Home inFocus American-European Relations

American-European Relations

Anya Hosain and Barak M. Seener Spring 2010

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama positioned himself as a strong proponent of diplomatic engagement. He pledged to work with Europe to solve international disputes and heed the advice of others when it came time to crafting America’s foreign policy. In practice, President Obama hoped that his approach would stand in stark contrast to George W. Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy” — the philosophy where, “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

It is no surprise, then, that in the aftermath of President Obama’s electoral victory, the sense of optimism in Western Europe was palpable. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude Project conducted in May and June 2009, Germany’s favorable opinion of the U.S. more than doubled from the attitudes held in 2008 – from 31 to 64 percent. During the same period, Britain, Spain, and France also saw an increase of 16, 25, and 33 percent respectively. The belief that Obama would “do the right thing in world affairs” – which according to most Europeans means placing faith in multilateral institutions – was shown to be nearly universal in Western countries. In France and Germany, no fewer than nine-in-ten expressed confidence in the new American president, exceeding the ratings achieved by Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in their own countries.

Indeed, the importance Europe places in multilateralism is manifest when compared to the polling data from the first year of the Bush administration. A Pew Research Center poll from August 2001 measured the confidence levels of European nations toward the Bush administration and found that much of the opposition resulted from Europe’s frustration with Bush’s unilateralist approach to world affairs. It was therefore no surprise that more than 80 percent of Europeans disapproved of Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and more than 60 percent disapproved of the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Defense Missile Development Program. Yet the question remains: Do European perceptions towards the U.S. matter?

Obama promised hope and change, and that optimism was to extend to his diplomacy with Europe. The question, from a U.S. standpoint, was which path to Europe offers the highest probability of success? Should the new administration reach out to individual European nations — that is, the bilateral approach — or is it best to engage with collective bodies, such as the European Union (EU) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)? And how different would Barack Obama’s approach be in reality from that of George W. Bush?

Why the EU Cares about Multilateralism

Understanding which European institution the U.S. should work with when conducting statecraft has always been problematic. As Henry Kissinger famously put it: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” A significant problem from an American foreign policy perspective is how to balance the desire to see a more integrated Europe in the future, with the need to avoid sacrificing pressing short-term needs.

The EU is an economic and political union of 27 states committed to regional integration. The 1993 Maastricht Treaty established a Common Foreign Security Policy, which was recently upgraded by the Lisbon Treaty. The importance of the Lisbon Treaty is that it merged several positions to create the position of a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This new High Representative will be in charge of an External Action Service, which in effect, will constitute a common Foreign Office or Diplomatic Corps for the Union. Furthermore, the new European External Action Service is supposed to lead to a more consistent, coherent, and effective foreign policy to which the U.S. can relate.

While the Bush administration refused to endorse an integrated European defense policy because it would challenge the future of NATO, at a meeting with EU delegates in November 2009, Obama congratulated the Prime Minister of Sweden, the European Commission President Barroso, and EU High Representative Solana on the conclusion of the Lisbon Treaty because, as Obama said, it “will further bring Europe in the direction of integration not only on economic policy but also on a number of security issues.”

In December 2009, Philip H. Gordon, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs expressed enthusiasm for the Lisbon treaty. Like Tony Blair, he felt the treaty would complement U.S. foreign policy rather than rival it. Gordon declared, “We also believe that NATO and the EU, with 21 common members, can complement each other and should work closely together on their shared priorities… we hope that the changes brought by Lisbon will make the EU a stronger partner for the United States, and increase the role of Europe on the world’s stage.” During a speech in December, he said that since “there is more than enough work to go around,” NATO and the EU should coordinate their activities and make the most efficient use of their resources such that one organization does not reiterate the actions of the other. In other words, his hope was that NATO and the EU would complement each other and not function like substitutes.

The Lisbon Treaty echoes NATO’s treaty text by stipulating that if a member-state is attacked or is “the victim of armed aggression on its territory” the other member-states will be mandated to come to the former’s assistance. The problem is that if funding and resources are directed towards the EU military, it would mean there would be less national resources available to NATO forces. Indeed, as Lady Thatcher once said, “In the absence of additional defense spending, these resources will have to come at NATO’s expense. It is a piece of monumental folly that puts our security at risk in order to satisfy political vanity.” For instance, the commitment to the Iraq War of certain EU states such as Britain – while not others such as France and Germany – could not occur under the Lisbon Treaty’s requirement for consensus. It would undercut NATO. For example, it was ‘old Europe’ that provided the U.S. with significant hard power in the Afghan and Iraqi theaters.

U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke correctly identified that the Obama administration’s optimism has not sufficiently assessed the potential implications of the Lisbon treaty to the trans-Atlantic relationship. Holbrooke explained: “In Washington, we haven’t focused on a vast new opportunity for trans-Atlantic cooperation that’s built on the Lisbon Treaty… In the absence of additional defense spending, these resources will have to come at NATO’s expense.”

Budget and Tech Constraints

In 2008, the U.S. spent 4 percent of its GDP on the Pentagon’s budget. While it was a historically low percentage, it was nearly as much as the rest of the world’s defense spending combined. For Britain to complement the U.S. military, it would have to significantly increase its defense expenditure, even though it remains one of the highest percentages of GDP spent on defense in Europe.

A way in which this discrepancy manifests itself is the problem of strategic lift capability – that is, the ability to transport personnel and equipment to the theater of battle. European forces have found it difficult to achieve strategic lift to U.S. military forces because of the latter’s technological advancements. In turn, partnerships in foreign conflict theaters, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, have become increasingly challenging. NATO’s allied structure has partially resolved this issue of interoperability. When it doesn’t function, U.S. foreign policy has been less effective.

A Pragmatic Resolution?

Rhetorically, it appears that the Obama administration has placed a greater emphasis on the coherent building of blocs. But there is a disparity between Obama’s promotion of American interests and his general desire to embrace multilateralism. There is no evidence that the U.S. will not continue to engage bilaterally with EU states despite its enthusiasm for the Lisbon Treaty.

An illuminating demonstration is the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) that illustrates how it can be advantageous for the U.S. to negotiate with European countries separately. The VWP began in 1986 to allow citizens from 35 selected countries (mostly European) to enter the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. After 9/11, this program became a concern for Homeland Security, specifically because France and Britain have large Muslim populations. In 2007, Congress passed a law stipulating certain security regulations for all airlines flying to or over the U.S. coming from VWP countries.

The European Commission strongly opposed the regulations and tried to counter by threatening to deny Americans visa-free travel to Europe. While this dispute was unfolding, several Eastern European countries asked the U.S. to join the VWP. By doing this, these countries, such as the Czech Republic, sidelined the Commission and ignored its stance on the issue. The U.S. used this event to its advantage and allowed these countries to join the VWP. As a result, the Commission was compelled to accept U.S. regulations and honor the bilateral deals.

The degree to which the Obama administration engages in bilateral relationships will have a direct impact on British-American relations. Tony Blair calculated that British power in Europe would act as a bridge to the U.S. He understood that British power in world affairs is proportionate to British influence in Washington, not Brussels. The United Kingdom’s ability to directly influence Washington could be compromised by the Lisbon Treaty in the future.

There are already signs that Obama’s professed desire to engage with European institutions is having an affect on the U.S.-British relationship. Obama has failed to mention Britain in any of his foreign policy speeches, as his administration increasingly perceives Europe as a single bloc, rather than a collection of different states that wield different degrees of power. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown conceded that only “Fully in Europe, Britain has every chance to remain America’s preferred and privileged partner… Marginalized from the EU, Britain could find itself less influential in Washington as well.” Indeed, the Lisbon Treaty that potentially reduces Britain’s position in the future is not the Europe that Brown envisaged.

At present, the U.S. does not appear to be substantially assisted or hindered by European states and the Lisbon Treaty. The U.S. approach to Europe is based on its perception of the most effective means to secure European assistance. While, the U.S. is not opposed to European integration, it will not sacrifice short-term interests for the future promise of a more coherent and strategically integrated EU. As such, the Obama administration has yet to demonstrate how it can ensure that the EU’s strategic goals will be aligned to those of the U.S.

If, on the other hand, the Obama administration decides to focus upon bilateral relations with individual EU states, despite the multilateral rhetoric, it will not have veered far from the Bush administration’s approach. Today the onus is on the EU to increase its military spending so they will be better able to assist the U.S. Only then will the polls in Europe that favor multilateralism be relevant to decision-making in Washington.

Barak M. Seener is the greater Middle East section director and Anya Hosain is a researcher at the Henry Jackson Society.