A Word of Advice from Europe: Soft Power Works

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A Word of Advice from Europe: Soft Power Works

The current buzzword on the trans-Atlantic circuit is “strategic divide”. The litany of United States-European bust ups is well known and needs no repeating. What is more interesting is what connects the dots between Iraq, ICC, Kyoto, Israel-Palestine, the Bio-weapons Convention and so on. Here it is necessary to separate out long-term trends and the temporary fluctuations on it. Contrary to much media speculation, a trans-Atlantic agreement on how to handle Iraq is not only possible, but also even likely. Probably all European governments will eventually support the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions – and a number will even send troops to fight alongside the United States. But this coming together on Iraq should not obscure a deeper, underlying trend that will characterize American-European relations in the coming decade.

It is clear that the vast majority of Europeans, including staunch Atlanticists, believe that the nature of global problems today calls for better rules, stronger institutions and more consistent enforcement procedures. The reasons for this multilateral reflex have nothing to do with Old Left neuroses about American power, or cynical inclinations about “tying down the American giant”. Instead, they have everything to do with the legitimacy and effectiveness of international action. European policymakers are not blind to the defects of various non-proliferation regimes or to the slow pace in UN decision-making. But, for Europe, as maddening as it may be, such international institutions, global rules and multi-faceted strategies are the only way in which tough problems can be solved.

The heavyweights in the Bush Administration, on the contrary, are mostly skeptical – if not scornful – about the long-term value, to America, of a rule-based international system. Already before September 11, key American foreign policy strategists played up the need to free the United States from dubious international constraints and play down the value of acting through international organizations. Multilateralism, they essentially said, is for wimps. Since 9/11, there has been a resurgence of this strategy due to the mortal threats faced by the United States.

The new national security strategy, unveiled in September 2002, confirmed this Hobbesian worldview. Team Bush reiterated that the United States must retain its unparalleled military primacy; that it will prevent enemies from threatening it with weapons of mass destruction; and that it will strike pre-emptively whenever it sees itself at risk. It is the last bit that really unsettles Europeans. For the document made clear that America will act as the sole arbiter of what constitutes a threat, and of when it may decide on pre-emptive retaliation. In so far as the administration pays lip service to multilateralism, it defines that concept simply in terms of ad hoc coalitions – other countries signing up for a US-defined strategy but without a real influence over the nature of that strategy. The mantra holds that the mission defines the coalition, not the other way around. In sum, Washington will not be constrained by any broader set of international principles. And herein lies the crux – the fundamental disagreement that will not go away, even if a war on Iraq does not degenerate into the “mother of all trans-Atlantic battles”. It is true that it has become a tired cliché to argue that Europeans are from Venus while Americans are from Mars. But, as with most clichés, it contains a large element of truth. On the whole, Europeans think that the consistent application and expansion of global rules and norms is vital – both in terms of effectiveness and legitimacy. Without international rules, the global system will degenerate into the law of the jungle. And we have been there before…

Bob Kagan’s seminal essay, Power and Weakness, has in many ways become th e central point of departure for the trans-Atlantic debates on this divergence in worldviews. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has sent it round to members of Europe’s strategic community describing it as “essential reading”. It clearly has many strengths – being both thoughtful and thought provoking. But as with comparable neo-conservative analyses, it also has curious omissions and blind spots, which make the conclusions less compelling.

First the praise: Kagan and company are absolutely right in saying that we should stop pretending that Europe and America share a similar world outlook. The soothing mantras of “common interests” and “shared values” that leaders trot out at summits are no longer convincing. The hard truth is that Europeans and Americans disagree on what matters as an international problem (the “madmen and loose nukes” agenda vs. the “dark side of globalization”). Equally, Washington and Brussels differ over what strategy works best (unilateral application of military power vs. multilateral blending of diplomatic and economic initiatives).

To explain these differences, neo-conservatives such as Kagan point to the huge discrepancy in military power. America retains a Hobbesian worldview because it alone is responsible for upholding global order and has equipped itself with the tools to do so. It is strong and feels comfortable wielding military power – simply because it can. If by contrast you are weak, such as the Europeans, you choose not to confront but to negotiate.

No one should belittle the huge differences in military capabilities, or the knock-on effects this has on how Europe and America look at the world. Of course European countries should beef up their inadequate military capabilities. But Europeans may reply that America’s overmilitarization has its own problems. It gets close to the saying: if the only instrument you have is a hammer, all your problems start looking like a nail.

The more important question: Which strategy works? It is a question on which American conservatives are often curiously silent. We should at least debate how useful ‘full-spectrum dominance’ is when dealing with the world’s most important problems. Is it really helping us to sort out failed states in the greater Middle East and Central Asia; anchor Russia in a Westward direction; or manage China’s integration in the global system? Not really. And what use has American hard power been in shaping the reputation it has internationally? At present, it often evokes more resentment and disdain than trust and respect. Even Afghanistan, which earlier seemed to vindicate the view that military unilateralism works, is looking fragile.

These are not academic questions – they have direct policy relevance. America is certainly capable of a hit-and-run military intervention in Iraq. And victory will come sooner than some European skeptics believe. But will it solve the problem? The argument that American intervention in Iraq will not only finish off Saddam Hussein, but also unlock the Israel-Palestine question and, by itself, usher in a new era of democracy and reform in the greater Middle East, is very optimistic, if not naïve. A solution to Arab state-failure and a comprehensive peace settlement are needed urgently. But they cannot be the outcome of a war against Iraq. More pluralist politics, less religious extremism, and better functioning economies require the kind of painstaking ‘nation-building’ activities that the Bush team abhors.

Kagan is right to criticize the Europeans for being obsessed with process at the expense of outputs. But he himself is looking at the wrong outputs. It doesn’t matter the number of planes or precision-guided weapons you have. What matters is how good you are at solving problems. Framed like this, it is clear that both Europeans and Americans have reason to be satisfied, as well as ashamed, of their foreign policy performance. For its part the EU is slowly getting its a ct together, not just in the Balkans or the Mediterranean, but also in a deeper, more structural sense. The great value of Europe’s approach to international affairs is that it seeks to create intensive webs of reciprocal obligations and exchange with other countries. It is telling the Iranians that if they want to trade with the EU, they have to make progress on political pluralism and proliferation issues. The EU also tries to boost the capacity of international regimes to tackle new issues: On global warming with Kyoto, war crimes with the ICC, landmines, bio-weapons and small arms with the relevant UN conventions, etc., the EU approach has produced real results – often in the face of US indifference and, sometimes, opposition.

Neo-conservatives love to slam the Europeans for their free-rider behavior and urge them to boost defense spending in the name of trans-Atlantic burden sharing. But they fail to examine how useful military assets really are in solving global problems. No surprise, therefore, that they sidestep Washington’s abysmal performance in the non-military area. The guiding principle for a sensible trans-Atlantic debate on contributions to global security should be: first redefine, then rebalance.

Steven Everts is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform and Director of its trans-Atlantic program.

This article was first published in the National Interest.

For more CER analyses go to the

CER website.


Subscribe to our newsletters