The American “pivot” to Asia, a policy which was developed further in the course of 2012, has often been interpreted as an attempt by the US to redirect its assets and attention away from Europe, which is seen as an increasingly cumbersome partner, to where the future of the world will be decided – that is, in the emerging economies in general and Asia in particular. According to this narrative, the combination of Europe’s recession in 2012, the deep cuts in its defence budgets, the constant distraction of rescuing and revamping the eurozone, and the associated loss of soft power would make Europe an afterthought in America’s grand strategy. As a result, Europe would essentially lose clout with the US.
In 2012, however, this was not the reality. First, the US had its share of domestic problems itself, from anaemic growth and the fiscal crunch to intense partisan bickering that was amplified by the upcoming election. Whether in Asia, on Syria, or on Arab transitions in general, the US did not demonstrate much appetite for new international ventures. In fact, President Barack Obama campaigned on the need to do nation building at home and keep the defence budget in check. This suggests that it is not just Europe that is losing power relative to other parts of the world but the West in general.
Second, although the implicit vision of world order that the pivot expresses represents a break with the traditional Western vision, there were signs of resilience in the transatlantic alliance in 2012. A striking symbol of this was the success of the G8 summit at Camp David and the NATO summit in Chicago in May compared to the G20 summit in Los Cabos a month later, which attracted little attention and delivered precious few decisions. Obama had started his first term extolling the virtues of the G20 and downplaying the G8. In fact, at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, in September 2009, he indicated that the latter might gradually fade away and be replaced by the former. The president certainly remains committed to paying greater attention to emerging powers and crafting a “multi-partner” strategy. But the G20 world is not yet a reality. This leaves Europe, with all its flaws, as the only dependable partner the US has.
In particular, for all his desire to shift the focus of US foreign policy towards Asia, Obama has been constantly drawn back to the Middle East – where Europe remains his most important partner. This is especially true on the Iranian nuclear issue, a top US priority. For the first time, the tighter sanctions imposed by the EU3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) in 2012 had a profound effect on the Iranian economy as dialogue continued through High Representative Catherine Ashton. The ultimate success of this policy, however, will depend on whether negotiations, rather than war, can achieve the main objective: to prevent Iran from getting nuclear capacity. In the meantime, Europeans have defended their red lines, kept the international community united, and helped avoid escalation of conflict in the region. Europeans were also at the forefront of joint Western efforts to support Arab transitions, especially in Egypt, and closely coordinated with Washington on the situation in Syria, whether on the ground, in the “Friends of Syria” group, or at the UN, in the face of Russian intransigence.
There were also efforts to tie Europe to the pivot. Regular meetings took place in Washington between Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and European ambassadors. In Phnom Penh, in July, Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton pledged US–EU cooperation and consultation in Asia. One concrete achievement was the successful lifting of sanctions on Burma in the first half of 2012, with the UK playing a key role. 2013 could also see negotiations for a Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) following extensive and discreet preparatory work done in 2012 by the EU–US High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth. If adopted, such an agreement would not only be a symbol of both the resilience of transatlantic relations but would also give the West a further edge in defining the economic standards and norms of tomorrow.
However, despite these signs of resilience, Europeans did not always get what they wanted from their relationship with Washington in 2012. The euro crisis continued to cast a long shadow on transatlantic relations and in particular generated tensions between the US and Germany, with Obama supporting calls by France, Italy, and Spain for a growth strategy. The lack of full visa reciprocity is also still a sore point, especially for Poland. The Israel–Palestine issue also remains a point of contention, with Europeans able to resist diplomatic US demarches but still too divided to influence US policy in any meaningful way, as the vote on the non-member state status for Palestine illustrated. Obama also allowed his Secretary of Transportation to exempt US airlines from complying with the EU Emissions Trading System in spite of European gestures of goodwill. In the longer term, as the US energy revolution locks it into dependence on fossil fuels (shale gas and tight oil), transatlantic tensions over climate change could increase.
On this issue and a few others, including the defence of European interests in the face of US Iran sanctions, the EEAS in Washington plays an increasingly substantial role of coordination and advocacy, without pretending to substitute itself to the still powerful embassies of the member states, especially on sensitive diplomatic issues. While the EU delegation is still modest in size (it is comparable to that of a medium-sized European country), it is a place for consultation and exchange of information, with regular meetings of the 27 ambassadors each month and Deputy Chiefs of Mission (DCM) each week and a growing ability to match the US bureaucratic machinery and hence to advance European interests.
Meanwhile, it is hard not to notice how the differences between European reactions to disagreements with the US have changed in the last few years. Drone strikes and cyber attacks under President Barack Obama pose the same type of vexing legal and moral problems as Guantanamo prison, torture, and extraordinary rendition under President George W. Bush did. However, Europe’s voice and normative ambitions on these issues – and more generally on multilateral governance – seem to have been muffled in the last few years. Only greater European unity and an economic resurgence can ensure that Europeans get the most of a resilient transatlantic relationship – and that they reverse the declining clout of the West in general.
|26– Reciprocity on visa procedures with the US||2/5||2/5||3/10||7/20||C-|
|27 – Relations with the US on trade and investement||4/5||4/5||7/10||15/20||B+|
|28 – Relations with the US on standard and norms, consumer protection||4/5||3/5||6/10||13/20||B|
|29 – Relations with the US on the euro crisis||2/5||3/5||5/10||10/20||C+|
|30 - Relations with the US on counter-terrorism||3/5||3/6||6/10||12/20||B-|
|31 – Relations with the US on NATO, arms control and Russia||2/5||2/5||5/10||9/20||C+|
|32 – Relations with the US on the Balkans||2/5||4/5||5/10||11/20||B-|
|33 - Relations with the US on the Arab transition||4/5||4/5||6/10||14/20||B+|
|34 – Relations with the US on the Middle East peace process||2/5||3/5||2/10||7/20||C-|
|35 – Relations with the US on the Syrian conflict||4/5||4/5||8/10||16/20||A-|
|36 – Relations with the US on Asia||3/5||2/5||7/10||12/20||B-|
|37 – Relations with the US on Iran and weapons proliferation||4/5||5/5||8/10||17/20||A-|
|38 – Relations with the US on climate change||5/5||4/5||4/10||13/20||B|