Washington is not listening to European leaders at present-not even to Tony Blair.by Charles Grant / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Europe’s leaders are finding it hard to cope with the swashbuckling style and policies of the Bush administration. They acknowledge the skill with which it reacted to the terrorist attacks and ran the war in Afghanistan. But they despair at the Bush team’s contempt for “nation-building” and its lack of interest in the causes of terrorism. Consider the following comment from a senior figure in the British ministry of defence, a deeply pro-American institution, in January 2002:
“In order to help the US war effort, we are spending large amounts of money, for example by providing air tankers for US aircraft, and we are putting the lives of our special forces at risk. And yet, in return, the Americans do not listen to a word we say and frequently create difficulties, whether on the organisation of the peacekeeping force in Kabul or any other military matter. I have to ask whether it is in the national interest that we should go on offering such unstinting support.”
European views of the Bush administration have now passed through three phases. During the first eight months, there was growing unease about Bush’s “unilateralism,” exemplified by his rejection of the Kyoto protocol. Then 11th September heralded a warmer phase in transatlantic relations: the Europeans showed strong solidarity with the US, while the Americans worked hard to build alliances, apparently taking international institutions seriously once again.
However, since victory in Afghan-istan, the Bush administration seems to have reverted to unbridled, right-wing unilateralism. It has scrapped the ABM treaty, supported Ariel Sharon’s attacks on the Palestinian Authority and, in the treatment of prisoners held in Cuba, has been cavalier in its observance of the Geneva Conventions. The president’s “axis of evil” speech bracketed both Iran and North Korea with Iraq, although the Europeans have been trying to engage in dialogue with the first two. Colin Powell, the secretary of state, still listens to the Europeans, but seems isolated.
This latest phase of the Bush administration poses difficulties for Europe in general, and Britain in particular. Last autumn, Tony Blair’s staunch support for Bush won the backing of most EU governments. Other European leaders understood that Blair’s strategy was to win influence in Washington, and that this was good for Europe. In late September, for example, Blair probably helped to persuade the president not to attack Iraq.
However, if it appears that Bush no longer listens to Blair, Britain’s unswerving support for the US may look foolish and provoke resentment elsewhere in Europe. Take Iraq. At the time of writing (mid-February), the view in the Foreign Office is that Britain should seek to persuade the US not to attack Iraq, but that if it does, Britain should join the military campaign. If Britain was the only EU country to take part in a war against Iraq, that would hardly increase London’s influence in other European capitals.
Faced with an administration that seems to regard multilateralism as wimpish, how should Europeans react? First, they should not panic. The US is not a profoundly unilateralist country. Senior figures in the administration such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz may have their hands on the levers of power, but many Americans understand that they need allies and binding international rules to achieve some of their objectives.
The Democrats control the Senate and the multilateralists have the State department. When war fever subsides, the Pentagon’s influence will wane again. Powell remains a substantial figure. He recently won an argument with the Pentagon on cuts in the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons: a US-Russian agreement will take the form of a legally-binding treaty.
Second, despite the quote at the start of this article, the Europeans are not completely without influence in Washington. When Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, visited Washington in late January, the EU line on Montenegro was to discourage it from seeking independence from Yugoslavia. The US did not support this policy. But after Solana had seen Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Powell, the US shifted its stance behind the Europeans. Nor are British views irrelevant in Washington. In November, Blair proposed a new 20-country council for the 19 Nato members and Russia. The Pentagon blocked the plan, but an axis of the State department, the White House and the British is likely to win.
Even an America with unilateralist instincts will sometimes need help from its European allies. Because the Bush team is loath to engage in “nation-building,” it has refused to send peacekeepers to Kabul or Macedonia. The Europeans have provided troops for both places. And when it comes to reconstruction-in Afghanistan or the Balkans-the Europeans are more willing to pay the bills. This gives them some leverage in Washington.
Third, and most importantly, the Europeans must get their act together so that the EU can run more coherent foreign and security policies. The Europeans would then not only have a louder voice in Washington but they would also be able to influence the world on their own, in the absence of the US. When the Europeans disagree with the Americans, as sometimes happens, they should have the courage to do what they think is right. They have done so in the past by backing the Kyoto protocol. They are doing so now by working towards an EU trade and co-operation agreement with Iran.
A stronger Europe requires more effective military capabilities. The Europeans will never match US levels of defence spending, nor its ability to conduct high-tech, high-intensity warfare. However, countries which spend well below the EU average, such as Germany and Spain, need to raise their defence budgets. And Germany needs better-equipped professional forces that can serve far from home as peacekeepers. Most other European countries need to buy transport planes and modern communications systems, so that they can send soldiers to a combat zone and sustain them there.
The Europeans also need to think about ways of boosting effectiveness and saving money through working together. They could set up a common maintenance organisation to service military aircraft. Or their various special forces could train together, so that joint operations became feasible. At the political level, the EU should offer to take over responsibility for the Nato peacekeeping mission in Macedonia and Bosnia. Such moves would win the EU respect in Washington.
A stronger Europe also needs better institutions for making foreign policy. Javier Solana has become an effective spokesman for the EU. But the rotating presidency, which passes from one country to another every six months, damages the EU’s credibility, especially when a small country is in charge, as was the case with Belgium in the second half of last year. Another problem is that the two sides of EU foreign policy-diplomacy under Solana, and economic assistance under Chris Patten in the commission-are separate organisations. The result is sometimes confusion and inefficiency.
Solana should take over the rotating presidency’s role in foreign policy. And the next commissioner for external relations (currently Patten), should become Solana’s deputy; symbolising the need for both sides of EU foreign policy to work more closely together.
Finally, a stronger Europe requires bolder and sharper foreign policies. For instance, President Putin wants the EU to offer Russia a new institutional partnership, so that they can discuss issues of common concern at the highest level. The Europeans need to come up with some fresh ideas soon, lest senior figures in the Russian establishment lose confidence in Putin. Already, some of them say he has conceded too much to the west. Similarly, America’s lack of interest in Africa creates space for Europe. In the Congo and the Great Lakes a concerted effort at a peace settlement might get results.
The Blair government would support the thrust of many of these suggestions. But it is reluctant to take steps of which the US disapproves. The apparent diminution of British influence in Washington should stiffen Blair’s resolve to make Europe work better. Depending on the nature and extent of American unilateralism, it may not always be feasible for Britain to keep on good terms with the US and its continental partners at the same time. Britain’s criticism of the US over Guantanamo Bay is welcome and shows that it will not always follow a US lead. If Europe is to succeed in creating effective foreign and defence policies, Britain’s ability to distance itself from America, some of the time, will be crucial. For EU policies will not be credible without British involvement.
Europe is already an influential “soft” power. The EU dispenses 65 per cent of the world’s aid to developing countries. Pascal Lamy, the EU’s trade commissioner, is one of the two big players in global trade talks. Last summer, Mario Monti, the competition commissioner, prevented two US companies-General Electric and Honeywell-from merging. The euro is the world’s second currency. But the EU needs to develop the hard side of its power. If it can build more robust military muscles, more effective institutions and more ambitious foreign policies, the Americans-whether their mood is multilateralist or unilateralist-will want to listen.