How Europe can be heard in Washington

Europeans must steel themselves to discuss, within the EU, the big issues on which Europe must engage the US

As Europeans gossip and conspire over
the new post-Lisbon appointments
to represent the European Union’s external
face, they know only too well how global power is slipping away from them.
European elites agonise over the spectre of irrelevance.

No doubt it was this anxiety that impelled EU leaders to press for the EU/US
summit meeting in Washington
earlier this month. With the guard about to change in Brussels, this was never going to be a
productive encounter. The visitors got what they deserved – 90 minutes of the president’s
time, and a lunch with Vice-President Joe Biden.

At least the experience may help Europeans take on board two important
truths about Barack Obama, the man whose election so delighted them a year ago.
First, his foreign policy strategy is to reposition America for the post-American
world. Understanding that the US’s brief moment of global dominance has come
and gone, he aims to ensure America gets its way by forging tactical alliances.
He will work with
China on the global economy
, with
Russia on nuclear disarmament
, and with anyone else who can help serve the US’s interest.

Second, his self-declared pragmatism means a rigorous approach to how he
allocates his time and energy. He will attend to those who can be useful, not
the merely sympathetic. Glad-handing Europeans with nothing to offer will be a
low priority.

For Europeans these are difficult truths to absorb. But they will not again
carry weight in Washington until they grasp
that a post-American world requires a post-American Europe.
Such a Europe must discard a set of damaging illusions that, 20 years on from
the end of the cold war, still shape its approaches to the US.

The first such illusion is of continuing dependence on US protection. With the Russian
military a shadow of its Soviet predecessor, this is no longer the case. But it
underlies Europe’s habitual deference to the US.

The second illusion is to mistake shared
for a transatlantic identity of interests. This encourages the
widespread European belief that if Americans act in uncongenial ways this is a
product of their naiveté – requiring Europeans tactfully to set them back on course.

These two misperceptions lead to a third – that the need to preserve a close
and harmonious transatlantic relationship must always trump any more specific
European objective. But a vital and healthy transatlantic relationship requires
tough negotiations to establish compromises that work for both sides – even if,
as the often-combative trade and competition policy dealings across the Atlantic show, that may mean the occasional row.

Such conciliatory attitudes lead European elites to feel – their fourth
illusion – that confronting the US
from a joint European position would be counter-productive, if not indecent. So
the EU member states opt to do their defence and security business under US direction in Nato – and prioritise their
bilateral links with Washington
over almost everything else. The British may pride themselves on the most
celebrated “special relationship”, but most other European nations also quietly
believe they have a special “in” with Washington
which is the best route for promoting their national interests.

Americans find all this attention-seeking tiresome, but will naturally not
pass up the opportunities to divide and rule.

Some Europeans think the answer lies in a proper EU/US strategic dialogue,
and they have plenty of proposals for new forums and further summitry to force
such a dialogue. But that requires the EU, collectively, to have something to
say, which in turn means Europeans must steel themselves to discuss, within the
EU, the big strategic issues on which Europe will need to be able to engage the
in the post-American world.

should be an object lesson. European leaders have been happy to ignore this
intractable issue in their regular EU meetings, delegating the problem to Nato
and American leadership. They now find themselves with over 30,000 troops
committed to a troubled campaign, and consigned to the ante-room while they
wait to learn the new American strategy, which they must then defend to their
publics as their own.

Russia and the Middle
East are two more items on an unappetising list of problems that Europeans must
address, not in the spirit of second-guessing where the US wants to go, but to assert
common European positions. Failing that, even the most charismatic and forceful
new EU leaders will find even photo-opportunities in Washington, never mind serious attention, in
increasingly short supply.

This piece was first published in the Financial Times on 16 November 2009. 

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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