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After September 11 and Afghanistan

Transatlantic Relations in Transition. Article by Josef Janning

Josef Janning analyses, from a European perspective, how the events of September 11, and what has happened since, are reshaping the agenda of European Union/United States relations.

15.01.2002 · Challenge Europe (January 2002)


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Compared to the long cycles of relationships among states, these are extraordinary times. The deep impact the events of September 11 have left on the United States and on the American view of the world is shaping transatlantic relations. Those partners and institutions that are of relevance or of support in the current challenges will be at the center of the US perception of this relationship. Those who remain indifferent or become cause for concern will move to the margins of the relationship - to say the least.

This watershed of perceptions does not even exclude institutions such as NATO, the cornerstone of American engagement in Europe. For years, "going global" had been the catchword for the changes ahead, much supported and called for by US policy makers. When a situation arose which - by definition - transcended the territorial principle, and when NATO's members for the first time invoked Article 5 of the treaty, NATO became marginalized. The autonomy of American military action turned out to be more relevant than the inclusion of the alliance as an actor.

Likewise, the changing nature of transatlantic relations affects Europe and the European members of NATO. The European efforts to introduce synergy to crisis management and rapid reaction were proven irrelevant by the consequences of September 11. If NATO was not the appropriate place for preparing and implementing the US response, then the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) seemed to be unattractive to the EU's principal actors.

While ministerial councils acknowledged the stepwise fulfillment of the headline goals, these goals had already been overtaken by developments in the real world: ESDP appeared to be rather a fair-weather approach to crisis response than a robust instrument. Instead, the crisis shifted the emphasis "back to capitals", as the slogan went. Balance of power tactics and mistrust was the immediate consequence - as was clearly demonstrated in the ill-fated attempts of British, French and German leaders to coordinate their efforts. At a time when the pooling of resources has probably become more relevant than ever since the end of the Cuban missile crisis, the actual performance of actors falls way behind these imperatives.

Thus, both the US and the Europeans enter into a new phase of their relationship guided by conclusions from recent experience, which will most likely be of formative significance but may at the same time not reflect appropriately the longer-term interests of the powers involved. This goes for the instrumental approach of the US to multilateralism and its institutions as much as for the Europeans and their lukewarm approach to ESDP.

Issues of transatlantic engagement

In spite of the immediate patterns of response, transatlantic relations are challenged by a range of changes in the international arena - from the advent of the euro to the WTO- membership of China, from Putin's turn to the West to the enduring crisis in the Middle East, to name just the most obvious factors of change in the global equation. A new transatlantic agenda addressing the issues of the 21st Century is needed with long-term commitments from both sides of the Atlantic and a strong political will to implement this agenda.

September 11 has put the notion of an Atlantic Community back on the radar screens of Western politics. Besides the sobering perceptions referred to above, the challenges ahead inspire reflections on an agenda of cooperation and joint action. When acting together the US and Europe need deeper relations than exist today. Windows of opportunity could be found in many issues, as the following list may show:

  • Greater transparency, closer cooperation, and the sharing of intelligence are prerequisites in the fight against organized crime, trafficking, and the identification of terrorist activities at an early stage;

  • A conclusive security strategy, including anti-proliferation strategies and counter-terror policies vis-à-vis third countries;

  • Adequate burden sharing focusing on output-goals rather than on input figures such as defense spending;

  • Effective means of cooperation between ESDP and NATO - in the light of current events, the former US conditionality of "no duplication, no discrimination, no decoupling" seems rather outdated;

  • Ongoing common support for the stabilization of South Central Europe;

  • Re-engagement in the Middle East Peace Process;

  • A common strategic approach to the second round of NATO enlargement.

With these issues in mind, the potential of "positive engagement" across the Atlantic comes to light. In many ways, the current "war against terror" replicates the method of negative community building - negative in the sense of defining one's commonness as a function of an outside threat. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism seems unlikely to dominate the Western agenda for longer than a phase. There is no political ideology capable of challenging the model of pluralist democracy on a worldwide scale. The fundamentalist trends in the Islamic world, the ethno-ideologies and the movements led by charismatic figures appear antagonistic in character but are mostly focused on the respective home audiences. They do not have the power to pose a military threat to the West but could disrupt the increasingly interdependent economic processes.

In terms of its regulatory policy, the West is presented with the opportunity to shape developments in an active manner and to go further than merely reacting to prevent danger. This opportunity brings with it both challenges and risks since it requires a well-functioning pluralist form of democracy that is not reliant on external pressure to take action, to mobilize resources and to enter into alliances.

Interdependent Unilateralism?

Western civilization constitutes the foundation on which the unprecedented globalization of production and trade, financial markets and services is based. The physical dimensions of this interdependence have now outgrown its socio-cultural origins, but the political mechanisms of control and regulation in Western societies have failed to develop at the same pace. A colorful set of protest movements reminds policy makers on every major summit that an adequate level of action for the safeguarding and further development of social goods does not yet exist.

More than other spheres of world politics, the Western states are committed to international cooperation and supranational integration, yet the social foundation and social acceptance of this policy are not proceeding at the same pace. This is what causes policy makers to respond to the globalization of challenges with regional integration. Yet the steps taken still require legitimization at national level. Problem solving, decision-making and legitimization must all be brought together at one level. At the same time, the need to assert oneself in a world that is growing ever smaller places pressure on the West to modernize itself.

The regulatory blueprints in Europe and America are in competition with one another and with alternatives in other regions of the world. This rivalry could be converted into an opportunity for mutual learning. Instead, the patterns of reaction seem to diverge rather than to converge: While the issues of global economic integration are addressed through a variety of multilateral forums, challenges to the security of Western societies prompt national responses. Bridging this gap requires a more intensive transatlantic dialogue: Europe and America share a deeper interdependence than is suggested by the current patterns of their asymmetric relationship.

Burden sharing and power sharing

America must mean more to Europe than simply compensating for European shortcomings, representation of interests or security. The will and the means to assert oneself are the preconditions for the creation of a community with a positive rationale. In order to realize and to secure their objectives, the Europeans require a partnership with the Americans:

  • Creating a new European order in accordance with the rules of European integration needs the support of the United States. Hesitance and ambiguities on the American side undercut the difficult process of joint European commitments towards a meaningful European security and defense capability.

  • Developing and protecting the standards that make up pluralistic democracy and market economics during the process of transformation in East Central Europe mean more than just to adhere the community acquis. Europe requires the attention and the normative power of American foreign policy.

  • Even after the shock of September 11, Europe is more vulnerable and more exposed than the United States. Players and conflict situations of crucial importance for the future of the international system are close at hand.

Without the transatlantic partnership the danger is that stagnation will set in and that the process of European unity will falter when faced with what are inevitable burdens and risks. European politics needs America's confidence in its ability to realize its most ambitious objectives.

On the other hand, Europe is not simply a beneficiary of US engagement. Its significance to the United States of America cannot lie in seconding American superpower politics. The sharing of burdens and responsibility and a partnership between equals is the prerequisite for the transatlantic community in the future. The USA, as the truly global power, needs Europe, as an emerging power, which despite its cultural, historical and political diversity is capable of representing its interests and making best use of its combined resources. In terms of world politics, American power politics need to share the burden with such a Europe:

It will not be possible to stabilize Russia without a European contribution to cooperation and integration. A similar assumption will develop with regard to China.
Confronting the new threats by terrorist action from within the West will require intensive cooperation, including advancements along the lines of integration.

  • America needs the resources of the European economic power in order to flank its peace and security orders - not just in the Middle East and in Africa but also in trouble spots in Asia and Latin America. To this end, Europe must be more strongly involved in negotiations on political settlements.

  • Developing solutions to global challenges - be it the environment, migration or social and ethnic conflicts - is not about preserving the power of security policy. Anyone who wants to make a real contribution requires partners and coalitions. Together, Europe and the United States represent the right critical mass.

  • Should the transatlantic partnership weaken, rivals of the West could play America and Europe off against one another, manipulating global competition between economic blocs. At a time when East Asia is unfolding its economic and demographic potential, such transatlantic rivalry would be damaging to both partners.

A new order in international politics, standards in peacefulness and the balancing out of interests and a conflict prevention strategy do not arise from coalitions convened on an ad-hoc basis. These goals are pursued and upheld in a credible manner by visible communities of allies. Otherwise, they can be revoked by calculated acts of aggression at any time. Europe and America are the only two remaining reliable guarantors of stability in the world. Consequently, their willingness to resolve situations and their capability of achieving results are being put to the test on a daily basis, even in regions and areas where the existing organs of transatlantic cooperation have no jurisdiction.

Many of the existing problem-solving approaches can still only be put into practice if the burden is shared. A high level of political liaison and the appropriate close network of communication structures are necessary - the Transatlantic Declaration of 1990 with its loose mechanisms for consultation has failed to deliver the strategic link across the Atlantic. With the establishment of the position of the High Representative, the phone number that Henry Kissinger was missing has eventually been assigned but no effective pooling of the political power of Europe has taken place. The new troika system does not yet dispose of the same clout as the continuing patterns of diplomacy by the large European states. As long as their ambitions and resources do not find adequate roles in providing external leadership to the EU, an Atlantic Political Community can hardly emerge.

NATO a defunct military alliance

Afghanistan and the war against terror once again reaffirm that, as a purely military alliance, NATO has no future. In addition, the contractual foundation of this political alliance lacks any clear definition of its future content. NATO's plausibility lies in its role as an "alliance of democracies" bringing together Europe and North America, which is open to all the democracies of the European continent. No European state, which is admitted to the EU, could be refused access to NATO if that state so desired. Should this link be broken, the compatibility of Western institution building would have been lost. Without the development of a visible defense capability the Europeans will not succeed in convincing the United States that they are extending their commitments within the Alliance.

The European Union, in particular the larger Member States, must find the willingness and the ability to protect their Western interests and to act jointly with the United States outside Europe. This requires a more sophisticated security concept and may need a reversal of approaches: So far, crisis management and rapid reaction in Europe are considered a joint or common task while territorial defense remains a national privilege. With a view of the current difficulties with ESDP, on the one hand, and in light of the many duplications in the field of ground defense forces, on the other hand, much could be gained if at least a number of European states built a common territorial defense structure.

Nowhere is the degree of transatlantic interdependence and the potential of future cooperation more visible than in economic relations. Economically, Europe and the USA are the two most closely bound regions in the world. The potential of transatlantic economic relations is such that, also bearing in mind the challenges from the Far East, there is a need for new regulatory mechanisms. Given the unprecedented level of economic interdependence and a consensus on economic power, regulatory policy and understanding of market economics, the development of a common transatlantic market is long overdue.

Already, a large proportion of bilateral trade takes place free of any restrictions, but major exceptions remain, e.g. non-tariff trade barriers. This is why Americans and Europeans should agree on a continuous liberalization initiative designed to accelerate the implementation of WTO rulings, to create a joint basis for the consequences of open markets, to prepare the development of international standards and to agree on the essentials of their economic regulatory policy. Such an approach could be an interim stage on the road to a transatlantic single market guaranteeing the free movement of goods, capital, services and persons.

The combination of perspectives in the fields of the economy, society and security as sketched out briefly in the above, demonstrates the peculiar nature of the link between Europe and the United States, even when and while choosing to act independent of each other. Friedrich Schiller's William Tel, in one of his famous lines, states that the strong one is most powerful alone … a profound misunderstanding as it turns out - and not to be repeated in the transatlantic relationship of the future.


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