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Attila Marjan: American views on Europe’s geopolitical clout

By Atilla Marjan

What have American politicians had to say about Europe, its role, significance or insignificance and its relationship with America? Naturally, the USA has had different views of Europe over time: early in its history when it was a colony; later, as the weaker and less developed half of the western world watching Europe colonize the world in awe or with contempt; and, later still, as a global power shielding Europe from the Russian threat.

Our concern here is with the present and the recent past, the post-war period. In an excellent book, John L. Harper, professor at Johns Hopkins University, compares the visions of Europe of three influential American statesmen: President (1933-45) Franklin D. Roosevelt, the diplomat and political scientist George F. Kennan and  Secretary of State (from 1949-53) Dean Acheson.[1] The views of these three men on Europe’s significance and role and thus about US foreign policy show striking contrasts. Roosevelt’s vision reflected America’s Euro-phobia. He believed that Europe’s time was over and the old continent belonged in a retirement home. Roosevelt was almost as hostile to France’s aspirations to play an independent role as to Nazi Germany. He was also opposed to Churchill’s idea of a United States of Europe on the grounds that an integrated Western Europe with all kinds of independent aspirations was not in America’s interest. Roosevelt saw the world as a quasi-unipolar one in which the USA controlled international politics, nominally within the United Nations framework, together with China, Russia and the UK, but in reality as the unquestionably dominant actor. There were some contradictions in Roosevelt’s views: he would have liked a weak Europe but did not want to station US troops on the continent, simply because he did not consider it strategically as important as the Middle and Far East. The President was convinced that, with WWII, Europe had virtually written itself off and become irreversibly irrelevant. At this time, the idea of European integration and a European Union existed only as thought experiment in a handful of minds.

The main champions of the other fundamental US approach to Europe in the 20th century were President Eisenhower and the eminent diplomat George F. Kennan (the author of the famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow of 1946, which helped to galvanize awareness of the dangers posed by the Soviet Union). Their position was directly opposed to Roosevelt’s: they were convinced that Europe should be strengthened, not weakened, therefore it was essential to maintain an interim US military presence on the continent and encourage its economic and political integration. Only a reinforced Western Europe could resist the Soviet Union in the long run. Only a strong and prosperous Europe could solve the problem of a divided Germany and lure the satellite states of central and Eastern Europe with its positive example. But they insisted on the temporary nature of a US presence, arguing that eventually Europe should provide for its own defense: Europe should not get soft and used to the idea of having America protect it in any situation. As Eisenhower put it in the fifties: “It is not possible, and most certainly not desirable, that Europe should be an occupied territory defended by legions brought in from abroad…” The task of the USA was to encourage the emergence of a third great power bloc which would. become America’s friend and help it solve the international problems of a multipolar world order. But even the pro-Europe Kennan found it difficult to tolerate France’s vehement geopolitical ambitions to build a Europe keeping an equal distance from the USA and the Soviet Union. As he once quipped: I was a Gaullist before de Gaulle.

Screenshot of a part of the “Long Telegram” by George Kennan to George Marshall dated February 22, 1946. Harry S. Truman Administration File, Elsey Papers. (Photo: Courtesy of Harry Truman Library)
Screenshot of a part of the “Long Telegram” by George Kennan to George Marshall dated February 22, 1946. Harry S. Truman Administration File, Elsey Papers. (Photo: Courtesy of Harry Truman Library)

Dean Acheson’s Europe policy was a synthesis of the previous two, the one to subordinate Europe and the other to restore its strength and make it an equal partner. Acheson believed that the fate of Europe was too important to the US to be left to Europeans alone. And this would have been true even if the Soviet Union had not existed. Consequently — and this was in line with what he was hearing from most realistic European politicians — a Western alliance was needed in which Europe did not play an equal role with the USA. In other words, instead of a tripolar world order, Europe would become part of America’s western empire by invitation. The Acheson view, which became the predominant one from the 1950s onwards, was based on the following key assumptions: a certain degree of (Western) European integration was useful for the West and opposing it would trigger an anti-American reaction, nonetheless, US hegemony had to be maintained to guarantee that Europe could withstand Russia’s pressure. NATO was the key western institution of this setup as the guarantor and executor of America’s dominant role.

Harper calls this world order a semi duopoly, in which Europe recognized that it could not guarantee its own geopolitical position and security and the USA recognized that it needed Europe as its key ally to maintain this world order. It was within the framework of this paradigm, which existed for decades, that the European Union carried out its internal construction. Naturally, the end of the Cold War forced a reevaluation of many things, including the international order and EU-US relations in it. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the western world lived in euphoria for years. For a brief while it was even believed that the “end of history” had come, inasmuch as Professor Fukuyama’s theory was widely accepted that western liberal democracy, as the final form of human government, had claimed the ultimate victory. The United States had won the Cold War, which for Europe meant a significant devaluation of its geopolitical importance: the USA could finally turn its attention to emerging parts of the world and start consolidating a new unipolar world order. Europe could continue its ever-closer integration, introduce the euro as a single currency and allow in the former satellite countries of Central and Eastern Europe as fully-fledged members of the EU. The USA became intoxicated by unipolarity and allowed its frustration over grievances (for example during the Iraq conflict) to lead its relations with European countries to deteriorate. The paradigm of semi-duopoly was replaced by the unipolar worldview of the neoconservative Bush era. In other words, America no longer felt the need to have Europe by its side to manage the world’s affairs.

The contemporary neoconservative view of Europe is influenced not only by geostrategic considerations but also by moral value judgments: Europe is becoming objectively weaker, on top of which its leaders are seen the same way as those soft and feeble Europeans who appeased Hitler in the 30s and watched with their arms folded while the Nazis extended their power. Europe is a decadent society living in a postmodern dream world leading to complete decay. In addition, Europe continues to sabotage the international policy and ambitions of the USA, the only remaining standard bearer and defender of western civilization (just think of America’s sense of mission). Naturally, the post-9/11 atmosphere of revenge present in American political circles and society greatly contributed to the dominance of neoconservative principles. Much of Europe responded to various US military actions coldly, with rejection or sabotage, which stirred in US government circles a degree of anti-Europeanism unseen for a long time. The opinion of Richard Perle, an influential neocon political advisor, reflects these sentiments well. He once said that Europeans were unwilling to invest in the defense industry because they were only interested in their own comfort. Europe’s wariness of excessive American power, however, pre-dates the neocon era; it developed gradually in Western Europe, especially France following World War II. The contemporary French critique of the United States as a “hyperpuissance” did not begin during the Bush administration but was already to the fore during the Clinton administration, which maintained friendly ties with Europe. Its main outlines were strongly marked in Gaullism and indeed the historical roots are deeper still: as early as 1817, John Quincy Adams, who went on to become US President, forewarned that Europeans would one day see the USA as a “dangerous nation”.

Although they may not admit it, neocons are bothered by the fact that Europe rejects a foreign policy based on sheer force and presents an alternative approach to the world and its problems. The neoconservative era had brought about one psychological novelty for Europeans: their covert anti-Americanism has been an almost natural element of trans-Atlantic relations but, during the war in Iraq, they experienced the same resentment from the side of the USA. The election of President Obama seemed to hold the promise of a fresh start in trans-Atlantic relations, not only because of the President’s personality but also because his advocacy of a new rulebook for the new world order would necessitate close cooperation between the two western power blocs.

How do American politicians and commentators see Europe’s present and future geopolitical role and relations with the USA? Once again, there are plenty of theories to choose from.

Fareed Zakaria, the prominent foreign affairs columnist, believes that Europe could greatly contribute to the world’s stability by accepting Turkey’s bid for EU membership, but as it holds Turkey in limbo (with an eventual “No” more likely than not), it contributes to increased international instability. But above all, Europe is missing the opportunity to regain its status as a key geostrategic actor to be reckoned with.

Robert Zoellick, former deputy Secretary of State and President of the World Bank since 2007, is a popular figure in Europe. He is convinced that Europe’s worldview is distorted by its own self-identity. International negotiations and consultations are a successful means of solving problems in an EU context but do not always work in every case elsewhere in the world. The innate European attitude means a clear preference for maintaining the status quo, whatever the international issue. This attitude makes it difficult to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Europeans are convinced that any effort to change the world is doomed to fail.

NATO E-3A flying with US F-16s in a NATO exercise (Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)
NATO E-3A flying with US F-16s in a NATO exercise (Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)

Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor who shaped American geopolitical thinking for decades, is a member of the right-wing realistic school. He sees a growing gap between the US and Europe in military capabilities, as well as technological and economic development. Europe is going downhill, without the political will and the ability to pursue its geopolitical interests successfully or protect itself in the swiftly changing circumstances of the 21st century. Its troubles are further aggravated by its catastrophic demographic prospects. At first glance, it is not easy to distinguish between the realist and the neocon views of Europe, but there is a huge difference: realists are saddened by Europe’s decline, while neocons are pleased about it. Kissinger believes that the future shape of the world is going to be fashioned by three geopolitical processes (revolutions, as he calls them). Firstly, the drift of the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Secondly, the radical Islamist challenge to historic notions of sovereignty. Thirdly, the transformation of the traditional state system of Europe. All of these may even lead to the creation of a European political union.

It was Henry Kissinger, the then National Security Advisor, who in 1972 famously posed the oft-quoted rhetorical question: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” The question remains unanswered; Europe still does not speak with a single voice, it still does not have a common foreign policy and the political union is still not a reality. Europe’s economic unity is tangible both within its boundaries (for European companies and citizens) and outside. However, the Kissinger question pertained to the lack of political unity. It is unlikely that — as many Europeans believe — Kissinger was trying to poke fun at Europe.

To non-Europeans, “European foreign policy” is an obscure, complicated, multi-tier system. On the one hand, it incorporates member states’ own traditional foreign policies (especially of those who are significant actors internationally); on the other hand, it includes the nominally common EU foreign policy as well as the defense policy (launched in the wake of the wars of former Yugoslavia). In other words, it is the sum of principles and actions that member states consult each other on or adopt with unanimity. Finally, it even includes those truly common foreign policies that are more commercial in nature, such as development policy or trade policy, both of which are run from Brussels.

With member states taking turns at the helm of the EU for six-month stints, its international partners find it difficult to take Europe seriously. Member states have never really warmed to the idea of a common foreign policy; most of them persist with their own national foreign policies. These are far more important than Community projects, which are slow and cumbersome to implement. In a European Union of 28 one cannot seriously talk about equal diplomatic partners, even if that would be formally correct. The foreign policy horizon of smaller member states rarely extends beyond relations with neighboring states or emergencies; therefore they can add little value when it comes to deciding global issues. The key problem remains that nobody knows who makes the common foreign policy, who speaks for Europe. This issue has not been solved by the Lisbon treaty and the establishment of the post of the European foreign policy representative and the EU external action service.

The evolution of a “common” European foreign policy is a painfully slow process: the so-called European Political Cooperation (a synonym for consultations between foreign ministries) was only superseded by foreign policy coordination — misleadingly labeled the common foreign and security policy — a quarter of a century later. European defense cooperation is in an embryonic stage. Europe’s total defense spending is about half of the USA’s 350 billion, but the main reason behind its military weakness is the fragmentation of its national armies. The number of American soldiers readily deployable oversees nears half a million, compared with less than a hundred thousand in the EU.

When World War II ended and the Cold War began, the European powers realized that their glory days were over and they desperately needed the American nuclear umbrella. With the Cold War over and former satellite countries inside the EU, the former relative cohesion loosened and during the Iraq crisis European foreign policy failed spectacularly. The old continent split into two camps along the lines of their position on the war; trans-Atlantic relations fell to their lowest ebb in decades. In November 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary who was later forced to resign because of failures in Iraq, put Germany in the group of “problem countries” together with Iran and Libya. In return, the German Minister of Justice compared him to Hitler. Who would have thought just a few decades earlier that such a thing could ever happen? Statements like “you are either with us or with the terrorists” by President Bush or the “old Europe — new Europe” classification by the Defense Secretary did not exactly help either. Implicit or open messages, covert or overt threats of armed response, sophisticated economic sanctions and abusive statements escalated on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe’s response to the US policy of “divide et impera” was a surge of anti-Americanism. The two nests of Western culture seemed to have drifted apart. America’s arrogance only stoked the fire of Europe’s deep-seated anti-Americanism. Displays of American-friendliness by Central and Eastern European countries, which had just shaken loose of Russian oppression, earned them reproaches from Western Europe and the ratings of the British prime minister fell fast. During the second term of the Bush administration and especially after the election of President Obama things began to return to normal, but the US still does not consider the EU a potent foreign policy actor capable of unified and determined action.

Let me cite one example to illustrate my point! In 2008, The Wall Street Journal called the EU’s ultimatum to Russia on Georgia a joke. “Stop! Or we’ll say stop again! With apologies to comedian Robin Williams, that’s the line that comes to mind when weighing the European Union’s declaration Monday on Russia’s continued occupation of Georgia.” — the front-page article ran.

Russian BMP-2 of the 58th Army of the North Caucasus Military District of Russian Armed Forces in the breakaway South Ossetia region of Georgia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. (Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)
Russian BMP-2 of the 58th Army of the North Caucasus Military District of Russian Armed Forces in the breakaway South Ossetia region of Georgia during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. (Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)

“At a special meeting in Brussels, EU national leaders told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to abide by the terms of a French-brokered cease-fire, including a pullback of Russian troops to their pre-conflict positions. If he doesn’t do so, they warned they will hold another meeting. It’s been almost three weeks since Mr. Medvedev signed the cease-fire, and five days since Moscow broke with the world by recognizing the self-declared independence of Georgian provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Yet European leaders evidently need more time to ruminate over the situation in the Caucasus.”

The Wall Street journal added that during a post-summit press conference Nicolas Sarkozy was justly posed the question: Is the EU a “paper tiger”? Mr. Sarkozy, visibly angered, responded: “Demonstrations of force, verbal aggression, sanctions, countersanctions . . . will not serve anyone.” “What Europe needs is political will”, the conservative paper wrote, adding that “Mr. Sarkozy would do better to name and shame those member states whose desire to curry favor with Moscow keeps the EU from taking a firmer stand.”

The same thing happened a few years later at the time when the Ukraine crisis hit: US foreign policy staff was very disappointed by the slow and timid reaction of the EU.

Would Americans be irritated by a move towards closer political integration in the EU, making it a federation of states with a more united and robust foreign policy and a higher profile? This was the question I put to all the analysts, diplomats and political scientists I met over the last few years. Much to my surprise, they all said: No. On the contrary, the USA has an interest in ensuring that the EU can respond in a united way to conflict situations and play a diplomatic and military role that its economic might entitles it to.

The idea of creating a European political union has intrigued both European and American leaders for centuries. George Washington, whom Napoleon deeply admired, prophesied in his correspondence to the Marquis de Lafayette that one day Europe would follow the example of the United States of America. It looks like we are in for a long wait.

During the Cold War it was the Soviet Union, in the 21st century it will be Asia, and in particular China that will lie at the heart of American foreign policy. The China-focused nature of US foreign policy is the consequence of geopolitical realities, which Europe can do little about. Nonetheless, by being fragmented, Europe devalues its international role and makes it difficult for the US to consider it an actor with as much influence as its real weight would justify. Europe does not have a face, does not speak with one voice, does not even speak the same language and cannot be relied on when help is needed quickly. This is roughly how I can summarize the criticism of American diplomacy.

The interests and positions of big EU member states often differ on strategic issues such as involvement in military intervention or managing the global financial crisis. A more important, albeit less obvious problem is that major European powers have different visions about Europe’s role and future. These differences make it extremely difficult to forge common, coherent and effective international action.

America is aware of Europe’s key dilemma of “deepening or widening”: push on with enlargement and let new members in or focus on building a political union instead? The United States faced a somewhat similar situation in the 19th century when the original 13 states acquired new territories through wars and land purchases, expanding their influence and principles of state organization to a growing area. This expansion was the key to America’s success: it created the world’s largest single market, which spawned the world’s largest corporations in just a few decades’ time. A vast economic and political bloc was formed, which was protected by oceans both from the east and the west, making the USA inward looking in many aspects.

By the end of the Bush era, the United States looked like a bust state with no self-confidence. The intervention in Iraq was not only and primarily a military and political failure; it isolated the United States internationally and sparked anti-American sentiments globally. By the end of 2008, the economy was badly shaken, the world’s biggest banks were wiped out in days, and the stock markets went into freefall. President Bush delivered a dramatic televised speech explaining to the American people why a record-size 700 billion dollar government rescue package was needed and why — against the most fundamental of Republican and American instincts — large corporations needed to be nationalized. The country wanted change and wanted it badly, which led to the election of a Democrat as President with an impressive margin unseen since the victory of Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

But Barack Obama (called simply “the post-imperial president” by Newsweek[2]) could not do wonders. He inherited the leadership of a country with a dented image, which was spiritually uncertain and economically on its knees. It says a lot that, in the run-up to Election Day, Barack Obama’s bedside reading was Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World. The situation of Obama’s America is very similar to the situation of Great Britain in his grandfather’s time, when it was on the eve of its 20th century decline. The economic challenges of today are comparable to those that Franklin D. Roosevelt had to face at the time of the Great Depression – except that, in the 1930s, the United States was a rising power in geopolitical terms. “America is like a company on the brink of bankruptcy. In the last eight years we have lost most of our credibility”.”Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” These words come from Roosevelt’s inaugural address in 1932, but could just as well have been from Obama at the start of his presidency in 2009.

Today it is universally accepted that, after the end of the Cold War, in turn the unipolar world order and America’s hegemony are coming to a close. American foreign policy must respond to the changing realities. The Obama administration has declared its intention to adopt a “smart power” approach to foreign policy, which puts diplomacy and foreign aid on an equal footing with military action.

Obviously, the previous administration’s stance was incompatible with the new administration’s commitment to multilateral, cooperative international politics. More money is devoted to improving the linguistic skills of American diplomats – in particular for languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Urdu, which gives us a broad idea of the new diplomatic priorities. A number of American authors, among them the pro-European Democrat Sven Steinmo, warned Europe not to have exaggerated expectations, arguing that the United States will not be radically different under Obama. As Steinmo points out, America’s laws are passed by Congress and the President only has the right of veto. Members of the House and Senate are elected to serve the interests of their voters in their respective constituencies and states and most of them have little insight into international affairs. Moreover, the United States remains divided.

As it normally does, the Obama’s popularity started to fall, but he still could secure a second term. As for the EU-USA relations and the perceptions of the US government of the EU: those who predicted that no miracle would occur in this respect were right: the Obama administration did not alter the geopolitical focus of the US in the favour of Europe. Notwithstanding the fact that some of his political opponents portrayed Obama as a closet European (there were remarks such as why doesn’t he run a Western-European country, or he seems to agree with the European, anti-American sentiment, or even that he wants to build the United States of France) his government’s geopolitical focus further drifted towards the Pacific from the Atlantic. At the same time, the honeymoon between Europe and Obama’s America was over as well. By October 2009, The Economist had already started to speak again about the Atlantic divide.[3] Obama shocked Europeans by staying away from the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and humiliated the EU by refusing to come to Madrid to the EU-US summit. These were strong and clear negative signals to Europe already half a decade ago. By the end of 2010, Obama mania seemed to be over in Europe.

The new and robust impetus for the reinforcement of bilateral relations is the grand trade and economic agreement the so-called TTIP. A lot will depend on how this is being managed and how successful this partnership will become over the next decade.

A smooth and mutually fruitful economic partnership will nevertheless not solve everything in itself. Better geopolitical cooperation is also necessary to mend fences and to guarantee the delivery of mutually accepted foreign policy objectives. The US clearly expects Europe to pledge to stand by its main ally if firm action becomes necessary.

America wants Europe to take a firmer stance against China, and an ever more provocative Russia. In essence, the United States would like the European Union to cooperate more closely and operate more effectively as a partner by its side. The USA would not mind an EU with a more pronounced international political profile, especially if it meant a quicker and more efficient response to international crisis situations.

Notes

  1. American Visions of Europe: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George F. Kennan and Dean G. Acheson New York, Cambridge University Press 1994.
  2. Newsweek, 14 December, 2009. p. 1.
  3. “The Atlantic gap.” The Economist, 1 October 2009.

Original published at Modern Diplomacy

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Attila Marján

Attila Marján is a Hungarian economist, PhD in International Relations. He’s been based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and is a member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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