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Europe's unrealistic expectations

About the author
Andrew Legon holds an MPhil in International Relations from Cambridge University and a BA in History from University College London.

In an open letter to the next occupant of the White House, Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform called for a change of American direction. Europe was concerned, he wrote, at US failure to boldly commit to climate change initiatives, and the lack of US support for the International Criminal Court. Grant also hoped for the more restrained use of hard power after attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. In short the letter called for a leader who would heal transatlantic relations, widened by excessive US unilateralism. "Dear George Bush," the letter began, dated January 2001.

Europe must be suffering from an acute case of political déjà vu right now; eight years after the end of Clinton's presidency the message from the "Old Continent" is depressingly familiar. Europeans expect the next American president to reorient US foreign policy, engaging seriously with multilateral institutions and forging close partnerships with Europe on a range of important issues, from curbing greenhouse emissions to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Across the continent, excitement at the end of the Bush presidency is palpable. From inauguration countdowns on Facebook to the huge crowds Obama drew in Paris and Berlin, Europeans are looking forward to the next American presidency with relish. Implicit is the assumption that a change in American leadership equals a convergence of US and European policies. Optimists highlight Obama's lofty "citizen of the world" rhetoric or McCain's criticism of excessive "lone ranger" diplomacy. Yet the stark similarities between Charles Grants' letter and contemporary European criticism of the US should caution against such hopeful expectations.

Blinded by a personal dislike of George W Bush, and his blunt "cowboy" style, Europeans have failed to see his presidency within the broader continuity of American interests, history and the culture of its foreign policy making. In many respects, unilateralism is engrained in the sweep of American engagement with the world, as old as the Republic itself; George Washington's Farewell Address specifically warned against permanent alliances. Likewise, Manichean perceptions of international politics, such as the "Axis of Evil", were not invented by Bush. His administration was not simply an eight year nightmare from which Europe will wake come the dawn of a new presidency.

Europeans are likely to be disappointed in the coming months. Whether McCain or Obama, it should be unsurprising to learn that the next US president will not entirely overhaul current foreign policy.

Let us not overegg the pudding. On a number of key security issues, a tacit trans-Atlantic consensus is emerging. Consider the "war on terrorism". There has been a slow but steady convergence of threat perception since 11 September. The 2006 US Quadrennial Review portrayed a much more complex, atomised threat, less focused on al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden in particular than the earlier National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. Likewise, terrorist attacks in London and Madrid were a wake-up call to the seriousness of the struggle against jihadist terrorism.

But, as Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5 recently made clear, the gulf between strategic approaches to the terrorist threat remains wide. Criticising the "overreaction" of America's response to 9/11, Rimington underscored Europe's more sober counter-terrorist strategy. Treating the problem more as a criminal matter reflects the internal, domestic history of terrorism in many European countries. Post 9/11 America felt itself to be at war, fighting an external, foreign force. The American militarisation of its counter-terrorism approach is unlikely to disappear overnight with the end of the current presidency. No US presidential candidate, and no president, can afford to give the impression of being "soft" on terrorism. Despite more consistently hawkish rhetoric from McCain, who can forget Obama's threat to unilaterally strike in Pakistan?

Most Europeans want the United States to stop acting as the world's sheriff, submitting to international rules and regulations. But a superpower mindset viscerally rejects limits on its power. Europeans should not be disappointed to discover the next American president will continue a tradition of pragmatic, rather than principled multilateralism. This means, according to Charles Krauthammer, multilateralism "when there is no alternative. But not when there is."

Indeed the reverse also holds true; unilateralism "when there is no alternative". On Afghanistan, continental drift pulls European and American strategy apart. At the recent NATO summit in Budapest, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for an Iraq-style "surge". Eight thousand extra US troops are already planned for deployment next year. Contrasting sharply with US assessment and action, a recently leaked diplomatic cable between France and Britain concluded that NATO's presence was exacerbating the Taliban's insurgency. Meanwhile many European forces, such as Germany's, are tied down by domestic political issues and a myriad of caveats that keep them well away from dangerous Afghan regions. Saddled with allies lacking the appetite to act, Washington already sees the limits of multilateralism. It takes little wonder to realise why the United States often chooses to go it alone.

And what of the gaping asymmetry of capabilities? The transatlantic relationship is a marriage of unequals. It may be haemorrhaging influence, but the United States remains the world's indispensable power, its military budget dwarfing any of its closest competitors, including the combined budgets of EU member states. Consider this: seventy percent of Europe's land forces are deemed unable to operate outside their national territory. By necessity, multilateralism may be confined to mere rhetoric.

It is in style, rhetoric and approach, therefore, rather than policies, that change will be most evident. Much of the transatlantic division of the last eight years can be traced to Bush's bellicosity and crude cowboy swagger. Bill Clinton, the 42nd US president, was, like the 43rd, also a president who attacked Iraq and Afghanistan without international approval. But unlike Bush, Clinton was "a Social Democrat, who put Europe on Valium, who could schmooze Europe, talk European," according to the former British Minister for Europe Denis McShane.

McCain's volcanic temper aside, it seems clear both candidates would be less crude diplomatically than Bush. For example, both McCain and Obama have expressed equal interest in joining the International Criminal Court, tempered however, by the proviso of added protection for US personnel. In style, if not necessarily in substance, there may exist a rupture between the foreign policy of Bush and the new president.

On many of the primary issues Europe is concerned with, both US parties share markedly un-European approaches. Furthermore, this transatlantic divide is not simply between political classes. Recent polling suggests 74 per cent of Americans believe justice occasionally necessitates the utility of war. Two-thirds of Europeans thought the opposite. Robert Kagan may have been (partly) right; more Americans are from Mars, more Europeans from Venus.

Let us not be overly pessimistic. US foreign policy is not monolithic. American political discourse is riven with sharp debates over China, trade and non-proliferation. Nor is it held in stasis. It is widely expected that the next administration, particularly if Obama wins, will make significant changes in America's policy towards Iran. But a revolution in US foreign policy, remaking America in Europe's image, is not imminent. If bitterness and disappointment is to be avoided, Europe must adopt a more realistic attitude to the United States. Arundhati Roy recently predicted people will be disappointed when Obama rules like a white man. More important for Europe to remember is that whatever the political or ethnic colour of the next inhabitant of the White House, the next American president will be solidly Red, White and Blue.

US-EU bilateral relations have suffered over the past eight years. Mending and reinvigorating that relationship will require a candid assessment of divergent interests rather than futile attempts to construct transatlantic harmony, which was always more myth than reality. Only then can political capital, energy and capabilities be spent wisely on issues where cooperation is possible. Conversely, this recognition frees both partners from an outdated view of world politics. The transatlantic relationship is no longer the backbone of international politics. Global order is changing; China, India and Brazil are the new kids on the world block. Close engagement with these players is required to tackle pressing global problems. Moreover, it is this new global distribution of power, rather than EU nagging or a change in personnel in the Oval Office, that will force more fundamental transformation in US foreign policy.

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