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Europe and America in the Middle East

Author: Charles A. Kupchan
Vol. 106, No. 698, March 2007
Current History

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During President George W. Bush’s second term, relations between the United States and Europe have recovered somewhat from the transatlantic acrimony that followed Washington’s decision to invade Iraq.  Bush has reached out to the Europeans, making clear that he welcomes a more capable and coherent European Union, especially one that helps shoulder burdens in the Middle East.  EU member states have taken up the offer, pursuing a new level of engagement in the region, particularly with respect to Iran andLebanon.  Despite this tentative repair of the U.S.-European rift, however, the Middle Eaststill has considerable potential to divide the transatlantic community.  With the wars in Iraqand Afghanistan failing to bring stability to those countries and a new crisis looming over Iran, the Middle East may yet again challenge the limits of transatlantic partnership.

The Middle East has long been a potent source of transatlantic tension between Europe and the United States.  During the cold war, heated transatlantic disputes emerged over a host of issues, including the Suez Canal, the Palestine-Israel conflict, and the containment of Iran’s Islamic revolution.  Nonetheless, because of the solidarity engendered by the Soviet threat in Europe, disagreement over these issues did not significantly impair transatlantic relations.  With the demise of the Soviet Union, common tasks in Europe no longer overshadow differences in other regions.  Indeed, theMiddle East is now at the top of the transatlantic agenda.  Differences over Middle Eastpolicy have therefore become more consequential and have played a major role in the erosion of transatlantic amity in the post-Cold War era.

Diverging approaches to the Middle Eastare hardly the sole source of transatlantic tension.  On the contrary, the Atlantic community has of late faced a series of new challenges:  the maturation of the European Union; divergences in strategic priorities on the two sides of the Atlantic; the erosion of a moderate and centrist brand of internationalism in the United States; and the retirement of the World War II generation of leaders in both Europe and the United States.  Substantive policy differences have emerged as well, over the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change, the International Criminal Court, and the desirability of European unity.  Still, the transatlantic gap over the Middle Eastis arguably more pronounced than disagreement over any other issue.

The fundamental differences in European and American approaches to the Middle East have complicated and deep roots.  The factors at play include the legacy of European colonialism in the region; differing levels of support for democratization in the Islamic world; contrasting domestic pressures arising from the Palestine-Israel conflict; and transatlantic competition for influence.  These factors have combined to foster sharp differences regarding the Middle East, not just between foreign policy elites, but also between publics on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Since the British decided in 1968 to withdraw from its positions east of Suez, the United States has served as the dominant outside power in the Mediterranean littoral and the Persian Gulf.  It has been Israel’s main backer, the primary mediator in the Palestine-Israel conflict, and the guardian of conservative regimes and shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf—a role that has entailed the containment of Iranand prosecuting successive wars against Iraq. Europe has generally taken a back seat, uneasy with its loss of influence in the Middle East and often critical ofU.S. policy, but nonetheless willing to free ride on America’s protection of the flow of oil.

The EU’s Comeback

Today, however, Europe appears to be making a comeback in the Middle East.  The EU-3 (Britain,France, and Germany) have taken the diplomatic lead in seeking to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program.  A combination of EU member states led the effort to negotiate an end to the 2006 war betweenIsrael and Hezbollah, thereafter organizing and contributing the bulk of the United Nations force sent to Lebanon to keep the peace.  So too has the EU been more active on the Palestine-Israel front, using its diplomatic influence and sizable assistance budget to strengthen more moderate voices within the Palestinian community.  And European troops constitute a significant portion of the NATO forces struggling to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Europe’s greater involvement in the region is in part product of developments internal to the EU.  The appointment of a foreign policy czar for the union has contributed to greater coordination among the member states.  The EU constitution envisaged a single foreign minister for the union.  For now, the rejection of the constitution in Franceand the Netherlands has put that proposal on hold.  Nonetheless, EU member states have of late put more emphasis on the union’s geopolitical aspirations beyond Europe.

The EU’s rising profile in the Middle Eastis also a product of America’s woes in the region.  With the United States bogged down in Iraq,Washington has had little choice but to turn to Europe to take on more responsibilities in the region.  The Bush administration during its second term rediscovered the merits of partnership with Europe—not because of a sudden ideological embrace of multilateralism, but because the chaos in Iraq made clear to Washington that it desperately needs help in the Middle East.

In addition, the Iraq war invited greater European involvement in the Middle East   for reasons other than America’s preoccupation with the troubled occupation.  In many respects, the EU’s ability to rise to the occasion in dealing with Iran andLebanon stems from its desire to recover from—and avoid a repetition of—the invasion of Iraq and the geopolitical turmoil that it has spawned.  Were it not for the painful lessons learned from the Iraqconflict, it is doubtful thatEurope would have found the unity and determination that it has since mustered in Middle East.

The invasion of Iraq led to an open political divide within the EU, pitting a pro-war coalition led by Britain against an antiwar coalition led byFrance and Germany.  On fundamental questions of war and peace, the EU’s leading powers ended up on opposing sides.  The quest for European unity was dealt a decisive blow.  The urgent need to restore comity and cooperation within the EU’s guiding troika thus provided an important impetus behind the EU-3’s efforts onIran.  In the aftermath of the divide between “old” and “new” Europe, forging and sustaining a common voice became of the utmost importance. Europe’s political future, not just Iran’s nuclear program, was on the line.

A similar logic applies at the transatlantic level.  The rift that opened over the Iraq war called into question the integrity of the Atlantic Alliance.  At least at the outset, that was precisely the objective; Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder were ready to contemplate life after Pax Americana and expedite the onset of a multipolar world.  But that vision was far more attractive in principle than in reality.  The majority of EU member states preferred to maintain the transatlantic link and extend America’s role as Europe’s strategic guarantor.  Moreover, those EU members that opposed the war were left with little leverage over U.S. policy, effectively relegating them to the diplomatic sidelines.  Chirac and Schroeder, although they enjoyed an initial boost in popularity for standing up to Washington, soon saw their political fortunes and their diplomatic influence lag.

The consequent desire to rebuild transatlantic harmony played into the determination of the EU-3 to stand together and tough on Iran.  To win back Washington’s respect, Franceand Germany needed to demonstrate that they had the wherewithal to confrontTehran.  In response to European objections to toppling Saddam Hussein, the American neoconservatives had accused Paris andBerlin of appeasement.  Both capitals were determined to show that Iraq was a unique case; on Iran, they understood the importance of coercive diplomacy.

In addition, the EU-3 have been intent on demonstrating that they could be more than spoilers.  On Iraq, Washington justifiably criticized Europe for telling the United States what not to do, without offering proactive policy alternatives.  When it came to Iran, Europeans wanted to make clear they had the political will to take the diplomatic initiative.  On trial was Europe’s brand of diplomacy, one that would try engagement and inducement—rather than coercion alone—to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambition.

Although Europe and the United States have regularly competed for influence in the Middle East, the EU’s growing weight in the region, instead of fueling a new transatlantic face-off, has in fact contributed to improving relations.  The Bush administration has been on the lookout for partners in the Middle Eastand the EU took up the offer.  Washington ceded Europe greater voice and Europe welcomed a seat at the table.

These developments, however, constitute only early and tentative steps toward a new transatlantic partnership in the Middle East.  Should this partnership continue and deepen, it has enormous potential to bring positive change to the region.  An ambitious transatlantic agenda would go well beyond dealing with crisis of the moment.  NATO could extend its Partnership for Peace program into the Middle East, educating and training militaries throughout the region.  In theory, the EU has already extended its institutional and economic reach to the region through the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the European Neighborhood Policy, which are intended to deepen political and commercial ties, replicating the beneficial effects that the EU brought to Europe’s east.  But both programs exist more in name than fact; they need to be expanded substantially if the EU’s engagement is to have a major impact on political and economic reform.

The Limits of Partnership

Considerable obstacles stand in the way of this more ambitious agenda. America’s mission in Iraq may fail, as may NATO’s in Afghanistan, where European governments are reluctant to contribute more troops.  Either failure would set back the prospects for transatlantic cooperation and encourage both Europeand America to retreat from the Middle East.  The EU also needs to advance its ability to act collectively and acquire more military capability; only if it aggregates its capacities and can project hard as well as soft power will it be able to shoulder more weight in the region—such as deploying forces to enforce a Palestine-Israel peace settlement should one be in the offing.  This further deepening of European integration is by no means assured.  Indeed, Europe is, if anything, in the midst of a re-nationalization of political life.

Finally, substantive disagreement may scuttle chances for more transatlantic cooperation.  Despite the Bush administration’s new push on the Palestine-Israel front, Europe and the United Statesremain far apart on how best to advance the prospects for peace.  And if Iran remains intransigent on its nuclear program, it may well be able to drive a wedge between Europeand the United States.  If Washington heads down the path of seeking to escalate sanctions and preparing for a military confrontation with Iran, the resulting rift across the Atlantic may make the divide overIraq seem narrow in comparison.

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