In a time warp: Europe and American Superpower

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In a time warp: Europe and American Superpower

In its personal column, Ian Davidson, analyses the problems posed for European relations with the United States as a result of the shift in US strategy by the Bush Administration.

Since the election of President George W. Bush, European-United States relations have deteriorated sharply. European critics have charged the US Administration with reckless, quasi-imperial unilateralism; American critics have retorted that the Europeans are whining wimps. Both accusations may be true. The question is, what can Europe do to help remedy this alienation?

The simple answer is brutal: probably very little. Europe cannot expect to change US policy, nor can it simply fall in behind US policy. But this is not the end of the story. If the deterioration in trans-Atlantic relations continues, as is likely, Europeans will have to think much more intensely and much more independently than they have so far done, both about the underlying reality of European-American relations, and about the principles and practices of the defence of European interests.

Nobody should be surprised that the end of the Cold War was likely, sooner or later, to expose the underlying differences of interests and of attitudes between the US and Europe that had once been contained by the Soviet threat. What is perhaps surprising, is how rapidly and comprehensively the new US Administration has distanced itself from the principles that broadly characterised US policy in the past half century. The main contribution of the West to international governance since World War II has been the promotion of multilateralism and multilateral institutions. But under this Administration the central theme of US policy has been its unilateralism, from the rejection of the Kyoto environment treaty to the abandonment of the ABM arms control treaty, from the imposition of steel tariffs to massive subsidies for the US farm industry.

There was a brief moment, after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, when some European observers believed the Administration might be having second thoughts about unilateralism, especially when Washington appealed to its European allies to invoke NATO’s Article V and the principle of collective defence. But this moment passed. It quickly became clear that the US intended to wage war in Afghanistan, against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, essentially on its own terms, and without owing any obligation to the multilateralism of NATO. And now it appears that the Administration is set on waging a war against Iraq, again on its own if necessary.

In the case of Afghanistan, US military unilateralism was not too difficult. The US spends far more on defence than its European allies, and its military capability is quite different, in quality as well as in quantity. For a small war in Afghanistan, it virtually did not need its European allies.

Whether the US could conduct a war in Iraq on the same basis is perhaps another matter. The overthrow of the regime in Afghanistan turned out to be much easier than sceptical analysts had forecast, primarily because the Taliban gave up virtually without a fight. But it would obviously be a mistake to assume that victory would be easy in Iraq, just because it was easy in Afghanistan. In any case, even in Afghanistan it is now clear that military victory is proving to be only the first phase in what will be a prolonged post-war process.

If, as we are led to believe, the US object in waging a war in Iraq would be to bring about a “régime change” in Baghdad and the ousting of Saddam Hussein, it obviously could not be conducted mainly by high-level aerial bombardment, but would require very large ground forces, running into the tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of troops. Could the US mobilise forces on such a scale? Possibly. But the lar ger the forces required, the more difficult it would be; and if the purpose really is “régime change”, then the phase of military conquest would have to be backed up by more forces, for a prolonged period of months or more probably years, of post-war stabilisation and institution-building. War against Iraq would be a much bigger and a much riskier affair than war against Afghanistan.

It could also be a dangerously testing development for the North Atlantic Alliance. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the invocation of NATO’s Article V, the European allies were ready and willing to contribute to a small war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The US preferred to dispense with their help, apart from a marginal contribution from the ever-eager British. In the case of a much larger war against Iraq, even the US superpower might find that it wanted some help from the allies, but that this time round the allies (with the possible exception, once more, of the ever-eager British) might be unwilling to provide any kind of blank cheque.

In such circumstances it will become clear that the difficulty, for the Europe-US relationship, is not just a question of the gap in military, financial and technological resources, but is mainly a question of differences in political perceptions and priorities.

Since the implosion of the former Soviet Union, the United States has secured unchallengeable military superiority over all other countries, including all its NATO allies, and on present plans this gap can only get wider. The defence budget increases planned by the Bush Administration will turn the quantitative gap in military capability into a chasm, and the relentless acceleration in US military technology will shift effective military cooperation between the US and Europe from being unnecessary and unwelcome, to being impossible.

It may be argued that European governments should try to close the gap, by increasing their own defence spending levels. Maybe they should, though there is precious little sign that any of them intends to do so to any significant extent; but even if they did, there would still be two major problems.

The first problem is that European Nato consists of 16 separate countries, 16 separate defence budgets, and 16 separate defence forces. Even if they were, collectively, to match US defence spending levels, they could not match US defence capability unless they combined their defence spending in a single defence budget. In other words, Europe could not begin to match the US unless it became something like a single federation. Tony Blair has said that he wants Europe to be “a superpower but not a super-state”, but this catchy little slogan is designed to deceive, not to illuminate. Everyone knows that the European Union cannot be even partly a superpower, unless it is also partly a super-state.

Whether the European Union will ever, or should ever, become partly a super-state, is in effect one of the key questions facing the current EU Convention chaired by Giscard d’Estaing. But since most political leaders, in France and Britain at least, seem determined to resist any move in this direction, it seems unlikely that there will be early progress towards turning the EU into a semi-superpower.

The second and more important problem is that, for a variety of reasons, the Europeans do not set as high a value as the US on purely military capability. Not all of these reasons are admirable: during the Cold War some European allies got used to free-loading on the US super-power; and some were double free-loaders by choosing neutrality.

But free-loading is not the whole of the story, whatever US politicians may sometimes imply. From Washington, the past half-century may look like the story of a victorious Cold War against an outside enemy; but from Europe, it looks more like the story of a slow but unremitting effort to find political, economic, le gal, and institutional alternatives to military power as a way of tackling geo-political problems.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, European countries were repeatedly at war with each other, and in the first half of the 20th century they succeeded in turning these conflicts into two World Wars. After the second of these World Wars, however, they tried an entirely new tack, with the great experiment of peaceful European integration and institution-building; there had to be a better way than fighting any more wars.

This institution-building is far from complete, but the process has transformed mental attitudes in Europe: Europeans are now irrevocably committed to peaceful solutions for their own international problems, and they increasingly think that peaceful solutions, or at least partly-peaceful solutions, will be useful for other peoples’ conflicts.

The present US administration, by contrast, seems to put a much lower priority on multilateral institutions and international contracts, and a much higher priority on war and the rhetoric of war. And we can see this contrast being acted out on the ground. In the Balkans, the bombing was carried out mainly by the US; the peace-keeping is being carried out mainly by the Europeans.

There are, of course, local and pragmatic reasons why the Europeans set a high priority on peace-keeping and reconstruction in the Balkans. War in these countries is a direct threat to the interests and stability of Western Europe, so European governments have a direct interest in promoting peace. Moreover, EU governments have decided that all these countries, like those in Central and Eastern Europe, are legitimate candidates for membership of the European Union. Therefore, it is generally acknowledged, it is in the EU interest to help them qualify in terms of political, civil and economic stability.

Some people would say that similar arguments ought surely to have been equally resonant to the political elite in Washington. Yet the striking fact is that it is very difficult to argue that US policy towards its neighbours in Central and Latin America and the Caribbean has ever been informed by considerations of democracy, national autonomy and international stability. From Chile to Guatemala, from Cuba to Colombia to Venezuela, there has been a long-established pattern of intervention and destabilisation by the US.

It has been suggested that the US and the European Union represent, not just two different social and political models, but two different phases in history of political development. The US, according to this argument, is a classic modern (i.e. 19th century) nation-state, increasingly obsessed with national interests rather than with global governance, and with military power as the ever-ready instrument for imposing them on the rest of the world. The EU, by contrast, is said to be a new type of post-modern “state”, less reliant on military capability and the opportunities for conflict with the rest of the world, and more focused on law, negotiation, contract and multilateral stability.

Such an antithesis is schematic almost to the point of caricature. Or at least it was, until the election of President George W. Bush. In living memory, it used to be conventional for Americans to denounce the British Empire, or even the Commonwealth, on the grounds that it was an intolerable colonial relic. Today, astonishingly, mainstream commentators in America brazenly rejoice in the idea that the US is the new imperial superpower.

Some would say that the current phase of US militaristic unilateralism is likely to prove a passing phase, an anachronistic, nostalgic but only temporary throw-back to the days when the nation-state was triumphant, and that in a world of globalism the compelling case for multilateral governance will unavoidably reassert itself, sooner or later. This seems a plausible argument. But the unprecedented popul arity of President Bush, ever since the September 11 attacks, suggests that he is likely to pursue the policy of militaristic unilateralism until it fails. And when it fails, as it is bound to do, it will fail partly as a result of profound policy differences with the Europeans.

That will be a very difficult moment, both for relations between the European Union and the US, and for relations between members of the EU. In view of the fact that the crisis may well be precipitated quite soon, by the projected US war against Iraq, you might think that European governments would be starting to make pre-emptive preparations. So far, they seem to be in denial; and Tony Blair seems to imply that of course Britain will go to war against Iraq if President Bush says “Go”. It is hard to credit such stupidity.

In short, the EU may or may not be a new “post-modern state”; but for the moment, some of the old Member States of the EU are still locked in the same antique time-warp as the US, of belief in the classic 19th century nation state. The forthcoming crisis over the war against Iraq may force some new thinking.

Ian Davidson is a senior British commentator on European affairs and a member of the Editorial Board of Challenge Europe

For more analyses see The European Policy Centre’s


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