Europe and America: together or apart?

Marshall Plan aid in West Berlin, Germany, 1949 (picture National Archives and Records Administration)

By Richard Laming

In looking at the subject of Europe and America, I am going to talk about the background, and then look ahead with some specific questions which I hope we will find interesting to discuss.

First, the background, which I can summarise by saying that in recent years there has been a gradual drift apart between Europe and America.

During the cold war, naturally Europe looked to America for leadership or, to put it more bluntly, protection. The American military commitment to Europe was both extensive and expensive. There isn’t always as much gratitude in Europe for that as there might be.

This contribution was not only military, by the way, but also economic. Marshall Aid, was launched in 1947, saw up to $13 billion being transferred to the Europeans (between 5 and 10 per cent of US GDP at the time. An important factor in the Marshall plan was that it required the different European countries to work together to form a common plan for economic recovery. The countries in Stalin’s orbit were forbidden from taking part in this European economic coordination (although some of them nevertheless sent delegates to the founding Congress of Europe in the Hague the following year).

But with the end of the cold war and the disappearance of the Russian threat, it became time for a rethink. Was a military alliance led unquestionably by the Americans still the right framework for the new era we were moving into?

Before that question could get a proper answer, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The war that started in August 1990 was fought on the classic cold war model, in the manner of Korea or Vietnam, in that the Americans were acknowledged as the leaders of an international coalition to fight a common enemy. Following the undoubted success of that operation, the cold war model of the previous decades was given new life.

However, events in the following years, particularly in the former Yugoslavia, started to reveal weaknesses in the model.

For example, European and American attitudes towards the Bosnian war turned out to be different. Nato formally had the task of enforcing an arms embargo against the warring parties in the Bosnian war, but the Americans themselves chose to break that embargo on occasion.

In the Kosovo war, the separation between American and European forces was even more pronounced: there was a joint Nato military effort and also a separate, parallel, American-only operation. While the Europeans understood that Nato was the framework within which their military activities were to be conceived, the Americans treated Nato as merely one option among others.

Note that this separation between Europe and America started not under George W Bush but under his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Under Bush, the trend deepened and became more substantial, but in many ways his policies are better thought of as a continuation of Clinton’s rather than an alternative to them.

It is not anti-American to say this, merely a statement of fact. And there are good objective reasons why the Americans should take this view.

First, with the end of cold war and the rise of China as an economic, and therefore a political, power, Europe matters relatively less to the Americans and Asia matters relatively more. The American armed forces are worried less about the Fulda Gap and more about the Taiwan Strait, the Pacific more than the Atlantic.

Secondly, in addition to the change in the outside world, there is a change in America itself. The balance of population in American is moving from the northern and eastern states to the southern and western states. Immigration to the US, and hence the family and cultural links of the people who live there, comes largely from Latin America and Asia rather than from Europe. In the minds of the American people, Europe features less prominently than it used to.

And for the Europeans too, things are changing.

First, there is the simple fact that American interests are changing. If America looks at Europe differently now, then it is not surprising that Europe’s attitude should change too.

Secondly, there is the shift to a multi-polar world. During the cold war, when the world was essentially divided into two rival camps, one democratic and capitalist, the other autocratic and communist, it was clear which camp the Europeans were in, and it was also clear who was the leader of that camp. But in a multi-polar world, America is no longer the obvious leader of democracy any more: there are other democratic powers, too, such as India and Brazil. Europe should not feel compelled to follow the American lead in the way it did during the cold war.

In that light, the development of European foreign policy cooperation is not at all surprising. It started in fact in 1970, with a process known as European Political Cooperation, and has been updated notably by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and in further steps since then, to create a more distinctive European voice on the world stage. The Lisbon treaty is the next stage in this process.

There are two questions I want to float for discussion this evening:

– How close to America the Europeans can remain while doing this
– How closely Britain can be involved in this process, given its historic links with America

Before I come to those questions, I think it is worth recognising that we are watching with twisted fascination the American electoral process unfold before our eyes, and the result of the election might well have a bearing on the American relationship with Europe.

The primary process is slightly unrepresentative in that it focuses on the divisions within the parties, which tend to be small, rather than divisions between the parties, which might be large. And there is a big division between the parties on foreign policy.

On the big foreign policy issue of the Bush presidency, namely the war in Iraq, the Republicans criticise it for not having being fought hard enough, and the Democrats criticise it for having been fought at all. There are some nuances in the positions of the different candidates, but that is a simple summary. McCain would send more troops there to fight and win the war; Clinton or, more likely, Obama would try to bring them home.

Both sides are aware that America’s war in Iraq and its prosecution of the so-called war on terror has harmed its standing in the eyes of the world, although I remind you that this is substantially the continuation of the Bill Clinton policy and not a Bush innovation. But I think actually it is McCain who in many ways has demonstrated a better understanding of the new world in which the next president will have to act.

For example, he wrote in Foreign Affairs (“An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom”, November/December 2007) that:

“When we believe international action – whether military, economic or diplomatic – is necessary, we must work to persuade our friends and allies that we are right. And we must also be willing to be persuaded by them. To be a good leader, American must be a good ally.”

This acceptance that America might sometimes be wrong is rather unusual in a presidential candidate. Furthermore, he has said that:

“Americans should welcome the rise of a strong, confident European Union. The future of the transatlantic relationship lies in confronting the challenges of the twenty-first century worldwide: developing a common energy policy, creating a transatlantic common market tying our economies more closely together, and institutionalizing our cooperation on issues such as climate change, foreign assistance, and democracy promotion.”

The Democrats, by contrast, have yet to face up to the new world quite so clearly.

Barack Obama writes, in Foreign Affairs (“Renewing American Leadership”, July/August 2007), that “We can neither retreat from the world nor try to bully it into submission. We must lead the world, by deed and by example.

“To renew American leadership in the world, I intend to rebuild the alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security. Needed reform of these alliances and institutions will not come by bullying other countries to ratify changes we hatch in isolation. It will come when we convince other governments and peoples that they, too, have a stake in effective partnerships.

“Too often we have sent the opposite signal to our international partners. In the case of Europe, we dismissed European reservations about the wisdom and necessity of the Iraq war.

This is not such a strong plea as McCain’s, given that Obama prides himself on his own opposition to the war. It does not amount to the acceptance that he himself might have been wrong and the Europeans right. This attitude is compounded by what he has said about Afghanistan, namely that:

“To close this gap, I will rally our NATO allies to contribute more troops to collective security operations and to invest more in reconstruction and stabilization capabilities.”

The European members of Nato are not interested in sending more soldiers to Afghanistan, because they do not have confidence in what the Americans are trying to achieve there. Obama appears more to rely on his own powers of persuasion rather than an understanding of what the Europeans really want.

But, it would be a mistake to read too much into the viewpoints of the different presidential candidates at this time. There are still 8 months before the presidential election itself, so plenty of time for positions to formulate and become clearer, and in any case I do not imagine that the main issue at stake for American voters will be their policy towards Europe.

Back to my two questions:

– How close to America the Europeans can remain while doing this
– How closely Britain can be involved in this process, given its historic links with America

I think it is possible for Europe and America to stay close friends. We have so much in common, such as capitalist economics and liberal democracy, that the differences will always be much less than the similarities. I remember an exchange of articles in Prospect magazine between Timothy Garton Ash and Will Hutton, in which Garton Ash argued that the Europeans have so much in common with the Americans that they should work in concert with them, while Will Hutton argued that the Europeans had so many differences from the Americans that they should be ready to work alone. My conclusion was that, yes, Europe had a lot in common with America, which made it safe for Europe to work alone. Whatever else happens, whatever route Europe follows, they will stay close friends of the Americans. The two sides of the Atlantic have too much in common for this not to be true.

Actually, one might go further and say that a more active and assertive Europe will actually strengthen the trans-Atlantic relationship. One of the reasons why America has been tempted by unilateralism is precisely because it has lacked suitable partners. Europe should aim to be that partner for America in the world.

And can Britain be involved? Well, I would hardly come to a European Movement meeting if I thought not, but the organisation is diverse and opinions may well differ. You have heard some of mine, and now I look forward to hearing some of yours.

Thank you

This article is based on a talk given to the Surrey branch of the European Movement on 22 February 2008. Richard Laming is secretary of Federal Union, and may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

More information

Barack Obama in “Foreign Affairs”

John McCain in “Foreign Affairs”

Timothy Garton Ash and Will Hutton in “Prospect”

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