Charles Grant: The troubled state of transatlantic relations

Relations between the US and Europe have become strained in the past year on issues ranging from the Middle East to trade protectionism, defence policies to diplomacy, terrorism to international treaties. But for all the differences – real and imagined – there is still more that unites than divides the two continents. By Charles Grant –

A strong spirit of solidarity unified the two sides of the Atlantic in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Le Monde spoke for everyone on the Old Continent when it declared, “Nous sommes tous Américains.” Yet, by the end of 2002, the US and Europe seemed further apart than they had been before the terrorist attack.

The arguments about economic issues such as steel and farm subsidies were nothing new. But disagreements about questions of foreign and defence policy, such as Iraq and the Middle East, were more acrimonious than earlier transatlantic disputes had been. Indeed, some Russian commentators pointed out that George W Bush’s relations with president Vladimir Putin were much smoother than with many west European leaders.

On the European side, leaders have become frustrated by the Bush administration’s tendency to act without consulting allies (as in the military campaign in Afghanistan) and by its reluctance to be constrained by international treaties and organizations (saying “no” to the Kyoto Protocol, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and an enforcement mechanism for the Biological Weapons Convention). There is also disquiet about US enthusiasm for deploying the hard sort of power, as opposed to the softer sorts (such as peacekeeping, economic aid and other contributions to nation-building).

On the US side, senior figures in the administration have concluded that the Europeans are parochial in their world-view, slovenly in their reaction to the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and pathetic in their military capabilities. Some even accuse the Europeans of instinctive anti-Semitism.

Max Boot, a respected commentator with the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed the private views of some in the US administration when he wrote in November 2002 that “Europe has a long history of appeasing terrorists and rogue rulers, from Mohamar Gadhafi to Saddam Hussein”. He said Europeans felt free to ignore the threat from Iraq “because they have got into the habit of outsourcing their protection to the US”.

Boot continued: “On issue after issue, America acts, Europe acts up… The Europeans have adopted the attitude of a petulant 16-year-old toward his parents. Oh well, that’s what the Americans get for being the grown-up in this relationship.”

Some Europeans are just as rude in their criticisms of the Bush administration. So how have transatlantic security relations reached such a sorry state? There appear to be four immediate reasons.

One is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem here is not that the US and European governments are far apart, at least in their declared policies. The so-called “Quartet” – represented by US secretary of state Colin Powell, UN secretary general Kofi Annan, European Union foreign policy head Javier Solana and Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov – has just about succeeded in maintaining a common front.

The different EU governments have their own emphases to make, but agree – as does the US state department – on the fundamentals of what needs to be done – an exchange of land for peace. However, sharp differences within the US administration – with hardliners such as defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld talking of the “so-called occupied territories” – have weakened the Quartet.

A more fundamental problem is that on this issue, unlike most others in transatlantic relations, public opinion cares deeply but thinks differently on the two sides of the Atlantic. Most Europeans think the government of Ariel Sharon in Israel should take much of the blame for the current situation and that the US is not doing enough to pressure Sharon. Many Americans support Sharon in his refusal to negotiate with Palestinians as long as Israel is the victim of suicide bombings.

The worrying thing about public opinion taking an interest in foreign policy is that it is liable to influence politicians. There were some striking examples last April: the European Parliament passed (non-binding) motions calling for sanctions against Israel, while the Israeli lobby in the US forced Bush to back down after he had told Sharon to withdraw from Palestinian lands “without delay”.

The more public opinion influences foreign policy on the two sides of the Atlantic, the harder it will be for senior politicians in the EU and the US to maintain a common line on the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

In the autumn of 2002, UK prime minister Tony Blair was one of the European politicians who urged the US to convene a Middle East peace conference. Although Powell had made the same suggestion in the summer, the White House seemed uninterested.

The second big problem is Iraq. The fact that every EU member supports the tough UN resolution on weapons inspections should not obscure the fact that European and US perceptions of the threat are very different.

Most European leaders do not agree with Bush that Iraq is as big a danger to world peace as Al-Qaeda. Unlike Bush and his advisers, they think that containment and deterrence will prevent Saddam from using his WMD against people outside Iraq. And they fear that a war against Iraq would absorb energy and effort from the war against terrorism.

Of course, the big European countries have had their own varied approaches to Iraq. The UK is apparently prepared to support Bush under any circumstances, while France led the successful effort to give the UN a role and Germany has refused to take any military action.

Nevertheless, public opinion in the various European countries remains consistent: it will only support a war that is backed by the UN. And despite the differing approaches of the British, French and German governments, most European leaders have a similar strategic objective – to keep the US within a multilateral framework.

Indeed, European leaders are so concerned about the danger of US unilateralism that they will sign up to almost anything in an effort to get Washington working with the UN.

If in the end there is a war in Iraq, there is a fair chance that the UK and France will send troops to fight alongside those of the US. But Americans would be wrong to assume that the Europeans were sending troops because they shared Bush’s perception of the danger of Saddam’s WMD. They would be sending troops because they feared the consequences for the world order of the US acting alone.

The third big problem is the widening gap in military capabilities between the US and the EU. Throughout the Cold War and the decade that followed, the ratio of defence spending between European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and the US was remarkably constant: the Europeans spent about 60% of what the US did.

That has now changed. The US defence budget has risen from $280 billion in 1999 to close to $400 billion in 2002, but European spending has stayed roughly the same. The European/US ratio is now nearer to 40%.

Budgets are only part of the problem.

The Europeans continue to spend too much money on old technologies and large conscript armies, rather than new technologies and small, mobile forces. The Europeans lack the new communications technologies that enable the Americans to engage in “network-centric warfare”. American commanders complain that it is becoming increasingly difficult to work alongside Europeans.

Following the experience of the Kosovo air campaign, during which the European performance was underwhelming, the Pentagon chose to run the Afghan war on its own terms. Offers of military help from Nato allies were for the most part spurned.

But the immediate consequence of the Afghan war was not a dramatic surge in European defence budgets (although the UK and France increased theirs). Nor was there a rapid acceleration in the pace of military reform (although Italy and Spain have begun to follow France’s example by professionalizing their forces). Nor yet was a decision made to purchase badly needed capabilities, such as more heavy-lift aircraft (although at the Nato summit in November some European governments agreed to team up to buy transport aircraft).

The consequence was more whingeing about American contempt for Nato, the lack of consultation and the rebuffing of European offers of support.

The fourth problem has been that, at a time of new and dangerous global threats, the Europeans have failed to rise to the challenge. Neither their Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) nor their European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) has impressed the US.

Solana has earned some credit for his deal-making in Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. But the CFSP remains hamstrung by the system of a rotating presidency, under which a new member-state takes over every six months. Thus Belgium was in charge in the months after September 11 and the view in Washington was that the Belgian foreign minister, Louis Michel, was not up to the job of speaking for the EU.

As for the embryonic ESDP, any mention of it in Washington is likely to provoke raucous laughter. The ESDP was supposed to take over Nato’s peacekeeping job in the FY Republic of Macedonia last January. But a Graeco-Turkish argument about EU access to Nato assets means that Nato is still running the show.

The gap between the proud rhetoric with which the Europeans launched the ESDP and its lamentable performance only reinforces the argument of those Americans who claim that the EU will never be a serious global player. Until the Europeans present a more coherent and effective CFSP or ESDP to the rest of the world, they cannot expect a huge amount of respect from Washington.

Perhaps surprisingly, during a year in which US-EU relations have become severely frayed, the rapprochement between the Bush and Putin administrations – already evident in the months before September 11 – has deepened.

The Russians have swallowed some bitter pills such as the scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the enlargement of Nato into the Baltic, the semipermanent presence of US forces in central Asia and the UN’s tough stance on Iraq.

In return Putin appears to have won Bush’s genuine respect and friendship. This is likely to pay economic dividends in terms of Russia’s application to join the World Trade Organization, investment in its oil industry and the protection of its interests in Iraq.

More importantly, however, Putin has gained carte blanche in his handling of the Chechen problem. Given Bush’s insistence on a connection between Al-Qaeda and Iraq, he can hardly complain at Putin’s insistence that the fighting in Chechnya is part of a global war against terrorism.

During the course of 2002, the Russians’ growing disdain for the EU and their increasing warmth for the US have been palpable. There have been plenty of irritants in Russia-EU relations, including arguments over visas for the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, gas exports that breach EU rules on competition policy and the Europeans’ annoying habit of saying that Russia should negotiate with the Chechens.

In October this author heard one Putin adviser say, “America is a serious superpower with which Russia can do business. Unlike the EU, but like Russia, the US is a dynamic and fast-growing economy. And unlike the EU, but like Russia, the US is a serious military power. The US is our natural ally.”

However, for all the strains between the EU and the US, the prospects for transatlantic relations are far from dire. Although the Europeans may wince at the unilateralist comments of Rumsfeld or vice president Dick Cheney, more moderate voices win some of the battles in the Bush administration.

As long as Colin Powell, CIA director George Tenet and Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove are present in these battles, the president may end up pursuing a multilateralist course, as he did on Iraq in the autumn. Bush showed that he was prepared to give the UN a chance to tackle Saddam’s WMD. If Saddam messes around with the UN inspectors, most European governments will support military action against Iraq.

On the Middle East, the Quartet is holding together. Powell appears to share the view of the other members that, whatever happens in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process needs to be kick-started as soon as possible.

On the rows over military capabilities and consultation, there may be cautious grounds for optimism. Although the US was initially reluctant to work with its allies in Afghanistan, almost every Nato member now has its armed forces working there.

And Nato’s Prague summit in November approved the US-inspired Nato response force, which is designed to engage in high-intensity warfare in distant places. This force shows that the Bush administration is keen to find ways of making Nato useful and relevant, and it may spur the Europeans to modernize some of their capabilities.

Finally, the Europeans are showing signs of reforming their institutions, albeit slowly. The current European Convention on the future of Europe is likely to streamline decision-making in foreign policy, for example by scrapping the rotating presidency of the CFSP.

Therefore there are cautious grounds for optimism. If Bush can make an effort to re-energize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, if he continues to tackle Iraq within a UN framework, and if the Europeans can boost both their military and diplomatic capabilities, the transatlantic bond is likely to remain the closest between any two continents.

Charles Grant
Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform, an independent think-tank based in London.