The Fourth Age

The Fourth Age

by Author(s): Charles A. Kupchan

The deterioration in Atlantic relations has also been the product of secular change in U.S. politics--in particular, the collapse of America's bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. The centrist coalition that was the political foundation for America's multilateral engagement in global affairs has fallen prey to polarization and partisanship, producing a unilateralist brand of American internationalism unwelcome in Europe. The ideological proclivities of the Bush Administration certainly contributed to the fraying of America's international partnerships. But it will take much more than a change of personnel in the White House to restore bipartisanship and moderation to an America increasingly divided along ideological and geographic lines. The erosion of the centrist internationalism of the Cold War era has contributed substantially to transatlantic acrimony, perhaps ensuring that what might have been a mere drift in the relationship evolved into an open rift.

Although many observers chalk up the recent turmoil to "politics as usual" within a robust West, the Atlantic order is experiencing systemic change. In important respects, the emerging order more closely resembles that of the decades before rather than after World War II. Cooperative security--the linchpin of the Cold War order--is no longer the exclusive logic governing relations. Balance-of-threat thinking is making a distinct comeback. Europe is not balancing against American power, but it is balancing against U.S. behavior. Europe's resistance to U.S. policy has for the most part taken the form of "soft balancing"--attempts to isolate the United States diplomatically, as occurred over the Kyoto Protocol and the ICC. However, the effort by France and Germany (along with Russia) to block the invasion of Iraq constituted a far more serious form of resistance. These countries did not just opt out of the war--a move that would have been consistent with cooperative security--but they mounted a determined and successful campaign to deny the United States the backing of the UN Security Council.

Had the UN Security Council passed a second resolution authorizing the war, the United States would probably have been able to amass a much larger military coalition and to secure basing and transit rights in Turkey and other states in the region. Furthermore, the United Nations and other international organizations would have been more involved in postwar governance and reconstruction, substantially increasing the chances of a more orderly occupation. In short, by denying the war a UN blessing, France and Germany arguably imposed considerable costs on the United States in terms of both resources and lives.

The United States responded in kind, readily embracing balance-of-threat logic. The Bush Administration sought to drive a wedge between pro-war and anti-war members of the EU. The U.S. government also adopted a decidedly negative view of the project of European integration, worried that a common foreign and security policy might deny Washington the ability, when needed, to secure the support of individual EU members--as it did in the case of the Iraq War. Just as Europe sought to preserve its global sway by hoping that the Civil War would divide and weaken the United States, Washington sought to disaggregate Europe to counter the potential threat it posed to U.S. hegemony. Balance-of- threat thinking prevailed on both sides of the Atlantic.

This record makes clear that Europe and America no longer share the commonality of interest that they enjoyed during the Cold War. Instead, their interests have returned to being separate, even if contingently convergent--precisely why transatlantic security institutions have been strained to the breaking point. Washington now prefers coalitions of the willing because it accurately perceives a more divided geopolitical environment in which individual countries whose interests are affected--rather than the Atlantic alliance as a collective--are likely to be the key participants in most conceivable military operations. Europeans have done their own picking and choosing. Despite America's debacle in Iraq, NATO--the institutional and symbolic centerpiece of the Atlantic order--has kept its distance, limiting its contribution to the training of Iraqi security forces. That NATO became only tangentially involved in a crisis of the magnitude faced by the United States in Iraq speaks volumes about the erosion that has taken place in Atlantic solidarity.

The Atlantic order has suffered similar setbacks on matters of identity. The sense of "we-ness" that emerged amid World War II and the Cold War has dimmed considerably. In Europe, the French are no longer alone in calling for the EU to act as a counterweight to the United States. In the United States, it is not just Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who denigrates "Old Europe"; New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has labeled France as an "enemy" of the United States.4 The erosion of communal identity is occurring not only among elites; surveys reveal a troubling increase in the percentage of Europe's citizens holding an unfavorable view of the United States. Moreover, many Europeans see America's presence in Iraq as posing a greater threat to international peace than Iran's theocratic regime.5

The Atlantic democracies have turned back the clock. As during the 1905-1941 era, balance-of-threat thinking is prevalent, interests are separate even if they on occasion converge and a shared Western identity has given way to a new sense of separateness. This setback is neither a temporary aberration nor a passing by-product of the policies of the Bush Administration. Rather, deeper changes in the geopolitical environment and America's domestic politics are at work; the Atlantic order will remained frayed regardless of which party holds power in Washington.

Although a step backward, the new Atlantic order that is emerging is not necessarily cause for alarm. Peaceful coexistence and contingent cooperation still provide the basis for a stable order in which militarized conflict remains remote, if not unthinkable. Collaboration promises to continue on many fronts, with the transatlantic area enjoying far deeper and wider networks and institutions than existed during the interwar period. From commercial integration, to interoperable military forces, to cooperation on law enforcement and intelligence, the two sides of the Atlantic remain deeply interdependent.

Such interdependence has helped transatlantic relations make a distinct comeback during Bush's second term. Soon after re-election, Bush visited Brussels and affirmed his support for European unity and transatlantic partnership. Confronted with the drain on resources that the occupation of Iraq has imposed on the United States, Washington rediscovered the need for international partners. The EU and its member states promptly reciprocated the effort to mend fences. Pragmatic cooperation ensued on a host of issues, most notably Iran, Afghanistan and the Palestine-Israel conflict. From this perspective, the Atlantic democracies may be finding their way to "normalcy", an order that lacks the unique affinity and cohesion of the Cold War years, but nonetheless enjoys the benefits of pacific relations, economic integration and not infrequent instances of political and military collaboration.

 To maximize the cooperative potential of this emerging order, the United States and Europe would be well served to adjust transatlantic institutions to the new realities. If coalitions of the willing, rather than a collective NATO, are likely to be the main vehicle for security cooperation, then it makes sense to reform NATO by loosening its unanimity rule. Article V, the commitment to collective defense of alliance territory, need not be diluted. But as the bulk of NATO's prospective missions lie well beyond its territory, where only certain members will be capable of and interested in participating, more flexibility is needed for coordinating such operations. Otherwise, future efforts to organize ad hoc coalitions will come off as affronts to multilateralism rather than episodes of pragmatic teamwork. In addition, the United States and Europe should make more use of informal contact groups, a model that has proved its worth in dealing with the Balkans, Iran and the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Atlantic cooperation can be further enhanced by upgrading EU-U.S. linkages. Too many transatlantic priorities are not on NATO's narrow agenda, and the European Union, albeit too slowly, is deepening its collective character on matters of foreign policy. In this respect, the EU should quicken steps to develop a more unified voice on security matters and acquire the military capability needed to back it up. Progress on the defense front would enable Europe to capitalize more effectively on opportunities for military cooperation with America. Washington would be prepared to listen more intently to European concerns if the EU had important assets that it could offer in return for U.S. compromise. The United States would get the help it needs in shouldering global responsibilities. The Europeans would get the influence they want, forestalling European inclinations to balance against U.S. policy.

Even with these adjustments, the Atlantic security order will remain far more turbulent than during the heyday of alliance. On a regular basis, Europe and America will differ over issues such as international justice, the role of international institutions and policy in the Middle East--as became clear after the recent outbreak of war between Israel and Hizballah. Accordingly, the Atlantic democracies need to learn how to disagree more agreeably. They should at all costs avoid open political confrontations of the sort that emerged over Iraq; substantive differences should be aired through diplomatic channels, not at press conferences. In public, officials and opinion makers should guard against the inflated rhetoric of the recent past. Especially among younger Americans and Europeans coming of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall, talk of heated rivalry has the potential to polarize attitudes--and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Essay Types: Essay