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Towards the demystification of the transatlantic relationship

A transzatlanti vita (ed. H. Vincze) - 04 mai, 2006
Book section
Hajnalka Vincze

Euro-American relations are periodically tarnished by so-called "misunderstandings", verbal skirmishes, diplomatic incidents and other manifestations of mutual distrust that seem to rise out of nowhere, literally from one day to the next. Their perception is actually dramatized by the fact that they emerge from under the cover of what is presented as an impeccable relationship, based on a much-touted community of values and interests. This contradiction increases the risk of visceral reactions on both sides of the Atlantic: anti-Americanism in Europe and Europe-bashing in the United States.

The usual dynamics of transatlantic relations, cultivated by leaders on both sides, also mechanically fuel this tendency to dramatization, due to the repeated fluctuation between resounding "quarrels" and spectacular "reconciliations". This is a dangerous spiral, because the more we strive to showcase our so-called harmony, the more even minor clashes make noise, the more the clashes make noise, the more we must insist on the so-called harmony to offset their negative impact.

To end this vicious circle, it would suffice to break with this emotional approach and to re-establish the relations between Europe and America on the basis of political realities. By accepting the self-evident fact that, according to our respective values and interests, our positions can be similar (or at least compatible) on a large number of issues while divergent on others. To be in agreement is not cause for celebration and to disagree is not a tragedy.

It is true that disagreements will remain an infinite source of friction and grievances as long as the European side is not ready and able to defend its own choices, and negotiate as a peer. But to do so would suppose confronting a twofold conundrum. First, coming to terms with the divergences between EU Member States, some favoring European autonomy, others thriving in the relative comfort of the decades-old habit of U.S. dependence.  Second, emancipation attempts would also highlight the structural antagonism between the American interest of preserving maximum control, and the European interest to widen their own autonomous margin for maneuver. This opposition is a normal corollary of political “rapports de force”. What is less normal is denial, especially when it risks undermining the very future of transatlantic relations. Fierce attachment to deceitful fictions is the surest recipe for increasing tensions: the only chance to establish a healthy partnership begins by reconnecting with Realpolitik.

Spotlight on the past

According to the common wisdom, during the Cold War, Europe served as a buffer rampart for the United States, and the U.S.A. guaranteed a protective umbrella for Europe against the Soviet empire. In order to evacuate biases to present-time discussions, two questions need to be clarified in this regard. On the one hand, it is necessary to determine to what extent the rampart theme was an exclusive (or at least predominant) factor in the presence of the U.S. on the old continent. On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to identify the political price Europe has been paying in exchange for being what Zbigniew Brzezinski termed an American “protectorate”.[1]

In 1992, a confidential document from the Pentagon, leaked by the press and triggering a diplomatic mini-storm, stated that the United States “must sufficiently account for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order,” while at the same time maintaining a military dominance capable of "deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."[2] These underlying motives for the United States’ continued presence in Europe were highlighted by Washington’s determination to keep NATO alive even after the end of the Cold War. In 1990, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, James Dobbins, explained at his congressional hearing: "we need NATO now for the same reasons NATO was created".[3] As was reiterated by American officials throughout the 1990s: U.S. commitment to Europe went “well beyond the Soviet threat” and "the United States is a European power".

American presence has obviously been useful and, at times, even crucial for Europe. The motivating reason behind it was not mere philanthropy, however, but the much more powerful and much more legitimate pursuit of American interests. Interests that could, and still can, coincide with European interests on many occasions. But on other occasions they might not completely overlap. The key puzzle in historic terms is that, in exchange for the concurrence, at certain times and places, of interests on both sides the Atlantic, the vast majority of Europe have actually abandoned their strategic autonomy. In other words they gave up their independent ability to decide and act – and with it, the prospect of ever become more than junior partners to their American counterparts.

It is true that since 1945, each decade has seen at least one (failed) attempt on the European side to develop a more or less distinct profile in security matters. Historian Lawrence S. Kaplan suggests that “almost from the inception of the alliance, Europeans have sought to get out from under American domination and chafed at their inability to free themselves”. Indeed, all these various attempts at “emancipation” were condemned to fail. They inevitably stumbled on the original paradox: Europeans have always been striving to build a more independent profile in defense and security, but without touching anything in a transatlantic relationship based precisely on their dependence in this field. As Charles A. Kupchan, director of European Affairs at the National Security Council under president Clinton, noted in 2002: "Despite all that has changed since 1949, and especially since 1989, Europe has remained dependent on the United States to manage its security", noting that “control over security matters is, after all, the decisive factor in setting the pecking order and determining who is in command."[4]

Inventory of the present

The decisive factor in the transatlantic relationship is therefore to be sought in the field of power politics. And in this perspective the equation is rather clear. According to John Van Oudenaren, director of the European section of the US Congress Library, America is today the classical “status quo” power of the international system, while Europe is the most “revisionist” of all the actors on the world stage. The first strives to sustain its preeminent position, while the second constitutes, insofar as it assumes an (increasingly more) autonomous existence, an undeniable challenge to America’s dominance.[5] As Brzezinski put it: “A politically powerful Europe, able to compete economically while militarily no longer dependent on the United States would inevitably contest American preeminence” and could confine its scope “largely to the Pacific ocean”.[6]

With this in mind, it is easy to see that the takeoff, in 1998, of the European Union's security and defense policy, parallel to NATO, constituted a genuine breakthrough. At the same time, it was indicative of a momentary stalemate in the transatlantic power game. On the one hand, the United States was no longer able to prevent the development of European defense outside of NATO, within the framework of the European Union; on the other hand, the concessions made to NATO showed that Europeans were not yet ready to fully assume their autonomy. This fragile state of play has been maintained due to a staggering contrast between unwavering American resolve and constant hesitations on the European side.

Washington's position is indeed unequivocal on this point: the U.S. wants a complementary but not autonomous Europe at their side. This corresponds in part to the traditional logic of American geopolitics (the eternal quest for "absolute security" implies unrestrained control and unfailing supremacy), and is partly due to its understandable attachment to the current status quo. As a result, Washington has been, for a long time, concentrating on two cardinal points. Namely that decision-making should not be “decoupled” from NATO/Washington, and that the European technological and industrial base should be confined to a supplier/subordinate role. It comes as no surprise that these two domains (and within them the establishment of EU military headquarters and the introduction of a Buy European Act) constitute, for the establishment of EU defense, the most stubborn blocking points.

The peculiarity of this blockage is that it comes both from the outside (in the form of Washington’s red lines) and from within (due to the hesitations and reluctance of a majority of Member States). In fact, while EU countries approaches largely converge on most security issues, this is far from being the case when it comes to considerations of a strategic scope (such as sovereignty, geopolitical thinking, and long-term vision). On these points, the Union's foreign and defense policy quickly reaches its limits, namely the pacifist and Atlanticist ideologies of the Member States. These latter are all too ready to ignore the simple fact that those who refuse power end up powerless, and those who shy away from independence are condemned to be dependent (without ever standing a chance to become an equal and genuine partner).

Shaping the future

In strategic-military terms, sovereignty - in this case the establishment and preservation of conditions for autonomous decision and action - is the starting point for any responsible policy. As French President Charles de Gaulle pointed out: "You never know where, in the future, the threat can come from or where pressure or blackmail might originate". Having the means of strategic autonomy is, in a sense, like a 360° life insurance. It also provides the guarantee of being credible, free from pressures and blackmails, and is therefore the prerequisite for an active and influential stance on the world stage.

As things now stand in the EU, Member States are abandoning - in the name of integration - whole chunks of their sovereignty, while there is nothing at European level that would be ready and capable of politically embodying it. This can only lead to two types of scenarios. Either this erosion of sovereignty continues, in this case the overall ability to promote Europe’s interests and values ​​will dissolve “like a piece of sugar in a cup of tea”. Or a boomerang effect will come into play, in which case the "interlude" of European integration will be closed and the exercise of sovereignty will return, on an exclusive basis, to the Nation States. The problem is that, separately, European countries have much lesser chance to make their voice heard on an increasingly competitive international scene. The solution is self-evident: the collective European level should assume and promote specifically European political goals, interests and preferences.

Yet this demand for European strategic autonomy is all too often written off as anti-Americanism. Whereas, ironically, it might well prove to be the sole antidote to it. In the current asymmetrical relationship, the “other” is perceived on both sides of the Atlantic either as a burden (free-rider versus dominator) or as a rival (“challenger” versus "status quo power"), but most often the two, burden and rival, at the same time. This is both unhealthy and unsustainable. In order to put transatlantic relations on a more balanced footing, Europe needs to fully play its part. As long as it remains dependent on America, it cannot hope for reciprocity or dream of a cooperation between equals. If the goal is a healthy and sustainable transatlantic partnership, then Europe’s strategic autonomy is the one and only path.


[1] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives, 1997, New York: Basic Books.
[2] Defense Policy Guidance, Department of Defense, 1992. Quoted by The New York Times, Excerpts From Pentagon's Plan: 'Prevent the Re-Emergence of a New Rival', March 8, 1992. It was difficult for Europeans not to feel concerned, at the exact same time when, with the Maastricht Treaty, they were precisely in the process of trying to turn their economic integration into a fully-fledged international actor.
[3] James Dobbins’ testimony before the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), April 3, 1990.
[4] Charles A. Kupchan, The End of the American Era, Random House, 2002.
[5] John Van Oudenaren, Status Quo vs. Revisionist Policies in Transatlantic Relations, Presentation at the Transatlantic Roundtable, July 17-18, 2003, Brussels.
[6] Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Choice : Global Domination or Global Leadership, 2004, New York: Basic Books.

(In: A transzatlanti vita, Zrínyi Kiadó, Budapest, 2006, ed. H. Vincze) 



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