22 January 2013
The Eurozone crisis and the Obama Administration’s strategy of giving U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region a top priority have made it necessary to adjust transatlantic relations. Europe desires deeper and more comprehensive cooperation, but on the American side there is a growing feeling of a lack of economic affinity with Europe.
In The Transatlantic Economy 2012–published by the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University–a chapter called “Turbulence: Fasten Your Seatbelts!” sums up the situation well. For after the excitement aroused by the election of Barack Obama, now is not the time for celebration. The euro crisis, cuts in the EU defense budgets, uncertainties regarding U.S.-Russia and EU-Russia relations, and the new phase the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is soon to enter following the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan will force Washington, Brussels, and European capitals to make an objective assessment: the transatlantic relationship will not be as ‘passionate’ as before but it remains the bedrock of the Western camp. What remains in transatlantic relations for both partners is a marriage without sex. It is not always pleasant, but it can still work well to handle daily business.
NATO is one of the pillars in the transatlantic relationship, but it is a shaky one. The main reason NATO continues to be viable is American willingness to make a disproportionate contribution to the Alliance’s military capabilities. Americans have long criticized European members for failing to make a reasonable and proportional financial and military contribution to support the Alliance. The U.S. now accounts for between 20 and 25 percent of NATO’s overall budget, although the Alliance has a total of 28 members. Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense during the Libyan campaign in 2011, also criticized the Europeans in the strongest terms. He expressed his discontent in such undiplomatic terms that American diplomats in Washington had to work overtime to placate the outrage in some European circles.
However, there remains one inescapable reality: that the European members must dip into their own pockets to find money if NATO is to maintain the same level of activities as it had in the past. Economic realities will reduce the U.S. contribution in the coming years. Moreover, Washington’s recent foreign policy strategy is predicated on the notion that the domestic economy must be the first priority–even at the expense of international security. This means that U.S. foreign policy will be primarily focusing on Asia instead of Europe, with the objective of maintaining America’s military dominance in the South China Sea. Washington finds it necessary to avoid China actually becoming a Pacific power, one that could potentially threaten U.S. interests and those of its strategic partners, such as Taiwan, Australia, and the Philippines.
Factors that led to cooled Euro-U.S. relations can be identified on either side of the Atlantic. On the European side, Obama’s Asia pivot, the announced withdrawal of two of the four U.S. Army brigades from the Old Continent, and the re-sizing of the future defense missile system in Eastern Europe–now entrusted to the Atlantic Alliance–have given food for thought to many EU members who usually toe foreign policy lines ultimately deriving from Washington.
The latest developments in Poland-U.S. relations demonstrate, for instance, the nature of the current friction between Brussels and Washington. Not long ago a champion of the “imperial” Pax Americana, Poland, under Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, has become a defender of European federalism, which alone, it believes, can ensure that the EU maintains its power on the world stage. The disillusionment triggered by the Obama administration’s willingness to improve relations with Russia, the traditional enemy, has made Central and Eastern Europe wary of aligning itself too strongly with the U.S. The idea of a Washington-Warsaw-Prague political axis has been put on the back burner in the light of this new reality.
Thanks to twenty years of impressive economic growth, which has resulted in a substantial military build-up, Poland is now convinced that it has the credentials to be regarded as a leader in Europe (and not just in Central and Eastern Europe). To act as a mediator between Russia and the United States on the missile defense initiative–and gain international prestige on the international stage–is, in Warsaw’s eyes, an opportunity not to be missed.
This new Polish diplomatic assertiveness and gamesmanship have driven a wedge between some NATO allies. Poland’s regional ambitions are, in fact, generating friction with neighboring countries, and this could alter the plans for the deployment of the missile defense system. Relations are particularly tense between Poland and Lithuania, two countries that would be most likely first exposed to the threat of a Russian missiles deployed in Kaliningrad.
On the American side, the White House quickly realized that its strategic reorientation towards emerging powers (China, India, Russia, and Brazil) had limits. It also understood that it was impossible to rely on the G20 alone to restore order in global finance or contain China. Despite many disappointments on both sides, Europe remains an indispensable partner in achieving Washington’s foreign policy objectives. For Obama, the EU is not the solution to the global financial imbalances brought about by dubious banking practices and management, but it is part of it.
Washington understands that to move away from Europe would create more problems than it would solve. And for very good reason: Between 2000 and 2010, 56 percent of U.S. overseas investments were made in the EU. In 2010 France and Belgium received $88 billion in U.S. foreign direct investment, the same amount as China and India combined. The lesson to be learned from the Greek, Spanish, and Italian sovereign debt crises is that the fate of Europe remains crucial for the United States and the rest of the world.
In the wake of Obama taking office in 2009, the transatlantic relationship improved significantly. NATO, tormented by the neocons who ensconced themselves in the Pentagon during the George W. Bush presidency, is now once again a more consensual alliance. There are no serious problems in this relationship on the horizon. The new joint strategic roadmap was adopted unhindered at the very quiet summit in Chicago in May 2012. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, scheduled for the end of 2014, satisfies all the countries contributing to the NATO mission, who have grown increasingly tired of what appears to be an endless war with no clear cut mission. The armed conflict in Libya also showed both the dependency of major European countries on the U.S. military agenda and Europe’s capacity to quickly organize an effective ‘humanitarian’ intervention when necessary.
By partly abandoning Eastern Europeans, the Obama Administration hoped to see greater cooperation from Moscow at the United Nations (UN). It was expected that Moscow would be more cooperative than previously over imposing new sanctions on Iran or North Korea if these two countries still refused to halt their nuclear program. Washington also wanted assurances that Moscow would not sell the S-300, a Soviet/Russian surface-to-air missile, to Tehran. However, Russia’s position on sanctions has fundamentally not changed, although President Dmitry Medvedev supported some light sanctions in 2010. Moscow is still against imposing a new round of sanctions against Iran.
Despite the problems outlined above, the transatlantic relationship is satisfactory for now, and the pragmatic collaboration shown by the U.S. during the Libyan and Syrian crises, as well as over Iran, has been greatly appreciated in some circles in Europe. Although many Europeans think that a Romney victory would not have substantially changed the situation, Obama’s second mandate ensures a certain continuity in U.S.-EU relations, and this is considered preferable than any change of policy at this time.
Richard Rousseau is Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013 print edition.