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Dr. Alyson J.K. BAILES

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute SIPRI


Is there still a Common Agenda?

Paris, 12 December 2002

Lecture in the International Seminar for Experts "ESDP, NATO Enlargement, and the New US Foreign Policy - How to Organise Europe's Security and Defence?", organised by the Cicero Foundation in the series Great Debates, Paris, 12 - 13 December 2002.

Mr. Chairman, Dear Colleagues,

The title I suggested for my talk today is deliberately provocative. You may already have suspected that my personal conclusions would be less so. Indeed, one of the reasons why I want to raise the question of a common trans-Atlantic agenda is to force us to contemplate what kind of world we would be living in if the US and Europe did not share certain common goals. We know that the US/European relationship must always include certain clements of tension and competition. This is so particularly in the economic, the technological and, in a certain sense, the cultural field. It was so even in the days of greatest Western solidarity during the Cold War. But up to now, we have lived secure in the assumption that there will be enough elements of common interest and belief, and enough specific networks and frameworks and habits of the Euro-Atlantic cooperation, to keep the balance of our relationship tilted towards the positive. If it were not so, if the net balance of US/European interactions were to become one of division and alienation, it is not just the future of NATO, the security role of the EU and Europe's general strategic situation that would need some radical re-thinking. Other countries who aspire to democracy and to respectability within the international order would have to decide whether they were following the US or the European model, and which side they should align themselves with in terms of power politics. Europe might be offered alliances by some players still not considered hundred percent respectable, and would have tough choices over whether to accept. Parts of the world still needing aid, protection and guidance could no longer benefit from the coordinated or at least, compatible application of US and European resources. This is without even starting to talk about the implications for institutions at global and regional level.

The Reasons of the US - EU Divide

As a simple matter of observation, it seems to me that we are not yet living in a world like that: and yet, there is more concern and debate at present within the Western community than I can remember at least in my lifetime over whether we may be heading irreversibly in that direction. The reasons are so regularly hashed over in the media and academic debate that I will cover them only briefly now. Some are presented as objective historical changes: the uniting effect of the Cold War threat has gone, the US has risen to a position of unchallenged and virtually unchecked global dominance, while Europe has indoctrinated itself through fifty years of integrated existence into a condition where it can see security-building only in non-military, cooperative, political and economic terms and has no will or at least no common will to ward off threats by force. NATO, it is argued, thus risks becoming obsolete because in Europe were it is united it is (or will soon be) no longer needed, and outside Europe where action is needed the Allies are neither united on targets and principles nor on practical military doctrines. Another set of reasons have to do with the terrorist outrages of 11/9/01, followed by the anthrax scare within the US: a combination of events which gave Americans a new sense of vulnerability but which (some would argue) risked stripping the US of its last reasons to respect the framework of international legality and multilateralism when acting to protect its people. The failure to follow up NATO's Article 5 declaration in the context of the terrorist strikes is quoted ad nauseum here. Another approach one could take is to add up the number of specific, bilateral or international issues on which the US and Europe have found themselves on opposite sides in the last couple of years - trade subsidies, competition rules, the test-ban Treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, the Bacteriological Weapons Convention, the International Criminal Court - and to note that a worrying number of these new disputes involve the fundamentals of how Western security interests are supposed to be defined and served. Finally, there are perceptions from the political field: on the one side European criticisms of the way the US Administration seems to be swayed by radical Right-wing and religious ideologies and by irresponsible special-interest lobbies: on the other side the shock that many Americans felt when a German Chancellor tried to win an election by a rejection of US policy over Iraq - and succeeded. To these negative phenomena I might add the numerous concerns over weakening of the positive incentives to and frameworks for US/European cooperation: the alleged obsolescence of NATO and infancy of the US/EU relationship, the gap in defence technology and doctrine which could make it impractical for most European forces to operate alongside US forces in future, and so forth.

It is perfectly possible, and I have heard both US and European academics do it, to argue away quite a lot of these observations on the grounds that (i) they are no worse than the crises which NATO has survived in the past; (ii) much of European alienation comes from the rhetoric and formulation of US policy, as much as the substance, and this is the product of a particular set of personalities in a particular Administration which may not prove typical for the future; and (iii) (supporting this last theory) there are objective indications such as opinion polls revealing popular approaches to current security challenges which are still quite similar in the US and Europe, including elements of restraint in US opinion and robustness in European opinion. There are many people in San Francisco who would support what Chancellor Schröder said on Iraq and plenty of British, Italian or indeed Polish conservatives who would see nothing wrong in the words of Secretary Rumsfeld. To these frequently made points I would add my own observation that both US and European thinkers are tempted to manipulate arguments about the other side as a weapon in their own internal debates. The liberal US press obviously find it helpful to highlight European anxieties as a warning that their own leaders are going too far. Some committed Europeans seem to like using the theories of, for example, Robert Kagan as a whip to chastise their own continent over the failure of European construction so far to come up with a true single external personality, a real common defence philosophy or even a common threat perception.

I do not actually criticize this kind of dialectic manipulation because where things need to be changed, anxiety is one of the best stimulants: and goodness knows that European policy needs a few good kicks to move it forward at present. But the substance of a correct policy for change must be based on a correct definition of the problem and, for this purpose, I think we must try hard to distinguish between the level of discourse - which itself has a real impact on policy choices in democratic nations - and what Marx would call the infrastructure, i.e. what is actually being done "by whom to whom" and why. In this context I would like at least briefly to look at the objective reasons why US and European interests and perceptions might be diverging at this particular point in time, and I would group them into three categories: history, geography and internal governance.

Why are US and European Interests Diverging?

In terms of history, I believe Europe's 50 years of integration do make a difference, not because we have learned to ignore security concerns in that time but because we have learned to solve them in a different way - through compromise, interdependence, opening up to former or potential enemies and "capturing" them (as it were) within our own community. For the Europeans this process went on within NATO too, while only a small proportion of US forces were ever exposed to the experience of working under a collective command. These experiences have naturally reduced Europe's interest in violent and "exclusive" solutions and created a tendency to see situations in dynamic and transformational, rather than black-and-white and zero-sum terms.

Equally important in my view, these new influences come on top of a longer European experience in which some nations have learned prudence from violent and painful de-colonization processes in their empires, others from the heavy legacy of self-committed atrocities and war guilt. Now, the US has never had colonies or lost them at least in the formal sense, and would not today (so long after Vietnam) see the idea of war guilt as having any relevance to itself. Americans could not by definition share the experiences of integrative security shared by France and Germany in the 1950's, or Poland and Lithuania today: the successful phases of their relations with Russia arguably followed some of the same principles at diplomatic level but obviously did not involve any of the same internal opening, blending and creating of new shared identities. Now at the start of the 21st century, the US has reached the pinnacle of its power in strategic terms, and at least in the senses I have just discussed, it stands there alone. As a historian I do not find it surprising that the US in this situation should declare its determination to use all necessary means to smash down anyone who tries to topple it from its eminence. Apparent American aggressiveness can also be read as the expression of a defensive world-view in which the only perceived avenue for change goes downhill. Europe's historical position is the reverse inasmuch as it is a weak, but organically growing security actor, slowly eating up its borderlands and with no clear limit to its extension: so that even if Europeans do not often consciously reflect on this things, they might be forgiven for taking the more relaxed view that time is probably on their side.

Geography, I think, also creates different preferences in security-building methods. The US has no immediate neighbors who threaten it or with whom it experiences significant interdependence and interpenetration. It maintains a special sensitivity to any kind of intrusion on its territory, whether physical by terrorists or legal by international institutions. It naturally prefers to go out and strike at the threat while still far away, and it is naturally largely immune to the local spill-over or blow-back from such attacks. It is these factors and not just the possibility of military technology which in my view shape the familiar pattern of US remote strikes and rapid in-and-out interventions, and which explain the recurring US obsession with a missile shield to insulate the homeland.

NATO itself always implicitly recognized this separatist temptation by insisting on the stationing of US forces in Europe as a pledge of common risk: a pledge today reduced in size but more importantly in significance since it is not here the direct military threats to the West will come. The difference with Europe is fairly obvious: we live next to numerous areas of crisis and it is we who suffer the floods of refugees, the direct effects of conflict on trade and transport routes, the clouds of radiation blowing over from Chernobyl or the domino effects of spreading animal diseases. We can only hope to manage our borders with the help of people on the other side, which partly explains the inherent expansionism of the European Union. We cannot cut ourselves off from our past colonial regions or engage ourselves only intermittently in their affairs because they are living with us in the shape of millions of immigrants, including millions of Muslims who have become full citizens of the EU.

Terrorism for us is also typically an internal affair, an all-too-familiar historical legacy, which cannot be attacked with the methods of war without exploding our whole societies. It is a matter for long, imperfect, medical cures rather than for sudden surgery. Conversely, the judgement of impartial international law, which for the present US Administration typically appears as a hindrance or even a threat, is typically seen by Europeans as a protection or at least a prosaic necessity: because our whole existence in the EU (and EEA) is undermined by such thousands of common laws, and the European Court is left to resolve disputes over them which in earlier centuries might have been resolved by force of arms.

Last but not least there are differences in governance and especially decision-making practices, which seem to me significant whether the US is compared with Europe as a whole or with individual European countries. The complexities of EU decision-making so often satirized by US writers are not just a symptom of imperfect institution-building, but also a reflection of national traditions which attach importance to maintaining checks and balances. Many features have been deliberately designed to protect the nominal equality of smaller members and the rights of minorities. In European states and collective institutions the political control of the military is also particularly well protected, partly of bad old experiences with military coups and juntas. I hesitate to draw the comparison with the US Constitution because I do not know enough about it, but at least on the evidence of recent events it seems to reserve unusual power to the President to act militarily and to the Congress to frustrate his efforts when he acts diplomatically, e.g. by signing treaties. As for the position of the US military, we have seen its advice brushed aside at policy level as being "risk-averse", but it seems to have great freedom in the planning and conduct of a war and an unusually broad concept of military jurisdiction. Recalling what was said before about opinion polls, I find it easier to connect structural features like these-or the role played by money in elections and the politicization of the public service-with the problematic aspects of US extern policy, rather than to blame the latter on some mysterious quality of the US people who after all have also supported their Presidents also when they did things that pleased the Europeans (like keeping their troops in Bosnia).

Will Centrifugal Trends Dominate the Future of US - EU Relations?

So, must these divergent and centrifugal trends dominate the future: must we say-like a US commentator after 11/9/01-that "the party's over" also for trans-Atlantic and Western unity? There are some common sense observations that point in the other direction, starting with the simple fact that so many people on both sides of the Atlantic are worried about the breach and are struggling to heal it. Then we have the fact that also on the largest and most dangerous disputes, like the handling of Iraq with or without a UN Resolution, and like the various issues concerning the future of world trade, there do still seem to be mechanisms allowing the US and European States to work upon each other and to patch up some kind of functional compromise. There also seems to be a reflex instinct to keep the most divisive issues out of NATO's formal arena, which you might say is a way of marginalizing the Alliance, but you could equally argue that it reflects a shared concern to preserve it. Then one might look at the behaviour of what I might call semi-aligned States, such as Russia and some of the leaders of developing world regions, who do seem to be trying to tighten their ties with something that can still be called "the West" as a whole - and with NATO as a whole in the relevant cases - and who are exploiting only cautiously and selectively the undeniable opportunities to play America and Europe off against each other.

The US is Still the Indispensable Nation

Setting aside all sentimentalism, one could attribute European or Russian or Chinese behaviour to the same basic realization that the US is simply too powerful to be provoked unnecessarily and too powerful to be thrown away as a possible partner. Whether you call it bandwaggoning, harnessing the hegemon, "letting the tough guys do the dirty work", or more hopefully engaging the US's constructive potential, all these Old-World coping strategies have in common that they do not seem to think it desirable or realistic actually to destroy US power; and that they cannot identify an alternative power whom they could ally with for survival or even exploit tactically to curb the US. We still have, in the old British military expression, no better hole to go to. Or to put it another way, love it or fear it or resent it, the US is still the "indispensable nation". And NATO could be the indispensable institution for helping us to hang on to its coat-tails.

So, to come back rather belatedly to the question of a shared agenda, the simplest uniting theme in the US/European relationship could be the need to preserve and manage the relationship itself. At the moment this need may seem to be more strongly felt on the European than the US side, with a recurring rhetoric in Washington about "making the coalition fit the mission" or about escaping the operational handicaps of partnership. But US actions in particular cases do still show both a compulsion to recruit partners and supporters, and a tendency to seek them first within the NATO circle. Russia can't give the US what the Europeans can in terms of managing the world's free trade and monetary systems, or addressing what might be called the "new threats" within those systems such as runaway technologies and the crisis of corporate governance. Japan cannot give what the Europeans can in terms of will and resources for combating terrorism both on their own soil and in regions under their influence, of in terms of closely integratable military forces to join in coalitions. At cultural level, the US plus Europe are still the largest and most united group of States standing for the values of pluralistic secular democracy, free speech and free information. In regional security terms they are the only combination which can take on the tasks of extending full Western-style military, political and economic integration to the nations of Central Europe; of completing the pacification and normalization of the Balkans; and of gradually integrating Russia itself into a stable Euro-Asian security system. US and European troops still operate side by side in former Yugoslavia and are carrying out linked, though not integrated, operations in Afghanistan.

This may still not sound like a very long common agenda, and we all know that even the few shared goals it defines are currently bedeviled by a number of important secondary disagreements over the methods for pursuing them: where to set the dividing line between fair economic competition and protectionism, how to define and how best to combat international terrorism, what relative importance to attach to Russian failings over exports to Iran and over Chechnya - to name but a few. There have been periods of recent history when the list looked much longer, including common approaches to arms control and international legal and humanitarian causes, common concerns about the environment and climate control and the whole spectrum of sustainable development issues. There have also been times when the list of joint endeavors (military or not) for regional security, notably outside Europe, was more extensive. The question is whether the present narrowing of the trans-Atlantic consensus is a sign of two policy arcs in the US and Europe which will continue to bend further away from each other, or rather a temporary trough in the long-standing wave movement of trans-Atlantic relations.

Is An Up-Turn of EU-US Relations Possible?

It is possible to argue for both views, but here I would like to offer a few thoughts on the possibility of an eventual up-turn. We cannot go back to the Cold War consensus or the harmony of the post-Cold War honeymoon, but could the US and European arcs intersect in a new way for new reasons in future? It seems to me that, even assuming that the present imperative to defend actively the safety of the US land and people remains in force, US ideas about the right way to do it could change for both negative and positive reasons. American action could collide with boundaries set by the US people's tolerance of loss of life (and other costs), or by the fragility of the US economy, by the willingness of regional countries to provide bases and transit, or by a degree of international criticism and isolation which even the fiercest hawks would find hard to tolerate. Domestic public opinion and perhaps even more, business opinion could have a cautionary impact, especially if a feeling develops that the authorities have diverted resources away from the primary needs of national protection.

Of course, it would be nicer to think that change would come through a more positive realization that the forces of globalization are gradually eroding the US's historical and geographical singularity, making it in practice more interdependent with distant as well as close neighbours - and that not only in the economic field but in terms of controlling threats to the environment, health, communications and IT security. The new vulnerability of the US people could equally well be tackled by strengthening overseas partnerships to help cut off the possible threats at their source, strangle them through more effective non-proliferation and financial control regimes, and bring offenders to justice through the strengthening both of the system of universally applicable international law and its enforcement. The conflicts and social and political dysfunctions that give rise to terrorism and other threats to US interests could be tackled by so-called soft instruments, of which the US has just as many theoretically at its disposal as the Europeans do, as well as by military action and other forms of coercion.

Last but not least, it should logically only be a matter of time before US policy-makers face up to the implications of the fact that the "uni-polar moment" is only a moment, in the longer perspective of history. On the face of it, the US's interests and everybody's interests would be better served by a global policy seeking to tie future rivals down in advance by clear norms of international legality and cooperation, reinforced both by self-interest and the discipline of multilateral frameworks, than by the reckless extension of methods of self-protection here and now on the excuse that others might be equally reckless in future. Russia's immediate attempt to turn US arguments on Iraq into an excuse for interfering in Georgia shows clearly enough how fast this excuse can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


However, I am coming too close here to trying to give advice to the US, which I did not want to do on this occasion. As a European, I would rather end with a few comments on how the Europeans could and should conduct themselves in the situation I have described. It seems to me that their reactions to the current trans-Atlantic challenge could contain at least three elements which are theoretically alternatives but more likely to be combined in some degree. They can "bandwagon" and stick close to the US, primarily for protection against the US itself and secondarily for shelter against whatever shared threats they recognize. They can develop soft and hard security capabilities which complement the US's and which they can use either with the US in NATO or ad hoc coalitions, or separately under a kind of agreement to disagree. Or they can concentrate on preserving the security approaches which they believe in, recognizing that the mechanisms of arms control, international law and cooperative global governance may be temporarily weakened almost below the point of viability by US non-engagement, but hoping for eventual US return to this heritage for any or all of the reasons I mentioned above.

Now, without having time to argue it in detail, I believe that under all such conceivable scenarios it makes sense for the European above all to avoid the trap of disunity, re-nationalization, and what I would call de-institutionalization among themselves. They have a clear interest in doing what it takes to keep NATO alive, not just as a channel to the US but as an instrument of their own integration policy towards Eastern Europe and Russia. They have an urgent need to strengthen leadership and unity in the EU and to express a clearer, enlightened and multi-functional EU strategy not just on crisis management but all the relevant domains of security policy including internal security, arms export controls and non-proliferation - which in turn means learning to see the EU's strongest States as a strength and not as a problem. They need to avoid being trapped into a situation where the US or NATO treats the EU as an enemy: because it is they, not the US, who will be torn apart and impoverished by such a development. They need to study the US itself far more seriously than they do at present, to understand both the dangers to anticipate and the possible convergent forces and congenial elements they might cultivate. And without going so far as to think in terms of collecting allies against the US, I do think they ought to look more seriously at groups of States in other parts of the world who are trying to set up their own integrative regional communities inspired by NATO and the EU. Such experiments have something to tell about the possible way ahead for present regional antagonisms and "rogue States", even if only in the phase after: but they may also restore our faith that the international system as a whole is not - to steal a genetic metaphor I heard used recently by a US scholar - "selecting for unilateralism".

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