The Superpower Sisters

In a world where traditional bilateral diplomacy is rarely enough to solve global problems, the cooperation of Mrs Clinton and Lady Ashton could prove one of the most important diplomatic pairings

Diplomacy is increasingly done in groups. There is the Quint, the Quartet and so on. But sometimes diplomacy is conducted in pairs of two. There was Cyrus Vance and David Owen, as well as Peter Carrington and Jorge Cutileiro, who worked to end the Bosnian War. Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and New Zealand’s Winston Peters often collaborated. And former Presidents Bush and Clinton launched a joint effort across partisan lines to raise money for victims of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. With the appointment of Catherine Ashton as the EU’s High Representative, a new diplomatic double act is in the making, one between the EU’s new top diplomatic and her US counterpart, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

The relationship between the US and Europe has since the end of the Cold War undergone significant change. For sixty years, the transatlantic relationship was about the US helping Europe. First to recover after war, then to deter the Soviet Union and consolidate peace in Western Europe and finally, when the Berlin Wall fell, to help restore freedom across the European continent. Now, with most of the security problems in Europe solved, the relationship is about US-European cooperation to solve global problems. Or put differently: the transatlantic relationship used to be about Europe; it now has to be about the world.

There are many global issues where US and European interests coincide and cooperation has gained pace. As Dan Hamilton and Fran Burwell note in a new report “In this new world of global connections, the transatlantic relationship is the thickest weave in the web.” Over Iran, the EU and the US have worked for years to stop Tehran’s nuclear enrichment programme. Likewise in the Balkans, US and European allies are working together diplomatically and on the ground to maintain peace and promote a permanent political settlement in both Bosnia and Kosovo. And in the former Soviet states, Europe and the US share the same values and are pursuing similar strategies to strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law.

But at the same time there are now considerable obstacles to greater US-European cooperation. One is European disunity. Across a number of foreign policy issues, EU governments disagree on what the right course of action should be – even though they can only have an impact if they act jointly. Should the EU confront Russia or make friends? Is it best to push Israel towards a settlement with the Palestinians or maintain diplomatic equidistance?

The US has often taken advantage of these divisions within Europe in order to achieve its policy aims, demonstrated in the lead-up to the war in Iraq. As my colleagues Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney argue in a recent report, a corollary of the disunity also sees each European government currying favour with the US in the hope of a better transatlantic deal. But this atavistic bilateralism fail to secure any European interests and fails to provide the US with the transatlantic partner that it is now seeking. It amounts to European governments’ failure to come to terms with the post-American world.

A longer-term problem is public detachment from the transatlantic relationship. Even though the U.S electorate have repudiated most of ex-President Bush’ policies many maintain a decidedly negative view of Europe, originally formed in the “Freedom Fries” days of the Iraq War, but now fostered by a perception that European nations will not bolster NATO’s Afghan mission. This will not change quickly, particularly as demographic trends cut historical ties to the Old Continent. The US is becoming less “European”; the Latino or Hispanic population rose nearly 13 million (or 57.9%) between the 1990 and 2000.

If anti-Europeanism may be problem, its mirror image — anti-Americanism – still lurks beneath the surface. Europe’s leaders and citizens remain in two-minds about US power. They both want the U.S to exercise more power as over the genocide in Rwanda and are worried about U.S hyper-puissance. In 2007, only 36% of Europeans saw U.S. leadership in the world as “desirable,” a figure virtually unchanged from 2004. President Obama may be loved in Europe, but his message and policies often are not.

It will be up to Secretary Clinton and Baroness Ashton to forge the kind of US-European relationship that can remake the transatlantic relationship for the modern era. So far, the signs are good. The EU’s new top diplomat has made clear she favours close transatlantic ties. The US, for its part, has reacted positively to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Mrs Clinton’s key Europe adviser, Philip H. Gordon, said the US looked “forward to the development of these institutions and to engaging with their new leaders, incoming President Van Rompuy and High Representative Ashton, on the whole host of issues on the U.S.-EU agenda.”

But to make sure that relations get off to the best possible start, Mrs Clinton and Lady Ashton should consider a number of initiatives. First, the two women need to show the world they intend to collaborate. What better way than a joint trip to a region of mutual interest for example, the Middle East or India? With former congressman Tim Roehmer appointed as the new US ambassador in New Delhi, a visit by Mrs Clinton and Baroness Ashton could coincide with the appointment of an equally heavy-weight European envoy – perhaps businesswomen Sharon Bamford or the EU’s former CT coordinator, Gijs de Vries. As in Skopje, the expectation would be for the US and EU envoys to work closely to help build the kind of relationship needed with India and which is missing these days.

If the two diplomats visit the Middle East, they could examine the idea of converting EU COPPS, the EU Rafah Border Mission and General Dayton’s security mission into a joint EU-US Security Sector Assistance Team. Mrs Clinton and Baroness Ashton should similarly consider establishing a joint US-EU aid fund. Focused on an area that requires the application of a number of tools from aid to CT assistance, as is the case in the SAHEL, such a fund could have joint US and European directors and work to tie transatlantic assistance programmes together.

The fund could report to both the Secretary of State and the High Representative, giving both diplomats a reason to meet bi-annually to discuss progress. If Congress and the EP could jointly undertake oversight, that would be ideal. If such a fund is a step too far, then Mrs. Clinton and Lady Ashton could start by appointing a US-EU blue ribbon panel to review something of mutual interest e.g. aid to the Horn of Africa or the SAHEL. From such a review could come recommendations for joined-up programmes.

The Secretary of State and the High Representative could also initiate a biannual policy dialogue — the Clinton/Ashton Dialogue — which should eventually cover a range of issues, but could begin on a few urgent matters such as Iran, the Middle East or Pakistan or just preparing next year’s US-EU Summit. Ideally, the first meeting would take place in Brussels, with Mrs. Clinton flying in for consultations perhaps followed by a joint town hall-style meeting with students on transatlantic issues – a format both women do well. The first Clinton/Ashton Dialogue could also unveil a transatlantic “Diplomatic Class” of junior/mid-level diplomats who could meet a couple of times a year for dinner with Mrs Clinton and Lady Ashton (much like the State Department’s Powell fellows do), and write a thesis with a US and EU university on some transatlantic issue.

Having had their first one-on-one meeting covered by the world’s press — to underline their mutual desire for close cooperation — Mrs Clinton and Lady Ashton could settle down to consider a number of longer-term initiatives. For example, as recommend by Dan Hamilton and Fran Burwell, they could launch a transatlantic Safer Societies initiative with High Representative, Secretary of State, Commissioner for Home Affairs and Homeland Security Secretary. Or establish a US-EU Working Group to lead reform of the World Bank and the IMF, led jointly led by US and EU ex-diplomats. Or they could develop a joint approach to the 2010 NPT review conference. The idea of a joint US-EU NPT negotiator will be a step too far, including for most European governments, but is worth floating in speech or leaking to the press to gauge the reaction.

Then there is Bosnia, an issue over which the US and the EU have worked very closely during the Swedish Presidency. Perhaps Mrs Clinton and Lady Ashton could agree to appoint a Balkan envoy each to take over the work of Jim Steinberg and Carl Bildt. Or Mrs Clinton and Lady Ashton could ask Mr Steinberg and Mr. Bildt to continue their work with the Swedish foreign minister becoming a de facto regional EU envoy.

In a world where traditional bilateral diplomacy is rarely enough to solve global problems, the cooperation of Mrs Clinton and Lady Ashton could prove one of the most important diplomatic pairings. It will require investment on both sides — particularity by the US , given the fragility of Lisbon set-up — to get the relationship off to a good start. And it will take a willingness to try novel forms of US-EU cooperation. But Mrs Clinton and Lady Ashton seem just the kind of people to give it a try.

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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