international analysis and commentary

The Euro-American link: still the least-bad alliance


On October 8, 1997, the then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stood before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and declared: “The United States is a European power.” Her argument (made to convince the sceptical Senate to support the enlargement of NATO) sounds almost quaint today. Eleven years on, the strategic interests of the United States have moved eastward. The United States under President Barack Obama will be far more preoccupied with the greater Middle East – an area stretching broadly from Russia through Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, all the way to Pakistan and China’s borders. That is where most of the threats to the US come from. Europe is no longer a source of challenges for the US, nor is it much of a help to the US in meeting its global responsibilities.

Measured in equities – the amount of soldiers deployed in the region – Europe’s fall from America’s list of priorities began long before the Clinton-Albright years. From 1989 through 1992, the number of troops stationed in Europe dropped from 320,000 to 187,000.  The cuts continued through the Clinton years – by the time George W. Bush took power in January 2000, the US forces in Europe numbered little over 100,000. Not even two wars (in Bosnia and in Kosovo) could sustain America’s interest in Europe after the Soviet threat disappeared.

Washington still has business in Europe: President Obama will want to restart efforts to reduce and possibly eliminate nuclear arsenals, which, for obvious reasons, requires step-by-step coordination with Russia. And the United States still has 1,600 troops in Kosovo. But the Balkans is a second-order priority. And nuclear arms control and disarmament will be discussed among the US and Russia directly, leaving little room for the rest of Europe.

The war in Georgia has changed America’s views on Russia but not, for now, its military strategy. There is no support in Washington for getting NATO to restart military planning against Russia. US diplomats at the alliance as well as Secretary of Defence Robert Gates (due to stay on the job when President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January) say NATO’s focus should remain on fighting the war in Afghanistan.

The European countries, with few honourable exceptions, are of not much use to the US in fighting America’s new conflicts. US troops represent 93% of all forces in Iraq; the international contribution (of which Europe is a significant, but not the only, part) dropped to 7%. In Afghanistan, the European contribution is much greater. Three countries alone – the UK, Italy and Germany – deploy over 10,000 troops. That is a significant number, and European soldiers suffered heavy casualties in the operation. But that compares to 33,000 US troops, which have an even higher casualty rate. The ratio will move further in Europe’s disfavour when Barack Obama, as planned, deploys an additional 10,000 or perhaps more troops to Afghanistan sometime next year. The European military contribution will remain important but not decisive; it is not the basis upon which enduring military alliances are built.

The US and Europe are also quickly losing their historical bonds and common sentiments. Obama has virtually no links to Europe. He has African roots and lived in Asia. In his first book, “Dreams from My Father” he speaks of a sense of alienation during his brief visit to Europe. Obama’s speech in Berlin in July of 2008 was one of his most formal and leaden performances of the campaign – perhaps because he has so little personal connection to the place or the people.

No bonds, no partnership?

There is no doubt that military and historical links between the US and Europe are thinning. Some commentators take it to mean that the two sides will eventually stop cooperating on security. They assume that absent the Soviet threat, the US and Europe will come to view the world too differently. Without the US prodding and pushing, Europe will lose the stomach for war, the argument goes. And without the need to placate the pesky Europeans, the US will feel less constrained in the use of military power to solve the world’s conflicts.

But the evidence of the past few years suggests otherwise. US and European views on security, if anything, have converged.

A few years ago, the US-European consensus on security strategy did indeed seem irretrievably broken. The US started two wars in two years, and it apparently discarded NATO in favour of coalitions of the willing. This made the Americans extremely unpopular in Europe and elsewhere. The German, Belgian and French leaders of the day seized the opportunity, and set about portraying the EU as a more peace-loving, less aggressive alternative to America. In doing so, they hoped to win the affection of the many governments around the world that were appalled at George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

But anti-Americanism as a political force in Europe peaked at the beginning of the decade, and it has been on the decline since. A generation of politicians who were extremely sceptical about the US – epitomised by Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac – has been replaced with more pragmatically-minded politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel.

Moreover, as the European Union assumes new responsibilities in the fields of security and defence, it finds itself sounding increasingly like the United States. Whereas at the beginning of the new millennium only a handful of European governments would have advocated coercive measures against Iran, by 2008 Germany, France and the UK sponsored three rounds of sanctions at the UN Security Council.

The US, too, has become a lot more – dare we say – European. There is a massive difference between George W. Bush’s first and second term in the White House. The first term produced ‘coalitions of the willing’, ‘new’ and ‘old’ Europe, and the Iraq war. In the second term, the White House endorsed European diplomacy on Iran, expressed support for European security and defence policy, and its secretary of defence is said to be lobbying against a military strike on Iran. The US has even borrowed pages from the European handbook on security: the US State Department is building a reserve force of civilians – port controllers, policemen, judges – ready to deploy alongside US soldiers on short notice. This is precisely the sort of comprehensive approach which Europe specialises in.

So our security outlooks have converged, and for a good reason. The US and Europe bring similar values and assumptions to their policies. Europeans and Americans think alike, and because governments on both sides of the Atlantic face the same need to build domestic support for their foreign policies, those policies end up looking similar, too. Legitimacy matters to us; we feel the need to root our actions in international law and act through international organisations because our publics would not support ‘adventurous’ foreign policy, as George W. Bush has found out to his detriment. But equally, our publics expect their leaders to be pragmatic and protect them from danger – so governments on both sides of the Atlantic occasionally act outside the framework of international organisations, and they do use threats and sanctions, where necessary.

The US and Europe of the next few decades will no longer be bound by shared histories or bonds of sentiment. But they will face the same threats and they will produce very similar responses to them. This represents a basis for close cooperation – not the instinctive, existential relationship seen during the Cold War, but a more limited, pragmatic one based on shared threats and values, and on the somewhat banal recognition that the two sides acting together can often achieve more than if they acted individually.

The US-Europe relationship will be an asymmetric one: the US simply needs Europe a lot less than the other way around. But a smart US foreign policy would always seek to enlist European support, because by acting with others the US seems less aggressive and more persuasive in the eyes of the world, and because European help can save the US money and effort. But Washington will not expend an unlimited amount of energy in convincing the Europeans; their help will be important but rarely essential. This will be especially true if Barack Obama maintains his global popularity, in which case he may have less need for Europe to help legitimise US actions in the world.

The Europeans will need the US more than America will need them. Europe will no longer turn to the US instinctively, as it did during the Cold War, but often, as with Iran, it will find that without US help, European diplomacy cannot succeed. Most of the time the US will have reasons to help. Because the two sides tend to worry about the same threats, more often than not, it will be in the US interest for Europe to succeed.