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Marriage Counseling for America and Europe

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
July 1, 2004
Project Syndicate

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Disputes between the United States and Europe are nothing new, as past tensions over Korea, Suez, and Vietnam demonstrate. But these earlier disputes occurred within a very different geopolitical context – the Cold War – and the bygone intellectual and political framework of containment. This context and framework disciplined transatlantic ties. Europeans and Americans alike recognized the need to limit and manage their differences in order to conserve their ability to deter and, if necessary, to defeat the Soviet Union.

The Cold War’s end changed everything. Can the winning alliance survive its own success?

The fundamental features of the post-Cold War geopolitical context are relatively clear. They include American strategic primacy; massive and rapid cross-border flows of people, technology, goods, services, ideas, germs, money, arms, e-mails, carbon dioxide, and just about anything else; and relatively peaceful relations among the major powers – the US, China, Japan, Russia, India, and an increasingly integrated and enlarged Europe.

But if the geopolitical context is clear, the intellectual and political framework – the successor to containment – is not. The challenge for Europeans and Americans today could hardly be greater: to cooperate in a very different context than the one for which the relationship and its institutions were designed – and to do so without any agreement on a new strategic framework.

Cooperation is possible. In 1990, Europeans and Americans joined forces to reverse Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait. Later in the decade, Europeans and Americans combined to stop ethnic conflict in Bosnia and Kosovo. Europeans and Americans also worked to enlarge NATO and collaborated against terrorism in Afghanistan.

But recent rifts over a range of issues – including the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, the ABM Treaty, and the role of the UN – are impossible to ignore. Europeans tend to believe that the US is uncritically supportive of Israel and insufficiently sympathetic to Palestinian rights. Even when Americans and Europeans agree in principle, such as on trade, this does not always translate into practice.

Most pronounced have been disagreements over how to deal with what the US terms “rogue actors” – Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Europeans lean toward dialogue and incentives, the US toward isolation and penalties. Bridging these differences will not be easy, even though the US, for all its power, needs partners to fight terrorism, nuclear weapons proliferation, and global climate change.

But Europe, too, has a stake in maintaining the transatlantic bond, for there is no guarantee that it will remain an island of stability and prosperity. European integration cannot become all-consuming; a parochial Europe is vulnerable to unsettled regional conflicts and to globalization’s challenges. Translating mutual recognition of this into reality will require intellectual honesty and political investment on both sides of the Atlantic.

Europeans must shed their illusions about what they can accomplish in the world on their own. Loose talk about resurrecting a multi-polar world is just that – loose talk. It is neither feasible nor desirable for Europe to establish itself as a geopolitical equal or competitor of the US.

Europe must develop greater military capabilities, not to become a major power on par with the US, but so that it can act as America’s partner if it so chooses and to pursue its own goals. A division of labor whereby the US employs military force and Europe uses other policy instruments will gradually divide the US from Europe. Europeans also must admit that effective diplomacy requires not only dialogue and incentives, but credibility – a willingness to use sanctions and military force, if need be.

Americans, for their part, must accept that a strong Europe will not be content to simply do America’s bidding. The US should support European integration, because a strong Europe is at least a potential strategic partner, whereas a weak Europe is not.

Indeed, the sort of troop-intensive nation-building exercises taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly unique; they are sure to be repeated, and European contributions will be required. That American troops are being withdrawn from Korea and sent to Iraq is both unfortunate and revealing.

But genuine consultation will be necessary. Consultation cannot consist of simply informing others of what has already been decided, not adapting policies, and yet still expecting support. Nor can consultations on how to deal with today’s central global challenges wait until a crisis.

Most importantly, the US and Europe must learn how to disagree. The best guideline is to not permit disagreements to spill over and complicate or infect the relationship. Such “compartmentalization” is as essential now as it was during the Cold War.

In order to limit the consequences of disagreement, Americans should explain their position and offer alternatives when a proposed international arrangement is deemed undesirable. Likewise, the US must employ incentives as well as penalties – and not sequence its diplomacy so that a problem country must meet every requirement before it can receive meaningful benefits.

Europeans, too, have special responsibilities. There is a profound difference between not supporting an undertaking deemed essential by the US and working actively to block it. The latter is inconsistent with being an ally. European leaders also must do more to stem rising anti-Americanism, so that they remain able to work with the US when they judge it to be desirable.

We are entering a new and different era of US-European relations. There will be issues arising where Americans and Europeans see things differently and are attracted to different prescriptions. But transatlantic relations – no less than relations among the 25 members of the EU or the 26 members of NATO – cannot be an all-or-nothing proposition, lest they run the risk of becoming nothing.


Richard Haass was formerly Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department, and is currently President of The Council on Foreign Relations.

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