international analysis and commentary

Transatlantic relations at midterm: not all bad

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The landslide victory of the Republican Party in the US midterm elections, which brought an army of conservative and Tea Party candidates to Congress, came arguably as a disappointment to many European observers. Europeans have come to share some of Americans’ frustration with the Obama administration’s sometimes hesitant and inconclusive approach to policy challenges. The US President has also lost some of his earlier appeal among European public opinion by making unpopular choices such as escalating and prolonging the war effort in Afghanistan. But most Europeans simply do not understand why American voters have so soon lost faith in a leader who in so many areas, from the economy to diplomacy, has worked to redress the difficult legacies of the Bush era, restoring America’s influence, image and credibility as a leader in Europe and around the world. The main message for transatlantic relations from the midterm elections is perhaps precisely this: despite all the post-Obama victory talk about Americans ‘becoming more European’ (a dubious characterization from the start), broad differences still exist on the two sides of the Atlantic. On average, Americans seem to be significantly more worried than Europeans about the size of government and its role in regulating the market and promoting equality – even in a time of widespread uncertainty as the present one. Obama’s initiative on healthcare reform – which Europeans praised as finally filling a transatlantic gap – has divided the American public, rather than bringing it into the European camp of welfare state supporters. As a matter of fact, while the French for weeks protested against the downsizing of their welfare state, the majority of American voters flocked to the polls on Tuesday to demand the downsizing of government.

While differences in political culture do persist across the Atlantic (hasn’t this, in fact, always been the case, at least to an extent?) this should not lead to the hasty conclusion that we are entering an era of transatlantic tension. A new phase could open in 2012 if Obama fails to be re-elected and the Republican Party leans towards the Tea Party – an heterogeneous populist movement that is yet to lay out a clear foreign policy vision but which is made of people who are deeply leery of things Europeans tend to like: multilateralism, international treaties, the United Nations, climate change policy, and such.  Even in such scenario, however, a new transatlantic rift would not be a foregone conclusion. It would be grossly mistaken for Europeans to postulate that American conservatives are inherently ‘anti-European’: historically this connection is simply not there. Much would depend on the concrete policy choices of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic and, perhaps more importantly, on the type of transatlantic reaction to international developments taking place largely outside the Euro-Atlantic space.

Until 2012, even in the presence of a divided government in the US, transatlantic dialogue will likely remain focused on dossiers on which some kind of cooperation or at least coordination is the most likely outcome. The picture does not look too gloomy in terms of transatlantic policy cooperation in the short to medium term and we shouldn’t embrace a self-fulfilling pessimism.

Leaders from both sides of the Atlantic seem to have found some common ground on how to make NATO’s mission relevant to the security environment of the 21st century, and the next Summit on November 19-20 in Lisbon will conclude with the adoption of a new strategic concept for the Alliance which enjoys support from all allies. Failure by the US Senate to ratify New START– the treaty between the US and Russia on strategic arms reduction which several Republican senators do not like – may indeed cause Obama’s reset to slow down or even derail completely. This would be highly unfortunate given the many positive results that the policy has already achieved, from Russian-Western cooperation on Afghanistan to Iran. It will certainly be a very negative development for US and Western policies. But will this create transatlantic tensions? It will make it virtually impossible for NATO to get Russia onboard on projects such as a common European missile defense shield but it will not prevent Europeans from pursuing their own engagement with Russia – something that has been only timidly attempted in 2009-2010 mainly due to lack of internal agreement among EU members and, no less important, to America’s leadership and, in a sense, monopolization of the reset agenda.

On Afghanistan, the pressure is already strong for a phased exit starting in the summer of 2011. Republicans in Congress might actually compensate for the support to the mission Obama might not be able to get from the ranks and files of the Democratic Party – many of whom have since long advocated an expedited withdrawal even if the mission remains unaccomplished.  Europeans will grow more and more impatient as the July 2011 deadline approaches, but this is not news and the same sense of impatience will likely be felt throughout the Atlantic at large. Within the Tea Party movement, many seem to support a big defense budget but only limited foreign commitments, especially if nation-building in faraway war-torn countries comes at the cost of less nation-building at home.

On Iran – America’s top security priority together with terrorism and nuclear proliferation – a broad consensus seems to underpin the current policy. Republicans were highly skeptical of diplomatic engagement and therefore appreciated Obama’s change of tone in 2010 and his international leadership on new sanctions. Europeans are trying to engage Teheran from their own side. Witnessing the unsuccessful attempts of the Obama administration, however, they seem to have become more realistic. The EU is united in supporting the new regime of sanctions and has adopted measures that go well beyond what was recommended by the UN Security Council in June. Discrepancies, such as the EU’s decision to allow for the import and export of oil and gas to the Islamic Republic, seem to have been for now contained by the behavior of individual European energy firms, which for the large part have abstained from a business that is seen in Washington as undermining the current policy of coercion.

There is a ‘but’, however. If a new crisis was to suddenly break out, such as aconflict between Iran and Israel, this would dramatically change the international context, including transatlantic relations. An America dragged into a new conflictwould probably see new cleavages emerge, at home and in its relationships abroad. An America in need of strong external support because of its still not fully recovered economy and the many other commitments around the globe would probably expect from Europe something that Europeans would find it very hard to deliver. A new situation of emergency, especially if determined by dynamics only partly or not at all under America’s control, could put the transatlantic relationship under severe stress. In this case, polarization in the US and within Europe would most likely reverberate in broader tensions across the Atlantic.

But this, we all hope, is nothing more than a worst case scenario. For the next two years and beyond 2012, transatlantic allies should keep focusing on what they have been doing quite effectively in the past two years – to leave aside ideological debates and work pragmatically together to solve what are truly common challenges: fixing global economic imbalances, eradicating terrorism, preventing conflict, while figuring out together how to best preserve Western norms and principles in a world that is becoming more plural. The political cycle in the US may have brought up again some underlying differences among American and European societies, but policy cooperation should go on. What we keep calling ‘the West’ has always been a diverse community. This community has done best when on both sides of the Atlantic Americans and Europeans have not let their differences and politics prevail, obscuring the shared vision of a world at peace in which free societies can thrive.