Europe Must "Emancipate" Itself -- Obama Offer Can't be Refused     Print Email

By Jean-Claude Casanova

(This article appeared in Le Monde newspaper in its edition dated Nov. 16, 2009.)

At the end of President George W. Bush’s second term in office, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the distinguished analyst, put forward the idea that two conditions had to be met in order to advance transatlantic relations: America had to go through “regime change,” and another “regime” had to emerge in Europe. He meant that the United States had to have a presidency with a less unilateral vision of the world, and that Europe had to achieve a higher degree of political unity. Now Barack Obama has been elected and the Lisbon Treaty has been ratified. Have these conditions been met?

Europeans were wholeheartedly favorable to the election of Barack Obama; Americans have elected a president who inspires unreserved admiration in Europe. According to July findings by Transatlantic Trends, an annual survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund on each side of the Atlantic, 77% of Europeans approved (in July) of Obama’s foreign policy as compared to only 57% of Americans.

In contrast, at the end of the Bush term, only 19% of Europeans approved of U.S. foreign policy. The wave of “Obamamania” has erased anti-Americanism. In France, where this sentiment was was widespread, the population now feels better disposed to Washington than it does toward Brussels: the EU boasts a 66% approval rating among Europeans whereas the figure for the U.S. is 74%.

But the vast majority of Europeans – 76% – wish that Europe would exercise greater global leadership whereas only 56% of them wish for more U.S. leadership (and only 44% want that among eastern and central Europeans, probably because they find Obama too conciliatory toward Russia). At the same time, however, this widespread and steady opinion among Europeans favoring a greater role for Europe does not correspond to the attitudes of European governments, which for several years now, to varying degrees, have shown themselves to be inclined toward renationalization of their foreign policies. So, before proclaiming that the putting into force (the phrase sounds odd given the current state of Europe!) of the Lisbon Treaty is going to change things, one must ask what a renewal of the EU-US relationship could look like.

Why has the transatlantic link weakened in the last 20 years? [Because] the Soviet enemy has disappeared. While it prevailed, fear dogged the Europeans and they stayed close to the Americans. The cold war united; peace separates. Now disagreements can surge into the open because there is no longer a common cause [requiring a united front]. The Americans, after September 11th, went to war in Afghanistan to root out the Taliban, and the Europeans, moved by the Islamist aggression that hit New York, invoked the NATO charter’s Article 5 and declared themselves on America’s side. But the United States, blinded by rage, [went to war] while forgetting to first rally the Europeans.

Despite this, European help still came through: 37% of foreign troops in Afghanistan are European, and Europe spends about as much there as America does. And yet two facts must be recognized about Afghanistan: the strategy is decided by the Americans alone, and European public opinion is no longer favorable to the war there or any other war. One must keep in mind that, in the Western world, there remain only two countries in which public opinion accepts the legitimacy of using force to settle international disputes: England and the United States. The historical misadventures of Europe have rendered its inhabitants pacifists. European opinion did not support second Iraq war, and it divided the governments of the EU. 

As the Germans remind us, the economic crisis that affects the Western world is attributable to the United States. The Americans did not control the expansion of their financial system (nor did Great Britain), and they let themselves get dug ever deeper in debt to China: that country saves, exports and accumulates credit while America imports, consumes and indebts itself. China and India’s entry into the free market and capitalism is moving the [global] political and economic center of gravity toward the Pacific.

When President Obama announced that the relationship between China and the United States will give “shape to the 21st century,” he was making it known that this “G-2” has become the most important of all international relationships and that we are in the middle of a relative weakening of the transatlantic sphere, in which Europe itself holds a minor status. The passage from the G-7 to the G-20 also translates a relative fall from grace for the European-American tandem.

Meanwhile the United States possesses 40% of the world’s armed power and maintains the capability of intervention anywhere in the world. European forces are not comparable, even though Europe exceeds the U.S. in the number of people under arms. So Europe cannot consider itself a world power, especially since in the wake of the cold war it has reduced its military spending more than the United States.

This situation explains the fact that the transatlantic relationship appears weakened from both the European and the American side. The United States no longer guarantees the security of a Europe that (except in its East) does not fear post-Soviet Russia. The alliance remains, but NATO, formerly at the heart of Atlantic solidarity, has become an uncertain something that links the United States, Canada, different European countries and Turkey. The EU as such does not belong to NATO, and not all the EU’s members are members of NATO. No one thought to call the annual EU-US summit a G-2, because it was essentially a meeting without meaning, in which the US president met with 27 European heads of state. If the transatlantic relationship cannot be what it once was, nor be satisfied with what it is, what is to become of it?

Barack Obama is the first American president who is not entirely of European heritage. He did not choose Europe for his first trip outside the U.S. However, when he did come, he stated: “We want strong allies. We do not consider ourselves the patrons of Europe. We consider ourselves partners of Europe.”

Benevolent rhetoric, as demanded by the situation, but notice the word “partner.” It is not a new one, but what new meaning can we give it now? It fits naturally into the continuity of U.S. policy toward Europe. The objective of that policy was to preserve Europe as an ally, encourage the growth of its military capacity in order to better share the common burden, spur it to expand toward Turkey and even further eastward and see Europe reinforce its political unity.

These objectives remain, but have become more ambiguous. The enlargement of Europe would hinder its political integration. America may find it more convenient to pursue bilateral relations with the most influential European states rather than find itself facing a single interlocutor, even one that now has the famous “phone number for Europe” that Kissinger had sought in vain. Pushing Europe and NATO eastward irritates Russia, but at the same time this pressure is perhaps a tool used in negotiations between Russia and America -- above the Europeans’ heads?

Let us assume that America really is searching for a European partner and that it will take it as it is: a composite and partially integrated [entity] such as Europe currently is and potentially a more coherent Europe once the Lisbon Treaty takes effect. 

Of course, in terms of power the two partners will remain unequal for a long time. But they are culturally identical. They have the same roots. America speaks a European language and belongs to the same civilization as Europe. Both share the same values, have democratic institutions and respect individual liberties. Their common institution, NATO, still legitimizes the presence of American troops and military bases on European soil, and it has rediscovered a role for itself in the pacification of ex-Yugoslavia and now in the war in Afghanistan. All that counts, but is not decisive in constituting a partnership.

A report published November 2009 -- “Towards a Post-American Europe: A Power Audit of EU-US Relations” by Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney – opens an interesting path for discussion. Written by an American expert and a British diplomat from the European Council on Foreign Relations and reflecting interviews with European elites on international affairs, the report is expressed with cutting force.

The main idea is that the Europeans do not understand that the world has changed – that his is now a “post-American” era. The end of the cold war and globalization mean that the United States no longer dominates Europe. We in Europe must therefore go from a situation of [U.S.] domination to partnership. The new administration in Washington provides an occasion to do so. It is up to Europeans to seize it. But how?

First, by renouncing their [security] illusions, the report suggests. One such illusion is that the United States still guarantees Europe’s security (no doubt because the threat has disappeared), that America and Europe will have the same overriding interest, and that Europeans must cling to close and harmonious relationship with America as a treasure – even to the point at which Europeans would renounce their own objectives. Another dimension of this illusion is that Europeans must avoid alliances among themselves that run counter to U.S. wishes to preserve the special relationships that each country imagines it has with America. All these are false principles that make us complacent and keep Europe from defending its positions – and thereby deprive the United States of a real partner.

Realism would require Europeans to conduct themselves politically as they have to do in economy or commerce -- meaning that they speak with one voice after having reached agreement among themselves. This is the essential recommendation of the report; the institutional problems are secondary. We must break our habits of deference and be done once and for all with bilateral relations between [individual] European countries and the United States.

People could argue that it is enough for people to develop a thought-out, determined view on these matters and that institutions really need to be left in place because they are accountable and can lift up mankind.

But if Europe exists in terms of commerce and a single currency, it is because a treaty provided the EU with the commercial leverage it needed to negotiate with the other global powers and because another treaty created the eurozone and a federal institution, the European Central Bank, which manages a currency that has in ten years become the second-strongest currency in the world. And the report is right to consider that copious servings of transatlantic ovaltine and warm milk have the effect of putting everyone to sleep. Instead, Europeans must prove their existence by means other than fanciful, grand lofty propositions and subterranean bilateral maneuvers.

To demonstrate this, the report does not mince words in depicting the American behavior that results from European weaknesses. On the big strategic questions such as the future of China, America purely and simply ignores Europe. Brent Scowcroft, former advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush Sr., went even further -- judging that “the Europeans are strategically exhausted.” On the Middle East, where the Europeans have strong and divergent positions from Washington, the United States acts alone, in effect marginalizing or manipulating Europe for U.S. objectives. On Iran and Afghanistan, on the other hand, because the European consensus is solid, the U.S. does seek to collaborate with NATO and the EU. On Russia, an issue that above all concerns Europe, European attitudes diverge, so the U.S. can divide and reign – deciding to install anti-missile defenses in Poland and then pull them out, without consulting the rest of Europe.

On three specific issues: Russia, the Middle East and Afghanistan, the report rightly shows that the Europeans could and should conceive their own strategy: they have interests in these parts of the world, knowledge of the issues and the tools to act together. Then they could debate with the Americans and decided to work together or work separately, depending on whether or not their views converge on issues. The same should go for matters of finance. Currently, there is a race between the U.S. and Europe about the right regulatory framework [to shape the future financial architecture].

Europe has no reason to accept norms that would penalize its large banks. In the U.S., Congress will accept international regulations (begrudgingly, on  this issue as on a lot of others). But Europe can preserve its own interests and make itself heard only if it acts together (Great Britain included), in proposing, as suggested by [Chairman of the European Savings Observatory], a financial treaty enshrining the future Basel Accords. The same goes for China’s currency exchange rate: nothing should prohibit Europe from working its way into the dialogue between Beijing and Washington and proposing deep reforms of the international monetary system.

This is what we must mean by “partnership” -- a relationship between two equals. The transatlantic relationship is not good for much if the European partner is not fully functional. That is why it is not enough simply to “apply” the Lisbon Treaty and be satisfied.

It is important for the newly created “EU leaders” positions to be well-filled, including the new President of the European Council and also the vice-president of the Commission who will be responsible for international affairs. Tacitus once remarked that the greatness of the Germans came from the fact that though they chose their king from among the nobles, those who were given positions of actual command were elected for their virtue, ex virtute, their courage and their discernment, and not ex nobilitate, according to their nobility. 

Beyond the Lisbon Treaty and the individuals chosen for the new positions, who are being selected as this piece is written, European decision-makers must learn to play by the rules of international politics, just as they have for commerce and currency. These conditions demand energy and often seem illogical. They are. Things are often illogical in politics. The one sure thing  is that nothing is ever gained by despair.


Jean-Claude Casanova is a leading French policy intellectual. A disciple of Raymond Aron, he is the founder and editor of the highly regarded journal, Commentaire.