international analysis and commentary

Transatlantic relations and the new global geopolitics (Interview)


Aspenia online: ­­The global geopolitical landscape is changing­ before our eyes, and this trend seems to have accelerated with th­e economic ­crisis and the emergence of new f­ora s­uc­h a­s the G20.­  What is your assessm­ent of the ­state of ­transatlantic relations in this context?­­­

Calleo: The coming to power o­f th­e Obama admini­stration has certainly brought some novelties. My own impression is that the major change so far has been in g­eneral atmosphere rather than in­ particular negotiating positions. Certainly European publics have a more positive view of the United States now than a year ago.­

Much of the credit belongs to President Obama himself, but i­mpro­vement was already underway before him. By the end, the Bush administration had realized that its favored unipolar vision of the world was dee­ply unpopular and dangerously inadequate, that American power was seriously devalued without the support of its European allies, and that America’s financial position was precarious. And indeed a rec­iprocal process was going on in Europe, where leaders realized that quarrelling with the Americans had dangerously divisive effects within the EU itself.  Also that the American alliance remained a critically important asset for a Europe groping for a new political, economic and military relationship with the Russians, and, in due course, with the Chinese as well.

The quarrel over Iraq had brought the US and Europe to the edge of a geopolitical abyss. Neither side liked what it saw and both retreated.  Still, relations will probably never be quite the same.  The crises with Iraq and Iran had generated a new intermittent Eurasian bloc – France, Germany, Russia and China, on occasion joined fitfully even by Britain – perhaps the shadowy and uncertain start of a new “plural” world order.

Aspenia online: What is going on in geopolitical terms? How is the map of world power affecting Euro-American relations?

Calleo: There are basic changes in strategic interests and alignments. Throughout the Cold War, a large Russian army was planted in the middle of Europe – a reality that naturally recast the continent’s geopolitical framework. To counter the Soviets, the United States itself became a European power. In fact, the leading European power, by Europe’s own invitation. Geopolitically, the Atlantic Ocean became a bridge rather than a barrier.

The American alliance, with its abundant aid, not only allowed Europe to be protected, but without having to sacrifice its plans for postwar prosperity and social justice.

In effect, Cold War Europe profited from a double balancing act: American power balanced the Soviets; Soviet power called in the Americans.

With the end of the Soviet threat, Europe and America have gradually been developing other preoccupations.  It remains to be seen how well the Atlantic Alliance can serve these new interests.

The end of the Soviet empire has pressed the EU to absorb its eastern brethren.

Transforming the candidates has required vast resources. Absorbing them has put great strains on the Union’s constitutional structure.  Extending membership to troubled regions like the Balkans implies new collective military and policing capabilities for the EU itself.  In turn, developing such capabilities creates frictions within NATO.

Aspenia online: And there are specific challenges the EU has been facing?

Calleo: Besides consolidating their own size and constitution, the EU states face three further geopolitical challenges. One is coming to terms with a disgruntled new Russia to the east.

Another is coming to terms with the increasingly dissatisfied Islamic world to the south – a south that has now entered significantly into Europe’s own population. Finally, the EU states and the US need to find a new rationale for their Alliance.

The US also faces Russian and Islamic challenges but geopolitics makes these issues more critical for Europe than for America.  Since the Cold War has ended, you might say we are back in de Gaulle’s world: where France is the “cape” of Eurasia, Britain is “an island” and America is “another world,” an ocean away.

Geography leaves Russia as Europe’s intimate neighbor, dangerous but also full of economic opportunity.

Geography and emigration together make a “war of civilizations” with Islam a catastrophe for Europe, not merely a theoretical fancy, as it is for Americans.

As before, how Europe meets its geopolitical challenges is intimately linked to its relations with America.

During the Bush administration, as during the Cold War, alliance with the United States could be seen to offer a comprehensive solution to Europe’s post-Soviet geopolitical problems.
– The new NATO, moving eastwards, could contain the new Russia and thereby protect the newly independent East European states.
– And NATO, moving “out of area” could sustain hegemony over the Islamic world

NATO could remain the structure through which Europe contributes military and financial support to America’s global hegemony, while allowing Europe to play a role in defining America’s global policies.

A major problem with this American solution, certainly during the Bush administration, was that it was fiercely opposed both by Russia and within the Islamic world.  American policy therefore had to rely heavily on military and economic coercion.  Under these circumstances, entering into close alliance with America would lock Europe into an antagonistic relationship with its own two principal neighbors.

Adhering to this American imperial approach runs counter to Europe’s own instincts.  Today’s European states are more inclined toward appeasement, toward finding common interests through continual negotiation.  In effect, this is the famous “Community method” that West Europeans have perfected among themselves over the past half century.

Aspenia online: Can you envisage a way out of some of these dilemmas? What difference can the Obama policies make?

Calleo: Under present circumstances, Europe seems unlikely to break with its Atlantic Alliance. At the same time it will remain an extremely reluctant partner. This seems a dangerous state of affairs, given America’s troubled military engagements, traumatized and unbalanced economy, and ramshackle finances – all conditions likely to require increasingly heavy allied support.

If, however, the Obama administration could now succeed in a policy of friendly engagement with Russia and the Islamic world, and thereby reduce its economic strains, alliance with the US would presumably be more attractive to Europeans.

If Obama’s eloquent rhetoric is to be taken seriously, this is exactly his goal. But as recent events have made clear, it is easier said than done.  The old dossiers are overpowering the new geopolitics.  America’s militarized approach to foreign policy is by now firmly rooted.  Successive military adventures have entangled the US in a web of antagonisms throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe – in other words, throughout Europe’s neighborhood.  It is far from clear that the US, even under so enlightened, skillful and attractive a President as Obama, is ready and able to extricate itself.  If that should unfortunately be true, and given the present economic fragility of American power, an American-led transatlantic alliance that can succeed and endure seems increasingly problematic.­

In any case, this suggests that Europe will have to take a larger role in achieving its own security than it has been used to. It also suggests a more enterprising European approach to relations with Russia and the Islamic south.