How Europe can be heard in Washington


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Europeans must steel themselves to discuss, within the EU, the big issues on which Europe must engage the US.

As Europeans gossip and conspire over the new post-Lisbon appointments to represent the European Union's external face, they know only too well how global power is slipping away from them. European elites agonise over the spectre of irrelevance.

No doubt it was this anxiety that impelled EU leaders to press for the EU/US summit meeting in Washington earlier this month. With the guard about to change in Brussels, this was never going to be a productive encounter. The visitors got what they deserved - 90 minutes of the president's time, and a lunch with Vice-President Joe Biden.

At least the experience may help Europeans take on board two important truths about Barack Obama, the man whose election so delighted them a year ago. First, his foreign policy strategy is to reposition America for the post-American world. Understanding that the US's brief moment of global dominance has come and gone, he aims to ensure America gets its way by forging tactical alliances. He will work with China on the global economy, with Russia on nuclear disarmament, and with anyone else who can help serve the US's interest.

Second, his self-declared pragmatism means a rigorous approach to how he allocates his time and energy. He will attend to those who can be useful, not the merely sympathetic. Glad-handing Europeans with nothing to offer will be a low priority.

For Europeans these are difficult truths to absorb. But they will not again carry weight in Washington until they grasp that a post-American world requires a post-American Europe. Such a Europe must discard a set of damaging illusions that, 20 years on from the end of the cold war, still shape its approaches to the US.

The first such illusion is of continuing dependence on US protection. With the Russian military a shadow of its Soviet predecessor, this is no longer the case. But it underlies Europe's habitual deference to the US.

The second illusion is to mistake shared values for a transatlantic identity of interests. This encourages the widespread European belief that if Americans act in uncongenial ways this is a product of their naiveté - requiring Europeans tactfully to set them back on course.

These two misperceptions lead to a third - that the need to preserve a close and harmonious transatlantic relationship must always trump any more specific European objective. But a vital and healthy transatlantic relationship requires tough negotiations to establish compromises that work for both sides - even if, as the often-combative trade and competition policy dealings across the Atlantic show, that may mean the occasional row.

Such conciliatory attitudes lead European elites to feel - their fourth illusion - that confronting the US from a joint European position would be counter-productive, if not indecent. So the EU member states opt to do their defence and security business under US direction in Nato - and prioritise their bilateral links with Washington over almost everything else. The British may pride themselves on the most celebrated "special relationship", but most other European nations also quietly believe they have a special "in" with Washington which is the best route for promoting their national interests.

Americans find all this attention-seeking tiresome, but will naturally not pass up the opportunities to divide and rule.

Some Europeans think the answer lies in a proper EU/US strategic dialogue, and they have plenty of proposals for new forums and further summitry to force such a dialogue. But that requires the EU, collectively, to have something to say, which in turn means Europeans must steel themselves to discuss, within the EU, the big strategic issues on which Europe will need to be able to engage the US in the post-American world.

Afghanistan should be an object lesson. European leaders have been happy to ignore this intractable issue in their regular EU meetings, delegating the problem to Nato and American leadership. They now find themselves with over 30,000 troops committed to a troubled campaign, and consigned to the ante-room while they wait to learn the new American strategy, which they must then defend to their publics as their own.

Russia and the Middle East are two more items on an unappetising list of problems that Europeans must address, not in the spirit of second-guessing where the US wants to go, but to assert common European positions. Failing that, even the most charismatic and forceful new EU leaders will find even photo-opportunities in Washington, never mind serious attention, in increasingly short supply.

This piece was first published in the Financial Times on 16 November 2009. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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