Towards a partnership of equals: European-US relations

Paul Gillespie
3 October 2001

Harold Macmillan famously compared Britain’s influence on the United States to that of the Greeks on the Romans: a more ancient, wise but declining power would civilise the rougher edges of the newly rising one as it dealt with a difficult world. This would be the essence of their special (if compliant, dependent and unequal) relationship. He made the comparison in 1956-7, after the Suez crisis: “We are the Greeks of the Hellenistic age: the power has passed from us to Rome’s equivalent, the United States of America, and we can at most aspire to civilise and occasionally to influence them”.

It was a conceit, historians agree. The British did not have the wherewithal to meet either their obligations or their aspirations. The Americans, refusing to accept the role, ruthlessly pursued US interests in the post-war world – not least with respect to Britain itself. Nevertheless, the image lived on in British consciousness, as between Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and George Bush or (perhaps) between Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and now George W. Bush.

Behind the classical façades

The fatal events of 11 September recall that imagery in the context of European-American relations. Before this, it had already been hinted at by Hubert Vedrine, who sees European integration as a means of civilising a capitalist globalisation originating in the US, together with its associated hyper-powerdom. Since then, there has been a huge surge of European solidarity with the US government and people - and a clear attempt to influence the US response to the crisis. Europe is combining practical commitments to take action against terrorist movements with calls for a patient, targeted, global and predominantly political approach.

All this comes after deteriorating relations in the first nine months of the Bush administration. A series of US disengagements from multilateral international treaties seemed to confirm an image of arrogant unilateralism - or “a la carte multilateralism”, in the polite phrase of Richard Haass from the State Department. In a speech in Washington on 9 August, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle listed the Kyoto Protocol, the Anti-Missile Ballistic Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Biological Weapons Protocol, and the planned global agreement limiting the small arms trade as having been abrogated by the Bush administration. In what was seen as an unusual departure from the convention that core foreign policy is not made a matter of partisan disagreement, he said that this pattern would reduce the US’s world leadership role. The utterly changed political circumstances following the atrocities were symbolised by Mr Daschle’s embrace of the president after his speech to Congress on 20 September.

Towards modern, and equalising, realities

After the attacks, the major question to be asked about European-US relations is whether they will fundamentally change the pattern that emerged in the first months of the Bush administration. Had the administration responded unilaterally and after minimal consultation or engagement with its European allies, the trend towards unilateralism would have been immediately confirmed. So far that has not happened. The US has not responded by lashing out blindly or indiscriminately at ill-chosen targets, as might have been expected in some European stereotyping of Mr Bush, summarised by one observer who said, “He’s a Texan - that means an American squared”. Rather, common democratic values and deep common interests with Europe have been affirmed.

So, the US response has thus far been slow and subtle, in cooperation with its friends and allies and with due regard for the necessity of a long-term approach. There are those in Europe tempted to see a Greek-Roman aspect to this: the moderation of an angry superpower’s behaviour and its direction to more rational ends. Not surprisingly, such condescension infuriates certain commentators, especially on the right of the political spectrum, who detect in it the European left’s abiding anti-Americanism. It coincides, they say, with suggestions that the US brought the attacks on itself by its insensitive and ill-founded Middle Eastern policies, and the serial arrogance of its quasi-imperial super-powerdom.

A lot of this ideological flailing misses the point of what is at stake in the relationship through this crisis. The Greek-Roman analogy is a conceit also at the European level. Not, ironically, because it takes too little account of the asymmetric power relations involved, but because it under-estimates the profound process of equalisation currently running through the transatlantic relationship. These days realism and irony often go hand in hand. The crisis will be a crucial test of that process in the months and years to come.

Eye to eye

The United States originally supported European integration as a means, along with NATO, of affirming its hegemony over the continent as the Cold War began in earnest. After intervening massively twice to prevent Europe from being dominated by a hostile power, it had an interest in avoiding an accumulation of tension or a reopening of competitive rearmament among the major west European powers. Integration served to contain Germany just as NATO contained the Soviet Union. This bargain worked from the mid-1950s onwards, even as closer integration threatened US economic access to the markets of the then-EEC.

During the 1970s and 1980s, integration matured in the economic domain, with the creation of the single market and successive enlargements. But the end of the Cold War transformed the geopolitical position. The single currency was France’s price for German unification. The Maastricht treaty, committing states to it, also began the process of preparing Europe for a continental enlargement. The Amsterdam and Nice treaties have gone a good deal of the way to making the necessary preparations to EU structures. But arguably the most dramatic steps will be taken in the 2004 inter-governmental conference, coinciding with the next US presidential election which will address the question of what a larger Europe’s political and constitutional status should be.

This process is necessarily slow, but nonetheless profoundly important and deep-seated, with huge implications for transatlantic relations as for Europe’s relations with other world regions. Across the span of economic, political, social, foreign policy and security affairs, it is making the EU a greater force in international affairs. The euro symbolises this economically, as does the huge single market, which will eventually be much larger than that of the US. Politically, the streamlining of the EU’s structures will make for a more effective role: while confronted with unregulated globalisation, the search for a distinctive European social model is a source of growing popular legitimacy. The same applies in foreign policy, where more distinctive values and interests are gradually being asserted, notably in the Middle East and on the world environment. The creation of the Rapid Reaction Force, and the growing EU/NATO role in Macedonia and the Balkans generally, indicate a determination to bring security to its wider region – by peace-enforcing measures if necessary.

Many of the tensions that surfaced in the first part of the year expressed not only irritations with the thrust of Mr Bush’s policies and style of government but a deeper working out of this process of equalisation in various fields. Obviously equalisation is more developed in some spheres than in others. In particular, the US is not challenged as a military superpower. But it would be foolish to expect even a crisis of this magnitude to arrest or deflect such powerful trends. Rather the challenge will be to harness them constructively.

Greek gifts, American realities – transatlantic rewards

Unilateralism and multilateralism have become the accepted terms to describe the contrasting policies of the US and the EU – but also of the two main contending groups in the Bush administration. So far after September 11th the multilateralists, led by the Secretary of State, Colin Powell have had their way. Multilateralism has seemed the most effective way to construct a broad-based coalition against terrorism, capable of bringing along not only the Europeans but also moderate and reactionary Arab states.

European leaders have displayed their own subtlety in demonstrating that their multilateralism and soft diplomacy works in the US interest, after their emphatic and unambiguous expression of political and military solidarity within days of the attacks. “Fin, delicat et suggestif” is how one prominent European figure has described the EU approach – quintessentially Greek gifts. This is also an expression of satisfaction with the developing EU policy towards the Middle East, which leaders see as a central part of the jigsaw and one where their own interests and values will come into greater play. They seek to show such coalitions cannot be sustained without a more equal transatlantic relationship.

No country can go it alone, not even the US – that summarises the European position. It was put very well by Tony Blair in his Labour Party conference speech on October 2:

‘We can’t do it all. Neither can the Americans. But the power of the international community could, together, if it chose to…The critics will say: but how can the world be a community ? Nations act in their own self-interest. Of course they do. But what is the lesson of the financial markets, climate change, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation or world trade ? It is that our self-interest and our mutual interests are today inextricably woven together. That is the politics of globalisation.’

Blair captured both the enormity of these events and the possibility of using them to change the world – and to strengthen the European Union – using multilateral tools.

The Europeans have been rewarded by Powell’s sharp exchanges with the Pentagon’s unilateralists, who canvass a broader war against states that harbour terrorist groups and argue the necessity to target Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Given the commitment to a long-term two-phased campaign, and the unilateralists’ political strength within the administration, it is too soon to say Powell has definitely won the argument. But there can be no doubting the preference of EU leaders.

Nor should the strength of their case be underestimated on either side of the Atlantic. Europeans have sympathetically watched the construction of Powell’s coalition, including more positive attitudes towards the United Nations. They hope the evolution of policy will modify US plans for anti-missile defence and attitudes towards global warming. They will work with Russia and China to encourage this.

They will also encourage a new world trade round as recession looms, more conscious of the need to address the alienation shown up in protests about globalisation. The social democrats among them are intrigued to see big government, federal subsidies and pump-priming expenditure – which were previously rejected on ideological grounds – returning as major themes of the Bush administration after 11 September.

Europe enjoys some competitive advantages at regional and global levels as transatlantic equalisation proceeds. The EU operates necessarily in a multilateral fashion based on the rule of law. Its chosen methods of governance are more in harmony with a changing world – where security threats are simultaneously sub- and supra-national – than hard-nosed military unilateralism, which is more appropriate for inter-state conflicts. European leaders will be more assertive about these methods and interests should the US be tempted to insist on a hegemonic multilateralism. Increasingly, it is also clear that this is a political struggle within the US as well as across the Atlantic.

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