The Future of US & Europe

The transatlantic partnership remains the most important international relationship – this should be rosy but isn’t the case

News | Amb. Eva Nowotny | October 2009

For many reasons, this is a good moment to reflect on the present state of transatlantic relations. Every day there is exciting as well as disturbing news from the other side of the pond. And here in Europe, a new leadership of the European Union will emerge, as Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will start working with a new team, and given a positive outcome in the Irish referendum, he will start with a new treaty and under changed conditions.

In late July, President Barack Obama declared that U.S.-Chinese relations would be the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. This was a political declaration of considerable importance – above all, because it contradicted many influential political analysts, who argue that the relationship between an established and an emerging super power quasi automatically has to be confrontational. But with his emphasis on diplomacy, partnership and dialogue, the U.S.-China relationship will certainly be among the most important.

However, if one looks at the sheer numbers, the picture changes. In spite of the growing importance of emerging economies such as China, India or Brazil, the transatlantic partnership in density and weight still holds the number one position.

For example: between 2000 and today, American direct investment in Great Britain was eight times higher than that in China, in Ireland and in Germany three times higher than U.S. direct investment in China. In the same period, the profits of U.S. companies in the Netherlands alone were eight times higher than the profits of American companies in China. A very similar picture emerges in reverse: Europe, for instance, invests much more in California than in China.

The volume of our mutual direct investment in trade and in services, and the size of the jobs that result from it, make the transatlantic economic relationship the biggest, most important international relationship of all. There is no other bilateral relationship that even comes close. The degree of interdependence and connectivity of our economies – in a negative sense exemplified by the consequences of the financial crisis – has become so high that many economists have given up talking about a bilateral relationship. Instead, they argue that this has become one big common transatlantic economic area.

When I was addressing American audiences during my time in Washington, I occasionally surprised them by telling them, that products which we regard as intrinsically American, are no longer under American ownership – products like Dunkin Donuts for instance, or Snapple. The famous French historian Fernand Braudel has once argued that the Mediterranean was never a separation or a border between its northern and its southern shores, but indeed a data highway, over which through the centuries information exchange took place.

In a comparable fashion, the Atlantic Ocean today is no longer a separation between the U.S. and Europe and it serves rather as a high-speed connection between the continents.

Parallel to this, a well-structured political dialogue was built up, on many different levels. Europe and the U.S. meet regularly, from yearly summit meetings on Presidential level, many task forces and high level groups of civil servants, to the legislators’ dialogue or the people to people meetings in the framework of the civil society. This structure is grounded in the so-called New Transatlantic Agenda, established in the year 1995, which since then has been constantly enlarged and adapted – the last time during the German EU Presidency of 2007 through the creation of the so called Transatlantic Economic Council.

If one adds to that the intense cultural relations, the density of our cooperation in science and research and above all our common interests and values, a fundamental consensus in the basic goals and objectives of our policies, one could easily think that we are living in the best of all possible worlds and that everything is fine and rosy.

This is not the case, however. And that it is not the case has been brought home to us very clearly during the last few years.

Many of the problems go back directly to the political agenda of the government of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. From the European perspective it was particularly alarming to see how casually and easily the last American administration attacked, and even destroyed, some of the fundamentals of the global order of the post World War II period – a global order that was, after all, constructed mainly by American initiative, and which has enabled a relatively peaceful, and economically successful series of developments.

The safeguarding and the development of International Law, a constructive engagement in international organizations, are indeed cornerstones of the foreign policy of European countries, and the reasons for it are easy to understand – small and medium sized countries, and this is the European political landscape, need stable conditions and a reliable international order to pursue their interests and to develop their agenda.

It was thus with shock and deep concern that Europe followed the casual abandonment of international disarmament treaties, the challenge to the Geneva Conventions, the rejection of the International Criminal Court, the "No" to any commitment in the climate change negotiations and the environmental issues, to name only a few.

These were declared policies of the Bush administration, and the European criticism of many of these policies was justified.

But they also reflected two long term trends of American policy: On the one side the conviction of American singularity and superiority, which allows the U.S. total freedom of action and permits the rejection of the ideas, insights and experiences of others. On the other side, there is what I call the missionary tendency, which not only legitimizes, but almost demands intervention abroad –  "we know best and we have to tell others what to do. If they don’t do it voluntarily, we slap them."

These two long term historical trends in the most recent past were reinforced by an increasing militarisation of foreign policy and security policy – the constant emphasis on supremacy, which reminds Europeans of the power politics of the 19th century, the importance attached to secret services, the general mobilization of the society in a world-wide war against terror with considerable infringements in human rights and civil liberties.

Thomas Jefferson understood this danger: "If you are willing to sacrifice liberty for security," he said, "you deserve neither."

It is against this background that one understands the discussion of soft power versus hard power which became so important in the presidential campaign, and that one also understands the warning of the Pentagon chief, Minister of Defense Robert Gates, about the insufficient budget and equipment of the State Department.

Already the first nine months of the government of President Obama brought significant change – change in policies that matter to Europeans – and the record is an impressive one:

Candidate Obama promised to begin a systematic withdrawal of American troops from Iraq – President Obama is carrying out the withdrawal. Candidate Obama has promised to close the prison in Guantánamo – President Obama has already ordered the closing. Candidate Obama promised to ban torture in interrogation – President Obama has done just that. Most importantly he has settled all the dues and the long-standing debt to the United Nations, without any demands attached to it.

In addition to this, a new dialogue with Russia has begun, fraught with difficulties, but which is nevertheless extremely important, particularly so from the European perspective. As an EU neighbor, the need for a decent relationship with Russia is a necessity, as is cooperation on issues from energy to migration or trans-border crime.

The tone as well as the content of USA foreign policy has become conciliatory and oriented toward dialogue and reconciliation, in general as well as in the relationship to Europe. Diplomacy, cooperation, the readiness to talk as well as to listen, have regained the foreground vis-à-vis the projection of military power and the "go it alone" strategy. The question remains open whether Europe will be in a position to fulfill this expectation. The first European reactions when it came to assistance in the closure of Guantánamo or in strengthening our participation in Afghanistan were not very encouraging.

In spite of our many common interests and fundamental values, there are many differences between EU and U.S. ideas and goals. As American political scientist Robert Kagan recently wrote:

"In the 1990s the European Union charted a new course in human evolution, proving that nations could pool sovereignty and replace power politics with international law…. A new international conversation about global governance supplanted old Cold War preoccupation. In the U.S., the conversation remained more traditional…  the U.S. as guardian of international security, the indispensable leader of the international community, in a traditional, power-oriented, state-centric way".

These differences, which have their basis in the very different historical experiences and geographical pre-conditions, are there, they will not go away and they have to be accepted. And we must resist the temptation to start missionary crusades against the other. It is futile, for instance, to try to convince Americans of the benefits of voluntarily relinquishing sovereignty – the notion of pooled sovereignty is totally foreign to American thinking. It would also be futile to try to convince Europeans of the importance of a huge increase in defense spending, of the necessity of the death penalty or of the constitutional right to bear arms.

Recent developments already reflect this approach. Instead on an introspective, unproductive and repetitive analysis of those differences we look more at those things we can do together, where we can shoulder common responsibility. All global problems demand a solid transatlantic axis, not only in the pure foreign and security policy and in international crisis and conflict management, but in a multitude of different issues: from financial crises and their fall-out to pandemics, to mass migration, trans-border crime, drug trafficking, environmental degradation – in our globalized world all of these demand a global response.

This creates a window of opportunity for cooperation between EU and U.S., and with it the possibility for the international community to deal efficiently with the problems that affect international peace and the quality of life of many of the world’s inhabitants. This is a complex task, for which Europeans and Americans will have to listen to each other’s voices and those of other nations and take them into account when they define their policies.

To do this, we need a true common European foreign and security policy. This is still a good way off, but we must not lose sight of the goal or sacrifice it to short-term, populist national interests. The expected ratification of the Lisbon Treaty will also bring us a good deal further.

Once the Treaty is in force, the European Union will be able to build up structures that will strengthen its capacity for international participation. It will have a sort of Minister for Foreign Affairs, to build up a European foreign service.

Equally important is to strengthen the involvement of the new EU member states in the European dialogue about foreign and security policy. Aware of their historical experience, one can understand that the higher value they place on NATO involvement and their individual bilateral relations with the United States then on the internal cohesion of the EU. One may understand it, but à la longue, a fixation on Russia as the enemy and unilateral excursions with the U.S. could infringe on the joint strategies of the EU.

The political and economic stabilization of the European continent after the collapse of authoritarian governments in the West and the Communist domination in the East is one of if not the most significant achievements of the European Union – an achievement which has always been recognized and valued by the United States. This process has to be completed in the development of an effective common European foreign and security policy.

Europe must have a clear understanding of the problems, which confront the U.S., and must stand ready for cooperation and partnership, wherever possible. But it would be dangerous and foolish to speculate on an assumption of American decline and increasing American irrelevance. However the U.S. copes with its problems, the U.S. will remain economically and politically important, and in many areas the most important. They still have a growing population, while Europe is shrinking; a diverse and vibrant civil society; strong social integration combined with a pro-active immigration policy, which enables the U.S. to still attract the best brains world-wide; considerable successes in research and in technological development; excellent universities and research facilities; and lastly a military power that is overwhelming.

But even more important is the broad and unchallenged patriotic consensus, the trust in the American constitution and the American political institutions. In contrast to the European Union, where a comparable European patriotism and a European "demos" is developing only slowly and tentatively, the American flags in front of the homes, the fervent singing of the national anthem, the daily "Pledge of Allegiance" in the schools, demonstrate this deep and emotional connection. It can be misused, it sometimes makes reform more difficult, but it is all things considered the real basis for continued American strength.

Francis Fukuyama’s dream from the "end of history" was indeed a dream. From the vantage point of today we cannot be completely certain that the world will develop towards more democracy, towards more rule of law, towards more market economy. Contrary developments have already started.

It is therefore all the more important that Europe and America by acting jointly preserve and develop elements of the existing international order even in a new era and under new conditions. Only by acting jointly they can succeed. The transatlantic partnership for both sides is crucial. They should never forget it.

Other articles from this issue

  • The Irish in Lisbon

    Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso: If Ireland votes “no” the consequences could be severe: There is no plan “B”.
    Opinion | Frank Cogan
  • Lean Years in Film

    Crowds pack the cinemas, but business is withering from a series of false moves
    Opinion | Mazin Elfehaid
  • Scary, dead people & more...

    At the Galleries: Oct. 2009
    On The Town | Michael Buergermeister
  • Why Cy?

    MUMOK hosts first ever retrospective of Twombly
    On The Town | Alexandra Ungern Sternberg Prufer
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review October 2009