorities become so altered and divergent from European goals that the United States no longer sees a strong interest in working with a Europe on its march to an ever closer union? Did the United States ever truly believe in a fully united Europe? These questions boil down to one fundamental query: Does the United States have a European policy?

What the Iraq debacle clearly demonstrated for U.S. policymakers was a proposition that had been tested in theory many times before but never in such stark reality. This proposition was that it may sometimes be better to have a Europe divided on a crucial issue of America's national interest than one in which a wholly united Europe takes a hostile or critical line against the United States.

During the Cold War, European unity and transatlantic cohesion was so self-evidently critical to defeating communism that the United States could not for long have pursued a policy that had the effect of dividing Europe. In the immediate post-Cold War world, dealing with a potentially unstable post-communist empire in the east, enlarging the communities of free nations--NATO as well as the European Union--became the central priority of U.S.-European policy. Indeed, there were early tensions with European allies over the EU's apparent eagerness to place deeper integration above expansion in its post-Cold War agenda. It was at least in part aggressive U.S. promotion of the enlargement case that gave impetus to the process that will result next year in the admission of ten new members to the union, most from the former communist countries.

Continuing EU integration also seemed to hold new potential benefits for the United States. The most obvious advantage was in the field of defense capabilities. With the changing nature of threats in the post-Cold War era, familiar U.S. complaints about "burden-sharing" took on new urgency. Greater defense cooperation among the Europeans would lead to improved interoperability, economies of scale and a division of labor that would greatly enhance the effectiveness of NATO and reduce dependence on U.S. forces in the old European theater.

But there were potential benefits for the United States from economic integration too. American companies seemed to have much to gain from the consolidation of the single market. The advent of the euro in the late-1990s was also widely welcomed by U.S. corporations. It was seen as a spur to inward investment by Americans and an opportunity to create the kind of large single currency area that was so instrumental in the U.S. economy's successful performance over two centuries.

Now, in the immediate post-Cold War years, there are signs that the salience of European integration for U.S. policy were overstated--even in the relatively halcyon days for transatlantic relations of the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations. In economic terms, the arrival of the single market was by no means seen as an undiluted good for the United States. The year before the market's completion in 1992, there was much angst in the United States that a protectionist "Fortress Europe" was possibility emerging. When the single market itself appeared less threatening, new questions arose about the next phase of economic union. The Clinton Administration's senior economic policymakers harbored deep doubts about the viability and sense of monetary union. Though public expression of these doubts was muted, U.S. and European officials acknowledged at the time that the United States was not persuaded the eurozone would be an effective single-currency area.

More visibly, it was in the Clinton Administration that the first real doubts about a separate European defense identity emerged in the United States. Tensions multiplied as the European Union embarked on its European Security and Defense Initiative (ESDI) after 1997. The United States was deeply troubled by the prospect that a caucus within NATO of increasingly independent-minded Europeans might emerge and undermine the institution's ability and political willingness to operate as a full transatlantic alliance. Clinton Administration officials upbraided their British counterparts when Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac agreed at the 1998 Saint-Malo summit to push for a separate European military force.

Thus, by the final years of the Clinton Administration, the end of the Cold War was not only beginning to dissolve the glue of the transatlantic relationship but was also weakening the apparent advantages of European integration for the United States. It was no longer self-evidently in America's national interest. Put simply, Europe was less central to U.S. national security. That meant inevitably that a single European voice was less important to U.S. policymakers. Then came George W. Bush.

Early expectations in Europe were edgy about what the new American president might make of the EU. Though not known to have any particularly strong views on the subject himself, Bush surrounded himself with advisers who were of a distinctly Euro-skeptic hue. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were on record criticizing some European governments that repeatedly acted as an impediment to the U.S. pursuit of its global priorities. At the State Department, Colin Powell was liked and admired in Brussels, but the appointment of John Bolton as an undersecretary alarmed European integrationists. Known for his trenchant views on the virtues of European cooperation, Bolton had written that ESDI was a "dagger at the heart of NATO." Finally, Vice President Dick Cheney was not viewed as especially attached to the Atlanticist agenda.

Essay Types: Essay