Europe is wasting its ?Obama Moment?

National governments in the EU must shake off illusions about the transatlantic relationship if they want to avoid irrelevance on the global stage

As EU leaders head to Washington for their transatlantic summit tomorrow, an unsentimental President Obama has already lost patience with Europe.  In a post-American world, the United States knows it needs effective partners.  At present, Europe lacks coherence and purpose. If Europe cannot step up, the US will look for other partners to do business with.

The US no longer dominates the world as the sole superpower. It knows it must turn to China on the economy and Russia on nuclear disarmament. Yet Europeans remain in denial about how the world is changing. They make a fetish out of the transatlantic relationship, anxiously pursuing harmony for harmony’s sake without questioning what it is good for.

The mistaken belief of most European nations – not just the obvious Atlanticists like the UK and the Netherlands – that they have a ‘special relationship’ with the US further distorts the transatlantic dialogue. These member states deploy different strategies to ingratiate themselves with Washington in a competition for American favour, believing that this works better for them than any collective European approach. The result is a frustrated US and an impotent Europe: Europe has 30,000 troops in Afghanistan yet virtually no say in strategy.

The truth is, the US would prefer a more united EU, but expects so little that it cannot bring itself to greatly care. When the EU is hard-headed, as with trade negotiations, the US listens. When it is not, Europeans are asking to be divided and ruled.

For Europe to become a credible and strategic partner for the US, Europeans need to shift their political psychology away from fetishising the transatlantic relationship. European governments need to get over the mistaken belief that their individual ‘special relationships’ matter in Washington, and learn instead to act together and speak to the US with one voice.

Europeans will have to discuss big strategic issues – like Afghanistan, Russia and the Middle East – as Europeans, in relation to European interests, within the EU. Instead of merely attempting to persuade the Americans, Europeans need to approach their political differences with the US by negotiating strategic compromises.

The transatlantic relationship is not what it once was. What it becomes is largely up to Europe.

This piece is based on ECFR’s latest report, ‘Towards a post-American Europe: a power audit of EU-US relations’.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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