European Affairs

Letter from the Publisher     Print Email

"Counteractions" in Power Politics

 A new theory is gaining ground among political analysts in Europe and elsewhere: "counteractions" in power politics are becoming as important as actions, if not more so. In other words, policy and strategic initiatives by the United States may generate reactions that work against the goal of the initiatives, which is to maintain security, prosperity and power for America. The theory is particularly applicable at a time when the United States, as the sole superpower, is subject to criticism from many directions. It reflects a way of looking at the world in terms of the long-term effects of policies and actions, and the reactions they provoke, rather than in the light of short-term political calculations.

The United States now needs more than $1.2 billion per day from the outside world to balance its finances. Washington argues that by consuming more than it produces it has done the world a great service. Running huge trade deficits allows developing countries and others to sell their goods in the U.S. market. Some European and third world economists, however, now suspect that promoting free trade in poor countries and inducing them to open their borders to the powerful forces of world trade prevents them from developing their own economies internally and contributes to lowering their purchasing power. If this were the case, it would maintain world demand at a lower level than it would be if those countries implemented national or regional economic policies.

The imperial stature of the United States allows the American people to enjoy a standard of living which may be 15 to 20 percent higher than would be attainable if the United States had to balance its trade and budget deficits, which are now financed by others. Many orthodox American economists have long maintained that the huge U.S. external deficit is unsustainable over the medium term. The broader question now being asked by counteraction theorists is whether the overall political and strategic pre-eminence of the United States may also be unsustainable. Some argue that, despite its military power, the United States is becoming more and more vulnerable. They warn that military power alone will not be enough to maintain U.S. predominance. Americans living abroad are increasingly exposed to hostility, and while foreigners have no say in U.S. political decisions, which often have extra-territorial implications, they can vote with their wallets.

Foreign direct investment in the United States has fallen from $124 billion in 2001 to only $21.9 billion in the first nine months of 2002. The dollar has begun to decline against the euro. This, the argument goes, may be part of a global counteraction to the United States that could ultimately - although, hopefully, not too quickly - reduce American power to the point at which the United States becomes something more like a "normal" nation. Some argue that such an outcome would even be suitable for the American people.

The relationship between the United States and the European Union should be based on interaction rather than counteraction. If the United States plays by the international rules, follows a path of consultation and compromise, and avoids creating unintended backlashes against its policies, the relationship is more likely to work. If, on the other hand, the sole superpower loses touch with the way others see it, its leaders will melt their wings by flying too close to the sun.

The current differences between the two sides of the Atlantic are explored in this issue of European Affairs in a debate between Chris Patten, European Commissioner for External Relations and Richard Perle, Chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. It seems clear, however, that the United States has not yet chosen whether it wants to remain a global economic empire or simply be first among equals.

Compared to the United States, the European Union lacks political coherence and economic dynamism. Structural reforms, the admission of new members and institutional construction are only in their early stages. There is an unbalanced relationship between the United States and a Europe of nation states that are sometimes easy to play off against each other. Such manipulation cannot be a good long-term strategy for America.

What the Europeans want to make of their continent will be defined not only by their leaders, but also by public opinion. A recent opinion survey by the German Marshall Fund and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations suggests that most Europeans want a stronger Europe capable of cooperating with the United States, rather than antagonizing it. Many Europeans, however, are also concerned about the course that the United States is taking in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. They fear that it is adopting an excessively military approach toward world terrorism and other threats.

Public opinion in many European countries considers that economic development and social fairness, including major efforts in education and health, should be a more important part of the solution to world problems than currently envisioned by the United States. There are fears that flexing military muscles will backfire. And some feel that more financial discipline in America would be beneficial to the world. It is clearly more worrying if a superpower adopts mistaken policies than if a lesser power does so. Small states make small mistakes - those of great powers are more dramatic. Europeans, as the closest allies of the United States, have a duty to warn their American friends, particularly at a dangerous time when both sides of the Atlantic need to stick together.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number IV, Issue number I in the Winter of 2003.

  • High Skills versus Family-Based Immigration Policy: Complex Considerations.

    By Nicholas Zill

    In the current era of rapid demographic and technological change, and massive refugee flows, there has been much debate in European nations and in the US about immigration policies. One of the major points of contention is whether preferences should be given to would-be entrants on the basis of their high skills (merit-based immigration) or their family ties to individuals already residing in the country (family reunification).

    Read more ...

UMD Jean Monnet Research Project

Infrastructure Planning and Financing: Lessons from Europe and the United States

The University of Maryland has received a Jean Monnet grant from the EU to conduct a series of policy exchanges between Europe and the US on filling infrastructure needs and the utility of public/private partnerships as the financing mechanism. If interested in participating in or receiving more information about these exchanges, please contact Rye McKenzie (

Read more ...

New from the Bertelsmann Foundation

The Bertelsmann Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC with a transatlantic perspective on global challenges.

"Edge of a Precipice" by Nathan Crist

"Newpolitik" by Emily Hruban


Summer Course