[aces paper-Lieber; August 13, 2004 (3: 30pm) the european union and the united states

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[ACES paper-Lieber; August 13, 2004 (3:30pm)



Paper Prepared for ACES Working Paper Series

The American Consortium on EU Studies

August 13, 2004

Robert J. Lieber

Department of Government

Georgetown University

Washington, DC 20057-1034


Europe’s relationship with America is intimate and yet troubled. Some have predicted that the expanded European Union (EU) of twenty-five countries, reaching from the Atlantic to the Russian border and with a population of 460 million people, a common currency and aspirations for a common foreign and defense policy will emerge as a powerful competitor to the United States. European resentment of American political, economic and military predominance is real, and disputes have multiplied over a wide range of issues, from Iraq to the International Criminal Court to genetically modified foods. Many foreign journalists, authors and politicians offer strident criticism of American policy and it is by no means excessive to ask whether the United States and Europe may now be on the verge of a divorce in which their alliance of more than a half century collapses or they even become great power rivals.

A number of European leaders have proclaimed their vision of an EU comparable to the United States and – in the view of some – one that can act to counterbalance America. The former head of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, observed that one of the EU's chief goals is to create “a superpower on the European continent that stands equal to the United States.” For his part, French President Jacques Chirac, has said that “we need a means to struggle against American hegemony.”1 Germany and France, in cooperation with Russia, not only opposed the U.S. on the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but Chirac and his Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, took the lead at the United Nations in opposing the American policy and in organizing an international coalition against it.

This opposition came as no surprise to those who, since the end of the Cold War, had been predicting an imminent rupture of the U.S.-European relationship and the demise of NATO. For many observers, the removal of the Soviet threat presaged a new era and with it the unraveling of an alliance created in response to a Soviet Union that no longer existed. They expected this distancing to occur not only in security policy, but across a range of economic issues, since the end of the Cold War removed the imperative to contain international commercial or financial conflicts for the sake of preserving the anticommunist alliance.2 European states would thus cease their collaborative bandwagoning behavior and instead begin to balance against one another or even against American power.3 In the words of Kenneth Waltz in 1990, even before the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, “NATO is a disappearing thing. It is a question of how long it is going to remain as a significant institution even though its name may linger on.”4

Predictions such as these were made in the months and years immediately following the end of the Cold War. But by the mid-to-late 1990s, they seemed less relevant in the face of U.S. led efforts to end the fighting in Bosnia (1995), the allied air war to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (1999), and the enlargement of NATO. In turn, the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington seemed to represent a new and much more ominous shared threat. Nonetheless, with the passage of time and with the eruption of bitter debates about Iraq and extensive European criticism of American unilateralism on a broad range of issues, the specter of an Atlantic rupture has reemerged. Robert Kagan, in his widely quoted assessment, attributes the growing divergence to a profound difference in attitudes, in which America is now “Mars” to Europe’s “Venus”:

It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world. On the all-important question of power . . . American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant's "Perpetual Peace." The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might. That is why on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less . . . When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defense policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways.5

From a very different perspective, Charles Kupchan also concludes that America and Europe are fundamentally diverging, adding that “NATO, far from being in the midst of rejuvenation, is soon to be defunct.”6 Kupchan bases his prediction on what he perceives as a shift in American strategic priorities away from Europe, an increasing political divide between the U.S. and EU, and a Europe at peace no longer needing its “American pacifier.”

Notwithstanding a long list of disputes and numerous predictions of political divorce, it remains premature to write the epitaph for the European-American partnership. Despite its historic expansion, the EU is not about to emerge as a formidable superpower, let alone take on the role of balancer against the U.S. The enlarged EU lacks sufficient central authority and decision-making structure as well as the military capacity for an effective common defense policy. In addition, a community of twenty-five countries now includes member states from Eastern Europe, whose history provides strong motivation for maintaining close ties with the U.S. This perspective was evident in the support of the ten countries of the Vilnius group for American policy toward Iraq. Indeed, the intra-European divide over Iraq policy provided evidence that the member states of the EU will not reach a consensus on balancing against the U.S. Moreover, domestic politics, economic problems and the demographic profile of aging populations are much more likely to produce reductions in defense spending than the increases that would be required to provide the EU with the military capability of a major world power.

In sum, Europe’s lack of unanimity on foreign and security policy, the inability to provide for its own security, and shared interests in trans-Atlantic economic cooperation and institutions, require a continuing partnership with America. Moreover, despite what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, the legacy of common values remains fundamental. Europe has neither the will nor the capability for a fundamental break, and the interests of the United States work against a divorce as well. Nonetheless, the sources of disagreement are deep-seated and have been increasing, and they deserve close attention. In the remainder of this essay, I analyze the reasons for transatlantic conflict and then consider the underlying sources of solidarity in the relationship. I conclude by assessing the circumstances in which radical change could occur and the reasons why true balancing against the United States is not taking place.


If, as Lord Acton famously said, power corrupts, then lack of power may also do so. For today’s Europe, and especially for counties once accustomed to a true international great power status, the disparity with the United States is especially painful. During the Cold War, sheltering under the American security umbrella was an unavoidable imperative, though under De Gaulle and his successors the French quest for autonomy repeatedly pushed the Atlantic relationship to its limits.

These problems were not exclusively of Parisian origin. Virtually from the time of its inception in 1949, the Atlantic alliance weathered a wide range of disputes, not only concerning strategy, but economics and politics as well. One of the earliest crises erupted over German rearmament and the 1954 rejection of a proposed European Defense Community by the French National Assembly. The controversy was serious enough for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to threaten an "agonizing reappraisal" of America's relationship with Europe. Two years later, in 1956, the Eisenhower administration found itself at loggerheads with France and Britain when it joined with Moscow to condemn the Anglo-French expedition to retake the Suez Canal from Egypt. A more subtle but far-reaching problem arose after the October 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, the world's first orbiting space satellite. With the American homeland potentially vulnerable to Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), how could an American president credibly sustain the commitment to Europe if defending Paris or West Berlin now meant exposing Chicago or New York to a potential Russian nuclear attack? Intra-alliance conflicts continued with the French withdrawal from NATO's integrated military command structure in 1966. Symptomatic of disputes at the time was the title of a book by Henry Kissinger's, The Troubled Partnership.7

Out-of-area disagreements also developed over France's desperate and ultimately futile efforts to keep control in Indochina (1946-54) and Algeria (1954-62), and subsequently over U.S. intervention in Vietnam. A severe crisis erupted after the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, with the accompanying Arab oil embargo against the United States and the Netherlands, and the French-led tilt toward the oil-producing countries in contrast to American support for Israel. Oil and energy-related issues continued to reverberate in policies toward Iran after its 1979 revolution and in disputes over the construction of a pipeline to carry natural gas from Russia to the West. In the early 1980s, an intense crisis erupted over the U.S. and NATO decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe in order to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles. Multiple examples could be added to the list: trade frictions, economic competition, agricultural protectionism, cultural conflicts, and disagreements about policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other issues.

While these disputes were often intense, the underlying mutual security imperative caused Western Europe to remain closely allied with the United States in order to preserve an unambiguous American guarantee. In recent years, however, and without Cold War concerns, the possibilities for fragmentation have increased. Among the Europeans, France has become the most strident critic of American power and the most avid in seeking ways to increase its own autonomy and to steer the European Union toward an independent course. Near the end of his life, President François Mitterrand gave vent to a deep antagonism, declaring, "France does not know it, but we are at war with America. Yes, a permanent war, a vital war, an economic war, a war without death. Yes, they are very hard, the Americans, they are voracious, they want undivided power over the world."8 Subsequently, the then French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine proclaimed, "We cannot accept . . . the unilateralism of a single hyperpower," and President Jacques Chirac called for a "more balanced . . . distribution of power in the world."9

Note that Mitterrand, Vedrine and Chirac expressed these resentments during the mid and late 1990s, while the Clinton-Gore administration guided American foreign policy, and well before the 2000 election and the coming to office of the Bush administration. Under Clinton, tensions emerged over Bosnia and Kosovo, the treaty to ban anti-personnel land mines, the Kyoto Treaty on global warming, the International Criminal Court, the ABM Treaty, enforcement of UN sanctions against Iraq, policy toward Iran, and policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This list serves as a reminder that serious disagreements, including complaints about American hegemony and unilateralism, have emerged under both Democratic and Republican administrations and under presidents with very different leadership styles and policies.

Reactions to the Bush Doctrine

With the start of the George W. Bush presidency in January 2001, European-American relations became increasingly acrimonious. An important reason was the disputed outcome of the November 2000 election and the fact that the then Texas governor was largely unknown abroad. European political leaders as well as journalists, commentators and foreign policy analysts displayed the anxiety that occurs when the White House suddenly is occupied by a chief executive unfamiliar to elites in Paris, Berlin, London and Brussels. Many took cues from their American counterparts, most of whom had preferred Gore for president and expressed strong antipathy to the new administration. European first impressions thus became lopsidedly negative, and there was not only an immediate uneasiness, but increasingly inflammatory press coverage of the new president. Despite taking office with an experienced foreign policy team, Bush was frequently derided as a primitive, a Texas cowboy and even, in the words of one prominent British columnist, a “global vandal” and "reckless brigand."10

In the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, European criticism of the Bush administration subsided and political leaders, the media and public embraced the United States in the presence of what seemed a threat not only to America but to the entire modern world and its values. Despite an undercurrent of smug satisfaction that even the seemingly omnipotent United States was not invincible, or that America might somehow have deserved the attacks, there was widespread solidarity. This was evident in public opinion polls and took the form of political support and active cooperation in intelligence and anti-terrorism measures.

Indeed, just one day after the attack, on September 12, 2001, the 19 members of NATO invoked Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first time in the history of the Alliance. Article V treats an attack on one member state as an attack on all, and requires that they take action under their respective constitutional procedures. Ultimately, sixteen of the then nineteen member countries contributed personnel to the Afghan campaign. In the ensuing months, American air power and special forces, working with the Afghan opposition, quickly defeated the Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda allies. The victory occurred far more rapidly and with far fewer casualties than many observers had expected,11 but in order to retain tight control of the operation, the Bush administration opted not to conduct the Afghan war as a NATO operation. The decision made sense militarily, but it contributed to European resentments about unilateralism.

These reactions increased in response to the President’s January 2002 State of the Union address to the Congress in which he spelled out what became known as the Bush Doctrine (“The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons”) and especially Bush’s use of the term “axis of evil” to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea. During the following year, with the growing divide over the impending use of force against Iraq and the September 2002 release of the President’s National Security Strategy (NSS) document,12 European criticisms of American policy intensified. The change in attitude marked a shift away from the solidarity expressed by the allies in the initial days after September 11, and it occurred for reasons specific not only to the United States but also to Europe itself.

First, American policymakers together with a substantial part of the public saw September 11thth as a watershed and in their view the country now found itself in a war against terrorism. By contrast, with the passage of time, Europeans were less inclined to share this understanding. For example, an opinion poll conducted by the German magazine Der Spiegel eight months after the attacks, found that by a 3:1 margin Europeans saw September 11th as an attack on America, but not on Europe or the world.13 Though the analogy was misplaced, they tended to equate September 11 with their own experiences of domestic terrorism during prior decades. Indeed, in France, a sizeable minority even saw the United States as a threat. In response to an April 2002 opinion poll asking respondents to choose from a list of France’s principal adversaries in the world, 31% pointed to the United States, ranking it the third greatest threat, after international terrorism (63%), and Islam (34%), and just ahead of small countries armed with nuclear weapons (30%).14

Second, there was a reaction against America’s willingness and ability to employ its formidable power without the agreement of the United Nations Security Council or deference to the expressed views of European leaders themselves, particularly those of France and Germany. In addition, foreign (as well as domestic) critics seized upon two features of the NSS: preemptive military action against hostile states and terrorist groups seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and the determination to maintain primacy by dissuading the rise of great power challengers. Some even expressed the view that the U.S. itself was becoming a rogue nation.

Third, much of the European reaction was directed against the American-led effort to disarm Iraq and oust the regime of Saddam Hussein. Policy differences had existed before, but in this case the intensity of German and especially French opposition and the way in which more animus seemed directed against a democratic ally, the United States, than at the tyrannical regime in Iraq, with its record of aggressive wars against its neighbors and flagrant defiance of binding UN Security Council resolutions, suggested an entirely different attitude. Despite these criticisms, European governments were by no means unanimous in opposition, and the leaders of eight countries signed a letter by Prime Ministers Blair of Britain and Aznar of Spain that supported the United States. (The other signers represented the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Portugal.15) Shortly thereafter, ten countries of the Eastern European Vilnius group signed their own letter of support. On the eve of the Iraq war, the Bush administration could thus claim backing from the leaders of four of the six largest countries in Europe (Britain, Italy, Spain and Poland) and from the leaders of at least eighteen European countries.

This official support masked the problem that by the time the war began on March 20, 2003, European public opinion, with the partial exception of Britain and a number of Eastern European states, had become increasingly opposed to the use of force against Iraq. Between July 2002 and March 2003, there was a strongly adverse shift in European attitudes toward the United States. In Germany, for example, where 61% of the public had held a favorable view of the U.S. versus 34% unfavorable, the numbers shifted to just 25% favorable and 71% unfavorable. In France there was a similar swing, from a favorable 63% vs. 34% unfavorable to a negative 31% vs. 67%, and during the war, one fourth of the French public wanted Saddam to win.16 Even in Poland and Britain, where the public remained sympathetic to the United States, there was an erosion of support. Britain dropped from 75% favorable vs. 16% unfavorable, to 48% vs. 40%, and Poland from 79% vs. 11% to 50% vs. 44%.17 These views reflected the heated political climate and often intense public opposition to the war, but even a year after the war, in March 2004, only 37% of the Germans and 38% of the French expressed a favorable view of the United States.18
European Attitudes and Structures

On both sides of the Atlantic, it has become commonplace to depict “Europe” as a single entity with shared attitudes and policy predispositions increasingly at odds with those of the United States. This has been apparent in the words of European critics of America, as well as in the complaints by American critics of Europe. But Europe is not monolithic, as evident not only on controversial foreign policy issues, but on wider questions of European unity and on whether an enlarged and increasingly institutionalized EU should plot its course as a counterweight to the United States or in partnership with it. Britain and France have often been at odds over these issues, but other cleavages exist as well. The smaller member countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal) have differed with the largest ones (Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain) over the extent to which decision making authority within the EU should be based on the size of each state. And, historically, there have often been disagreements between those who seek a truly federal United States of Europe versus those insisting on limiting the transfer of sovereignty. These internal differences limit the extent to which Europe can take on an adversarial role vis-a-vis America. Nonetheless, there are commonalities that transcend the EU’s internal divisions.

Even countries that sided with the U.S. on the use of force in Iraq and that favor a close Atlantic partnership see multilateral institutions in a more favorable light than does Washington. On support for the Kyoto Treaty, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the role of the United Nations as a fundamental source of international legitimacy, European policymakers and publics mostly agree. These shared views also exist on sensitive cultural and lifestyle issues. One in particular is the death penalty, where European governments now uniformly oppose capital punishment, though popular attitudes have sometimes lagged behind. Countries applying for EU membership are required to have abolished the death penalty, and the issue has become a source of friction with the United States.

Europe’s receptivity to multilateralism and to international institutions has been shaped by experiences of the past half-century in which the continental countries have finally transcended centuries of conflict and war. Together, they have achieved steadily expanding cooperation and integration, the codification of agreed rules and procedures, and the transfer of previously sovereign state powers to the EU. As a consequence, Europeans tend to draw lessons from their specific regional experience and transpose these to a global level.

This perspective can create tensions with the United States, as does a structural trait of the EU itself. As the EU’s original institutions (the European Coal and Steel Community, followed by the Common Market and European Community) expanded from six member states (France Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries) to nine, then twelve, fifteen, and then twenty-five, agreement on common European policies has become an ever more cumbersome task. Though provision for decision by weighted majorities has steadily increased, unanimity is still required on the most important issues, including foreign and defense policy. Thus, when the EU does manage to overcome coordination problems and succeed in hammering out common positions on specific issues, the policy stance often becomes inflexible. As a result, negotiations between Europe and the United States become fraught with difficulty, since the opportunities for compromise and adjustment that would ordinarily exist between two large countries, each with its own central authority, are much less likely to be available on the European side.

Two other structural problems create obstacles to cooperation. One is reflected in a widely quoted comment attributed to Henry Kissinger, “When I want to call Europe, whom do I call.?”19 In some instances, the EU does have a single individual empowered to negotiate on its behalf, and the constitutional treaty agreed upon in 2004 addresses this problem by providing for a President and a single representative for foreign policy. Nonetheless, it often remains difficult for the EU member countries to reach effective agreement with outside actors. Another difficulty is political as well as structural. In establishing their common identity, European states face a temptation to do so by defining their own position as distinct from that of the United States. This creates an incentive for disagreement almost regardless of the substance of the issue at hand.

Then there remains the disparity of power. The disproportion between the capacities of the United States and those of the individual European countries is so great that the latter often embrace multilateral institutions and rules as a means of limiting their superpower ally’s freedom of maneuver. This impulse is intrinsic to disparities of size and influence, regardless of specific policies. Indeed, a former French foreign minister once observed that were France to possess the kind of power the U.S. now enjoys, Paris would be even more cavalier in its exercise. The power disparity also contributes to a free-rider problem. Achievements such as security represent a form of collective or public goods for all the countries of the alliance, in the sense that they are able to benefit from it whether or not the Europeans contribute. As Michael Mandelbaum has noted, peace in Europe, nuclear nonproliferation and access to Persian Gulf oil are examples of international public goods.20 Not surprisingly, there is a temptation to evade responsibility because participants know that the U.S. is likely to pay the cost of dealing with potential threats (including economic ones), whether or not they contribute.

Note, however, that this kind of tension has been a feature of long standing and that it existed well before the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower. A graphic example of free riding, and of the accompanying buck-passing, in which a costly or dangerous task is avoided, whether through inaction or deliberate evasion, was for many years evident in French policy toward terrorist groups operating in Europe. During much of the 1970s and 1980s, Paris applied the “sanctuary doctrine,” in tolerating the presence of terrorist groups provided they did not carry out operations against French interests.21 An egregious case of this behavior took place following the 1977 arrest in Paris of Daoud Oudeh, known as Abu Daoud, a founder of the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September. His group had been responsible for the Munich Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes in 1972 and for the murder of the American ambassador to Sudan, Cleo Noel, in 1973. Ignoring extradition requests from Israel and Germany, the government of President Valery Giscard d’Estaing instead deported him to Algeria.22 During the 1980s and 90s, however, as the groups became more violent and in some instances took actions within France, the policy began to break down and intelligence cooperation with the United States and other European countries significantly improved.

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