European Affairs

U.S. Attitudes Evolve About EU Security Ambitions     Print Email

When it comes to U.S. thinking about the development of a security policy by the European Union, there are three main schools of thought that can be discerned in the policy community. The spectrum is always present, but dominance has evolved among the three currents. All the Americans concerned with the issue have a grounding in strategy, so they posit U.S. interests as a starting point for their evaluation of European objectives.

The first group can be called “the skeptics,” who dismiss or belittle the development of an EU security policy. They argue that security issues remain in the hands of national policy- makers and insist that European states are unlikely to concede sovereignty on these issues any time soon. The skeptics point to the widely divergent views of Europeans on the big strategic dossiers, notably the future course of a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).

They cite the gap in this area between small and big European countries and the division between those that emphasize the development of more muscular, military instruments in ESDP and those that, on the contrary, emphasize the development of civilian instruments in ESDP. Finally, the skeptics cite the lack of stronger military capabilities among the European nations and their low military spending. In the view of most such U.S. skeptics, the real security challenges of today – the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism – are best handled through bilateral relations and, if necessary, through NATO. In sum, for most such skeptics, ESDP is an irrelevant irritant. This stream of thought was dominant in the early 1990s, and it continues to attract a reasonable number of followers in U.S. policy circles.

A second group can be characterized as “the wary.” They recognize the efforts by the Europeans to build up their military capabilities, but view these efforts largely as an attempt to balance U.S power. The wary believe that, in an anarchic world, powers and blocs feel compelled to maximize their strength and do everything possible to avoid the domination of a single power. In other words, ESDP is viewed as a European riposte to unipolarity under U.S. aegis. So for these Americans, the development of ESDP is viewed as a desire by the Europeans to lessen U.S. influence in the world and marginalize the role of the United States in Europe. In this view, ESDP will exacerbate differences between the U.S. and Europe and duplicate – read undermine – NATO structures. For this group, Jacques Chirac was a potential nemesis and their “exhibit A” was (Foreign Minister) Hubert Védrine’s phrase that “France cannot accept a politically unipolar world… or the unilateralism of a single Hyperpower.” This school of thought was dominant in the late 1990’s and in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.

A third group comprises “conditional supporters”: they acknowledge Europeans’ efforts to beef up their military capabilities, but they want to see it happen only on U.S. terms. They recognize that the development of ESDP could undermine U.S. influence in Europe, undercut NATO’s role and, over time, make the EU “a less docile ally.” Yet they remain hopeful that the development of European military capabilities can be channeled to support U.S. policies. They are strong believers in the transatlantic relationship and argue that basic American and European values and interests have not diverged – not at the end of the cold war, and not after 9/11. In this view, if done right, the development of a serious EU defense force could be “a good thing for all concerned – reducing American burdens in Europe, making Europe a better and more capable partner, and providing a way for Europeans to tackle security problems where and when the U.S. cannot or will not get involved.” (This argument appears in the writing of such U.S. experts as Philip Gordon, Esther Brimmer and Daniel Hamilton.) They will support ESDP as long as it is not trying to compete with NATO. They welcome the development of the civilian instruments of ESDP and see them as highly complementary to the military instruments of NATO. As U.S. forces are bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans have acquired greater appreciation of ESDP’s potential. Positive experiences in the Balkans and Africa have also helped to increase appreciation of ESDP. Ultimately, advocates of this stream of thought would like to see a division of labor between the EU and NATO, whereby the latter would concentrate on high-end missions and the former on post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction. This stream of thought – of conditional support – is dominant today. As Hamilton has argued convincingly, the way Americans have approached ESDP is similar to U.S. reactions to other big advances in European integration such as the single market or the Euro. Initial skepticism is followed by worry about negative consequences for U.S. interests, followed by conditional support.

It is important to underscore that thinking about EU Security Policy does not follow strict party-lines. There is not a Democratic view and a Republican view. Democrats may seem more inclined to be conditional supporters of ESDP. But this is only true on condition that such support seems in tune with U.S. interests.

Chantal de Jonge Oudraat is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS, Johns Hopkins University and Vice President of Women in International Security (WIIS). This article is adapted from a presentation at the Center in June 2007.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.

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