Europe and America: parallel lives, centuries apart: Foreign policy blues

The Harry S Truman Building in Washington DC, headquarters of the US State Department (picture Loren)

By Adrian Taylor

The European Union is increasingly mentioned in informed media as playing a role in global politics and business. Most often it associated with trade policy disputes and anti-trust actions, but recently attention is also turning to its foreign policy role. Over a series of articles, the author, an English expert on EU affairs living in the US, seeks to outline how the development of the EU parallels the historical development of the USA, and thereby to enlighten the often confusing debates on what the EU is and does.

Think back

European countries are often criticized for failing to develop a common line to US foreign policy requests especially when the use of force is involved. However, when looking at the US today, it is all too easy to forget that this country was not always a superpower, and that like Europe today, it once had problems in coordinating the foreign and security policy of its states.

1812 and all that

Recall for a moment the war which climaxed in the burning of Washington DC, a conflict that started in 1812 when the US Congress declared war upon the UK. Given that the regular army was tiny, the vast mass of the forces for the war on the US side had to be made up of militias. They, like the national guard today, were the responsibility of each state governor. But at this stage in the war, the governors in New England saw no grounds for a war of aggression and refused to mobilise! On the contrary, many states were more concerned at possible loss of business and continued trading with Canada, even supplying food for the British Canadian army.

As a result, rather than an attack on all fronts, the British (and native Indian allies) only had to put up with piecemeal attacks, starting with an invasion from Detroit. This, and the later assault across the Niagara river, was repulsed with considerable loss to the US attackers. Indeed, 1812 proved to be a disastrous year all round for the US, precisely because the states were not united. It was only further into the war, by the time that the Redcoats were razing the Presidential residence and capitol in 1814, that the States were cohering at last.

Forgotten history

Interestingly, most Americans consider this war to have been a US victory. It is true inasmuch as the Brits were evicted from the US, and a bit of (Spanish!) territory was annexed.

But these historians tend to forget that the UK had not started the war. Indeed, that prior to the invasion, Britain had no desire for a war of any variety in the US, and two days before the declaration of war had even ceded on one of the two decared US war aims (the UK repealed the Orders in Council, which prevented the US from trading with Europe during Napoleon’s occupation) precisely in order to maintain peace. In reality, none of the US war aims had been achieved, given that Canada was not annexed, and impressment of deserted British sailors from US ships continued until the Napoleonic threat was eliminated in France.

However, precisely because the US celebrates this as a victory, it is forgotten just how disunited and incoherent the country’s military and foreign policy actually was.

Learning from the past

It could be argued that the US is no precedent in this respect, as Europe has failed to cohere for decades, and is not a single country. Such views overlook the fact that the EU has committed itself to building a Common Foreign and Security Policy with the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty. More importantly, they ignore the fact that the arrival of a single European currency radically changes the dynamic of European integration. Henceforth a security threat to one member state could seriously damage the currency which belongs to all Euroland members. Security must be joint if the economic well-being of all is to be preserved. In future, before casting stones, the US establishment would do well to meditate on its own history first.

Adrian Taylor is a Research Associate of the EU Center, University System of Georgia, and holds an honorary Professor’s position at the Sam Nunn School of International Relations, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, USA. He is currently working for Think Tools A.G. a software firm in Zurich, Switzerland. He can be contacted at The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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