In private, former and current US officials are derisive about European influence in the Middle East. Broadly, they feel that Europeans talk a lot about the region but do very little. They generally believe that the United States should pay lip service to European concerns but can mostly ignore them in formulating their policies on the Middle East. Even when Europeans publicly object to US policies, their objections do not translate into action – and, therefore, mean little.
This attitude predates President Donald Trump, but he has doubled down on his predecessors’ dismissive approach. His administration has essentially ignored Europeans in its efforts on the Middle East Peace Process; shown little interest in Europe’s concern about the Saudi- and Emirati-led intervention in the war in Yemen; and routinely disregarded Europe in making its Syria policy.
None of this departs from the American norm in terms of policy – the main change from previous US administrations is stylistic. The Trump administration barely even pretends to care what Europeans think about its policies on the Middle East. In this sense, the administration’s policy change is more of an admission than a revolution.
The issue of the Iran nuclear deal best demonstrates this approach. When the Trump administration announced in early 2018 that the deal was not good enough, Europeans proposed a negotiation on how to alter it to address American concerns. That negotiation, led by US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, made progress in the ensuing months. But when French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Washington in April 2018 and told Trump he thought the negotiations with Hook showed promise, Trump replied: “who’s Brian Hook?” Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal a few days later.
Of course, even under the current administration, this attitude sees some variation on certain issues and regions – particularly the Maghreb, where European interest is highest and the Americans perceive the stakes to be low. But, broadly, on issues that they care about, American officials see Europeans as irrelevant kibitzers.
The difference between assets and influence
This attitude can seem odd at first. Europeans are potentially powerful in the Middle East: they are much closer to – and, therefore, concerned about – the region than the US, and their interests and views are often distinct from the Americans’. So why does the US perceive Europe as so irrelevant?
American officials recognise that Europeans, particularly collectively, have many important assets that might help or hinder US efforts in the region. In fact, American officials often seek to mobilise European assets in pursuit of their objectives – or, at least, to prevent Europeans from working against them. These assets fall into three categories: money, troops, and legitimacy.
Money: Through development funding and other assistance mechanisms, the European Union and many of its member states have made a substantial contribution to US initiatives in the Middle East. For example, Europeans have long propped up the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and have even increased their financial support for UN efforts there after the US withdrew its funding.
Troops: In Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, and Syria, EU member states have often contributed troops to US-led military efforts. Even a military superpower often feels overstretched or needs to turn to partner forces for political or diplomatic reasons. As recently as July 2019, the US asked various European allies to provide replacements for US forces deployed to north-eastern Syria, albeit with limited success.
Legitimacy: Europeans can shape the perceived legitimacy of US policy in the Middle East through their roles in international institutions, their impact on global public opinion, and even their ability to affect debates within the US. As legitimacy is an important asset, US administrations have typically tried to garner Europe’s political support for their initiatives for reasons that go beyond the troops and money it provides. Democratic administrations have typically valued this asset more than Republican ones, but it remains a factor even under Trump. For this reason, US officials tried to get some European countries to go along with the White House’s 2017 decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
The long arc of American policy in the Middle East shows that the US government clearly recognises the value of these assets. Nonetheless, it remains dismissive of Europeans’ influence there largely because it believes they cannot really formulate an independent policy on the region.
This lack of independent capacity is not simply the result of a lack of unity within Europe on Middle East policy – although that is certainly a factor. It has more to do with the fact that Europe’s dependence on the US for its own security places a firm limit on the degree of opposition it will muster to American policies. For instance, Germany might publicly object to US actions in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 – it might even withhold money and statements of support. But the German government never really considered denying the US use of German bases to prosecute those wars. On the contrary, Berlin backfilled deployed US forces to assist in security provision for the bases.
American officials generally feel that talks on Middle East issues with Europeans are something of a pantomime. Europeans have views on these issues and they even have valuable assets – so, in theory, there is something to talk about. But Europeans lack the unity and political will required to translate those assets into influence. Accordingly, they have few initiatives of their own. Their contribution to American efforts, positive or negative, is more a result of their relationship with the US and domestic public opinion than their interest or influence in the Middle East. Ignoring them is impolite, particularly if done in public. But it is a viable option.