A good many observers are noting the recent improvement in transatlantic ties, attributing it to the election of pro-American leaders in Germany and France, the fading of Iraq as a divisive issue, the mellowing of the Bush administration or some combination of the three. This belief is comforting, but it is bound to end in disappointment.
US-European relations are not about to become as good or as significant as they were in decades past. Some of the reasons for this are familiar: social differences, including an unequal emphasis on religion and differing views on abortion rights and the death penalty; lingering anti-Americanism resulting from the Iraq war, perceived US neglect of the Palestinian issue and both Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo; and generational and demographic changes on both sides of the ocean. Fewer Europeans regard Americans as their liberators; fewer Americans view Europeans as their ancestors.
But there is another reason for the likelihood that the transatlantic alliance will count for less, one that reflects not so much what is going on in either Europe or the US as changes in the world as a whole. Alliances require predictability: of threat, outlook and obligations. But it is precisely this characteristic that is likely to be in short supply in a world defined by shifting threats, differing perceptions and societies with widely divergent readiness to maintain and use military force. The 21st-century world is far more dynamic and fluid than the relatively stable and predictable period of the cold war.
This is in no way meant to defend or advocate unilateralism. But it is a recognition that many in Europe disagree with some US objectives, with how the US goes about realising them, or both. As a result, the US often will be unable to count on the support of its traditional allies.
Also weakening Europe’s centrality to US foreign policy is that its capacity for global intervention is diminishing, especially in the military field. That is true even for occasions in which it does find itself inclined to act with, or in support of, the US. Afghanistan is becoming a case in point. The strengthening of European Union foreign policy institutions will help but will not be enough to reverse this trend.
Instead, we now face a future of “selective co-operation”. We are entering an era of foreign policy and international relations where countries are neither automatically predictable adversaries nor allies. They may be active partners on one issue on one day and largely inactive observers on another issue the next. Or they may carry out alternative or opposing policies. All of this is reminiscent of Lord Palmerston’s dictum: a nation has neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies–just permanent interests.
The result is that transatlantic co-operation will be less predictable and more selective. Interestingly, some of this was foreseen by those who founded Nato. There is the binding Article V commitment, in which each Nato member agrees that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all. And there is the optional Article IV commitment, in which the members agree to consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the members is threatened. Although Article V was invoked in the aftermath of 9/11, the strategic reality is that we are living in an Article IV world of discretionary commitments, where coalitions of the willing will be more common and consequential than long-standing alliances.
But there is a silver lining. Opposition from former adversaries is also not assured. Indeed, one-time opponents may become limited partners. Take, for example, the assistance given by China in putting pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme. Beijing, in this case–not Nato–was and is the most important partner for Washington in its efforts to denuclearise North Korea. This does not, however, mean China is on the verge of becoming a US ally on other issues.
This assessment is not limited to transatlantic ties. The same will hold for US ties with, say, Japan, South Korea or Australia. In the case of Japan, what will limit the depth of the relationship will be the lack of political consensus in Japan favouring a robust role for that country in the region and the world. South Korea will be preoccupied by events on its peninsula. Australia will be selective in its willingness to partner the US, as the recent decision by the new prime minister to reduce its role in Iraq underscores.
Such uncertainty will make the practice of foreign policy more not less difficult. It will place a premium on consultation and coalition-building. The task will be to expand co-operation wherever and whenever possible–and not to allow inevitable disagreements to spill over and prevent co-operation where countries do in fact agree. It will be difficult to accomplish this, but it will be necessary if we are to manage the threats inherent in globalisation rather than have them manage us.
The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is drawn from ‘The Palmerstonian Moment’, appearing in the January/February 2008 issue of The National Interest.
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