Europe's Weaknesses, America's Opportunities: The Future of the Transatlantic Alliance

February 26, 2003

Europe's Weaknesses, America's Opportunities: The Future of the Transatlantic Alliance

 Rhetoric should not replace reality as to Europe's capabilities to emerge as a major power.

 Rhetoric should not replace reality as to Europe's capabilities to emerge as a major power. While the desire to successfully compete with America may be ensconced in many European chanceries, the ability to do so appears to be well beyond Europe's collective means. Militarily, despite a collective market that is slightly larger than that of the United States, Europe presently spends only two-thirds of what the U.S. does on defense and produces less than one quarter of America's deployable fighting strength. German defense spending has dropped from 1.5 percent to a laughable 1.1 percent. Other than the United Kingdom and France, all other European countries are presently incapable of mounting an expeditionary force of any size anywhere in the world without resorting to borrowing American lift capabilities.  

Economically, the latter part of the 1990s has not led Europe into the "promised land" so confidently predicted by many. Rather, massive and largely ignored, structural problems - labor rigidities, a demographic/pensions time-bomb, a safety net that precludes significant cuts in unemployment, too large a state role in the economy stifling growth - have led Europe into a cul-de-sac. Staggeringly, according to the OECD, since 1970, the euro-zone area has not created any net private sector jobs.  

Europe, therefore, is not a collective "equal partner" with the United States in the Atlantic Alliance.  At best, the United States can expect a multi-tiered NATO, where, beyond the British and the French, individual European member states will, optimally, fill niche roles in the overall American strategic conception. American decision-makers used to positive spins on the Alliance must acknowledge that not all the allies are equal - that real differences exist between European capitals over how often to militarily side with the United States, and how much capability individual countries can bring to bear.  Bruno Tertrais, writing in last week's In the National Interest, is correct to draw the distinction between alignment and solidarity (  He must also recognize, however, that the principal disagreements are not simply between Washington and "Europe", but among Europeans themselves, as Geoff Kemp pointed out in his essay, "Colin Powell and the Gangs of Europe." (  

This is extremely apparent in the political realm.   Contrary to any number of soothing and misleading commission communiqués, the Europeans are light years away from developing a common foreign and security policy (CFSP). One has only to look at the seminal issue of war and peace today - what to do about Saddam Hussein's Iraq - to see a complete lack of coordination at the European level. Presently, the UK stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S., Germany's militant pacifists are against any type of military involvement, be it sanctioned by the UN or not; with France holding a wary middle position, stressing that any military force must emanate from UN Security Council deliberations. It is hard to imagine starker and more disparate foreign policy positions being staked out by the three major powers of Europe.  

Given these realities, "Europe" simply does not exist.  Yet, the very lack of European unity that hamstrings European Gaullist efforts to challenge the United States presents America with a unique opportunity. If Europe is more about diversity than uniformity, if the concept of a unified "Europe" has yet to really come into being, then a general American transatlantic foreign policy based on cherry-picking - engaging coalitions of willing European allies on a case-by-case basis - becomes entirely possible.  This strategy works both politically and economically (for example, in the creation of a Global Free Trade Association) as well as militarily.  Such a stance is palpably in America's interests, as it provides a method of managing transatlantic drift while remaining engaged with a continent that will rarely be wholly for, or wholly against, specific, American, foreign policy initiatives. 

Ironically, the success of such a policy requires the United States to abandon the notion of dealing with "Europe" as a single, concrete entity in favor of re-engaging Europe's nation-states.  Brussels needs to be taken less seriously as the voice of a "united" continent. America has to be constantly engaged in noting differences within Europe in order to be able to exploit them, bringing along a coalition of the willing on any given policy initiative. Europe, such as it presently exists, suits general American interests - its member states are capable of assisting the U.S. when their interests coincide with America, yet it is feeble enough that it cannot easily block America over fundamental issues of national security. Cherry-picking as a general strategy ensures the endurance of this favorable status quo

Militarily, such an approach explains present efforts at NATO reform. Beyond the sacrosanct Article V commitment, the future of NATO consists of coalitions of the willing acting out of area. Here, a realist cherry-picking strategy confounds the impulses of both unilateralist neo-conservatives and strictly multilateralist Wilsonians. Disregarding neo-conservative attitudes towards coalitions as often not worth the bother, cherry-pickers call for full NATO consultation on almost every significant military issue of the day. As is the case with Iraq, if full NATO support is not forthcoming, realist cherry-pickers would doggedly continue the diplomatic dance, rather than seeing such a rebuff as the end of the process. A Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) where a subset of the Alliance forms a coalition of the willing to carry out a specific mission using common NATO resources would be a cherry-picker's second preference. If this too proved impossible, due to a general veto of such an initiative, a coalition of the willing outside of NATO - composed of states around the globe committed to a specific initiative based on shared immediate interests - would be the third best option. Only then, if fundamental national interests were at stake, should America act alone.  

While agreeing with neo-conservatives (and disagreeing with Wilsonians) that full, unqualified approval of specific missions may prove difficult to diplomatically achieve with NATO in the new era, cherry-pickers disagree with them about continuing to engage others at the broadest level. For, as the missile defense example illustrates, there are almost always some allies who will go along with any specific American policy initiative. That is, if they are genuinely asked. By championing initiatives such as the CJTF and the new NATO rapid deployment force, the Bush Administration is fashioning NATO as a toolbox that can further American interests around the globe by constructing ad hoc coalitions of the willing that can bolster U.S. efforts in specific cases. 

Politically, America must stop giving generally sympathetic countries like Britain and Poland such bad geopolitical advice. By pushing the UK into "Europe", the United States hoped to make the project more pro-American, more pro-free market, and pro-trans-Atlantic alliance. After 50 years, it is time to look the results squarely in the eye - the EU is simply no more pro-American, pro-free market or pro-trans-Atlantic alliance than it was at the time of its inception. Only a Europe that widens, rather than deepens, a Europe a la carte, where efforts at increased centralization and homogenization are kept to a minimum, suits both American national interests and the interests of individual citizens on the continent. Any hint of further significant centralization - the UK joining the euro, CFSP becoming a reality, the closer harmonization of tax or fiscal policy across the continent - must be seen by America for what it is: a Gaullist effort to construct a pole in opposition to the United States. That will be the point at which the trans-Atlantic tie genuinely begins to break. 

Such an outcome is, however, entirely avoidable. A strategy of cherry-picking will preserve a status quo, where the trans-Atlantic relationship, despite fraying a bit at the edges, continues to provide common goods to both sides of the Atlantic. Such an overall policy acknowledges an awkward current truth of the trans-Atlantic relationship: the United States neither wants Europe to be too successful or to fail. As such, the Europe of today suits America's long-term strategic interests. Cherry-picking will allow the U.S. to make the appearance of a Gaullist, centralized, European rival far less likely, while distributing enough shared benefits that the overall trans-Atlantic relationship will continue to provide Europeans, as well as Americans, with more benefits than problems. Such an accurate assessment, fitting the realities of the world we now live in - where the United States behaves multilaterally where possible and unilaterally where necessary - is likely to endure.   

Dr. John C. Hulsman is a Research Fellow for European Affairs at the Davis Institute for International Studies of The Heritage Foundation.