Dean Acheson Professor and Director of European Studies of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington D.C.

"Europe and the Geopolitical Balance After September 11"

Paris, 14 December 2001

Lecture in the International Seminar for Experts "Europe: Atlantic Partner or Regional Player? Europe's Security and Defence Policy after September 11", organised by the Cicero Foundation in the series Great Debates in Paris on 13 and 14 December 2001.


There has been a great deal of discussion in America about how the world has changed since September 11. Not surprisingly, people's views of the "new paradigm" generally reflect their longstanding preferences. Old positions redecorate themselves in fashionable new imagery. Underneath, however, old differences persist. This seems particularly the case between the U.S. and Europe. September 11 has if anything only served to heighten the differences in transatlantic perspectives. This widening gap in geopolitical imagination threatens to cause considerable trouble within the Western alliance.

Americans took great comfort in Europe's massive outburst of sympathy for the United States that followed the events of September. The powerful and spontaneous European reaction seemed to show that the old transatlantic loyalties and affections nurtured in the Cold War had survived. For many American Atlanticists, it seemed also to suggest that a rejuvenation of the old postwar alliance, and in its traditional form. The "war on terrorism," led by the United States, was to become a substitute for the Cold War. As the Pentagon kept saying, it was to be a long war and indeterminate in its extent. It certainly was not to be limited to Afghanistan. That NATO's Article 5 was involved, at the insistence of the Europeans, seemed particularly significant. It seemed to ensure a new lease on life for the traditional American-led transatlantic alliance. Americans who believe September 11 has reaffirmed the traditional alliance with Europe are mistaken. They are wrong, first of all, because the U.S. itself does not want to conduct its military operations around the world through NATO. Initially, the Pentagon actually opposed NATO's invoking of Article 5. It was feared that this would force the United States to conduct the war in Afghanistan through NATO'S multilateral structures, a course the new Pentagon was determined to avoid. This points to a fundamental difference between NATO today and during the Cold War.

In Cold War NATO, the U.S. was trying to give reality to a strategy of flexible response - one that required very large conventional forces - in static deployment in Europe. To succeed with such a strategy, the U.S. needed European manpower on a large scale. In the new global war on terrorism, the U.S. does not feel that it needs the active military participation of European armed forces. Today's warfare, as envisioned by the Pentagon, requires small elite forces with high technology weapons, capable of lightening strikes and deployments. Europe is not thought to be well-equipped with such forces. In any event, the U.S. does not need them. Preserving old NATO's multinational focus and multilateral decision-making threatens to trammel American military decision-making to an unacceptable degree.

The US Needs Political Support

The U.S. does, however, need the political support of its allies and, on occasion, the use of their facilities. And once the military operations are over, the U.S. seems to prefer that its allies take over the policing and reconstruction efforts that presumably must follow. By this new definition of burden-sharing, Europe will support the military actions determined by the Americans and then will pay to clean up the various messes left behind. This was the pattern that evolved first in the Balkans. Now, apparently, it is to be extended to Afghanistan.

Not only does the Pentagon itself not want the old NATO, neither do the Europeans. The great wave of sympathy among America's allies did not generate a blank check for American policies against terrorism, let alone any new affirmation of traditional American Cold War hegemony in the West. This misapprehension merely continues the widespread American misreading of basic geopolitical trends going on in the world since the early 1990's. Many Americans saw the 1990's as the sunrise of the new American century. The period began with the successful conduct of the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. was left as the only global superpower in an age of economic and cultural globalism. In this view, popular among America's political elites, the world is growing more integrated but is also, more than ever, unipolar.

America's extraordinary economic success of the 1990's reinforced its sense of global predominance. The end of the Cold War brought the U.S. a huge peace dividend. With the failure of Clinton's health care initiatives, the peace dividend was invested, faute de mieux, in achieving a balanced fiscal policy for the first time since the 1970s. Moving swiftly toward fiscal balance had the classical good effects that conservative economists had always claimed would follow. It lowered the cost of capital and thereby helped to spark a major American investment boom. That boom was animated by the new information technologies coming into their own over the course of the decade. Heavy investment in new technology appeared to produce a great surge in productivity. In short, economic success further encouraged the view that the United States would remain the world's dominant power indefinitely, not least because it was so well adapted to flourish in the new world economy.

This vision of the future, so popular in America, was not universally shared. Other parts of the world had quite different perspectives. The end of the Cold War dealt every one of the world's great powers a new geopolitical hand. No where was this more true than in Europe. The Soviet collapse lifted the weight of the threat that had made Europe so dependent on the U.S. and restored Europe to its old space. The Treaty of Maastricht indicated forcefully that Europe's major states were determined to be the masters of their new world, and had decided to pool their sovereignties in order to do so. Hence the Maastricht projects - EMU, CFSP, Common Defense, NATO reform and so on.

Russia was also dealt a new geopolitical hand. And although still weak from the shocks of the collapse of its empire and domestic system, the new Russia was, in fundamental respects, much stronger potentially than before the end of the Cold War. Liberated from the hopeless Soviet system, Russia gained the chance to recreate its nation and economy in a more liberal and efficient form. Shedding the Soviet regime also ended Russia's diplomatic isolation, a condition that greatly limited Russia's geopolitical power throughout the twentieth century.

China, too, has seen the post-Cold War world as a great opportunity to reverse its unhappy history of the past few centuries. China's prodigious economic growth since 1978 is rapidly transforming its economy. Respectable economic projections see its GDP actually overtaking the American economy as early as 2015.

Towards a Plural World System

These various Eurasian perspectives point to a different kind of world from that imagined by the Americans. Instead of a unipolar system for the indefinite future, they point to a plural world system gradually emerging from the rise of Europe, Russia, China and perhaps others, like India and Japan. Thus, there is a clash between the expectations of the United States and those of most other major countries in the world, a clash between a unipolar paradigm and an incipient plural paradigm. For the others, achieving a plural world system is merely a byproduct of the domestic projects they have set for themselves. Europe, Russia and China are all preoccupied with fulfilling their hopes within their own regions. Insofar as those hopes are fulfilled, a plural system will emerge.

The United States is the only one of the major powers with the geopolitical leisure to meddle intensively outside its own national neighborhood, That tendency was visible but only desultory. The Clinton Administration practiced a sort of low-grade imperialism, nourished by the ideologies of "peace theory" and economic globalization. America's unease at the rise of the other major powers in the world grew increasingly apparent as the decade unfolded. Despite familiar rhetoric that a strong Europe was in America's interest, the U.S. grew increasingly wary at Europe's projects for more united and strengthened economic, diplomatic and defense policies.
Similarly, while the Clinton Administration continually protested its friendship for Russia, NATO enlargement suggested a different relationship. The U.S. was simply collecting the gains of the Cold War and pressing its influence as far as possible into Russia's traditional space. Relations with China also grew more tense, despite protestations of friendship. The U.S. managed to resurrect the Taiwan issue. America's concern with human rights in Tibet similarly made the Chinese feel increasingly threatened by America's outsized military power..

In short, during the 1990's, the rising expectations of Europe, Russia and China began to collide with the American view of a unipolar world. The situation had in it the possibilities of a major historical tragedy, with the United States setting itself against the rise of others in a global confrontation unlikely to have a good end for anyone involved.
Despite the growing friction of the 1990s, relations could have been much worse. The imperial tendencies of the Clinton Administration were never very fully developed, despite America's huge military preponderance. Arguably, the Administration never gave geopolitics a high priority. The President was more interested in "geoeconomics" - a view of the world where competition and cooperation are more balanced than in the military sphere. Multilateralism is an integral part of the ideology of globalist free trade, and therefore not easily dispensed with. In any event, Clinton's relations with the military were notoriously poor and the Administration was strongly averse to getting involved in any serious military campaign that would lead to heavy casualties among American forces. In effect, American imperialism was kept in check by the Administration's pusillanimous approach to the use of force.

Nevertheless, even during the 1990s, a certain balancing of American power began to take place in Eurasia. European leaders grew increasingly critical of the American "hyperpower." China and Russia began to bury their differences. Slowly, Russia and Europe moved more closely together. Chinese interest in Europe grew increasingly ardent. It was not impossible to visualize a Eurasian entente to contain the American superpower.

Since the advent of the Bush Administration, the differences in geopolitical perspective are greatly sharpened and the potential for more severe clashes enhanced accordingly. From the start, the new Administration has been much more inclined than its predecessor to assert America's military power. The new Administration is also self-consciously unilateral in its diplomatic preferences, as was indicated even before September 11 by its enthusiasm for missile defense, its contempt for traditional arms control approaches and its willingness to flaunt the "international community" over a range of other issues, such as environmental regulation. In other words, Bush's U.S., unlike that of his predecessor, began to manifest with fervor and ambition the behavior that follows logically from the unipolar vision. And, of course, the atrocities of September 11 legitimized in America a radical shift toward geopolitical and military assertiveness - toward the "new paradigm" that reaffirms American global preponderance and overrides the pluralist visions springing up in Europe, Russia and China. Indeed, the Bush Administration makes this predominance much starker - for, unlike during the Cold War, it is not to be exercised through multilateral institutions. Is it likely that the Eurasian powers will simply accept this new dispensation from America? The huge European wave of sympathy, for example, suggested to some that they might. Similarly, muted Russian and Chinese reactions to American plans for missile defense, or the denunciation of the ABM Treaty, suggest to many in the Bush Administration that America's old rivals are in no position to oppose America's newly aggressive geopolitics. In any event, the interest they all share in the war on terrorism will override their other differences.

But Europeans, Russians and Chinese, despite their common interest in controlling terrorism, have no intention of abandoning their earlier expectations and aspirations that point to a more plural world system. The nature of counter-terrorism, moreover, makes it an unlikely vehicle for an American hegemony durably accepted by others. The control of terrorism is too intimate a task for any government to make over to another. And Europeans, Russians or Chinese have no reason to assume that Americans are more gifted in managing terrorism than they are themselves.

A New Geopolitical Hostility Between the US and the Rising Powers of Eurasia?

Does this mean, therefore, that September 11, opening the way for America's long nurtured unipolar temptation, greatly increases the likelihood of a new geopolitical hostility between America and the newly rising powers of Eurasia?
There is, perhaps, a more optimistic prospect. Terrorism is a real enough enemy for all the great powers. Controlling it worldwide is beyond any single power's resources. Even more difficult will be remedying the unsettled and festering political issues, or the huge demographic and economic disparities that feed terrorism. Making enough progress to hold the world together calls for an enormous collective effort. Under such circumstances, fighting terrorism could prove a catalyst for creating a cooperative concert of powers.

But this will require a new mentality in the United States - one less triumphalist about America and more sympathetic to the virtues and charms of a plural world. This means a greater respect for other powers and their interests, and a willingness to "appease" their ambitions. At the same time, the Eurasian powers cannot simply be more assertive. They will have to share responsibility for governing the world in a very difficult time. With luck, the practical requirements of coalition building against terrorism will speed these changes of perspective. Meanwhile, however, there may well be a great deal of friction.