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Keep the Gap from Widening

Europe and the U.S. need a new culture of strategic creativity. By Werner Weidenfeld.

Published in the Atlantic Times, July 2008

24.07.2008 · Atlantic Times


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America is in a time of political strain. The reason, this time, is not a political disaster but an unusual election campaign. One would have to look back far into history to find one as remarkably long and bewilderingly tough as the present one. Given such circumstances, some traditional patterns of American elections are shifting.

Amid all the day-in, day-out brawling, however, one fact that will be of vital significance for international policy is being completely overlooked: Europe plays no role whatsoever. The Old Continent isn't even being brought up. If any international ingredients at all are being added to the campaign’s heady mix, then they are Russia and China. Remaining unmentioned as a political factor is hardly a sign of attractive performance or magnetic attraction.

The issue of "America and Europe" has practically vanished from public discussion and even sensory perception. None of the earlier, great debates over historical watersheds are taking place – nothing about “the end of partnership” or "the end of democracy," no "waving the flag for the rebirth of the West." The transatlantic matter is eroding – it is silently fading away.

Why is this happening, even though Europe would have to take a strong role in many affairs if problems are ever going to be resolved? Raising this question among American decision-makers produces mild disinterest. Europe is too fixated on itself, they answer, adding that the classic transatlantic meeting points have grown old, creaky and tired. Americans can instantly count off the policy differences with Europe: contrasting assessments of global terrorism; the place of institutions such as the United Nations; the use of military force. And Europe, they say, is no model for global emulation. U.S. foreign policy people are seldom as eloquent as when they spontaneously list the disappointing points of distance from Europe.

For the keen student of global politics, however, this automatically opens up a parallel reality. There is a long list of problems that no power can master alone. The challenges of our time require partnership as a response:

  • The U.S. alone cannot head off Iran's nuclear prospects. That would be too heavy a burden even for the sole remaining superpower.
  • Establishing democracy and stability over the medium term in Iraq will require a multilateral approach. In a Muslim country, looking like a U.S. puppet is a hopeless position.
  • Although more troops are vital for Afghanistan, the U.S. has already stretched its capacities to the limit.
  • Peace in the Middle East will be possible only after the international community guarantees the security of all involved parties. Otherwise, the conflict will constantly spill over into violence.
  • There will be no effective dialogue with the Islamic world as long as it is left to the Americans. The stereotypes are simply too loaded and aggressive.
  • Constructing an architecture of power in world politics for the future requires the inclusion of China and Japan, India and Russia. None of these burgeoning global powers will be content to quietly submit to the still-dominant power of the U.S. And several states are always needed to maintain a balance of power. That is Europe's hour.
  • Anyone trying to fight terrorism needs a worldwide network. One power can never provide an adequate response to the greatly diverse manifestations of professional terrorism.
  • Monitoring and dismantling weapons of mass destruction can succeed only through an effectively organized community of nations. Otherwise, the arms race will continue unfettered.
  • If there is one persuasive reason for Western cooperation, one glance at the need to secure energy resources and fight climate change would suffice. Every state acting alone would become a mere pawn for the power interests of the energy giants.

In previous decades the list of Western challenges was always substantially shorter. Sometimes it was a matter of Berlin ultimatums, of modernizing or decommissioning missiles, sometimes of deterrence policy, sometimes of déténte. Never has the West been saddled with a list of shared priorities this extensive.

Paradoxically, in response, we have only a list of highly traditional instruments at our disposal: NATO, the G-8 and EU-U.S. summits. This is not a toolbox that can help build a new strategic community. Also, European issues are not the ones that are perceived as transatlantic in America. This is a dramatic asymmetry. Barack Obama's charismatic radiance comes from a new movement, not an established party. Similar trends – at least their rudiments – can be observed in Europe.

If the West wants to remain a political actor, it must take a creative step towards a new strategic rationality. Joint data gathering, joint analysis, jointly-set priorities, definition of objectives and interests as an everyday matter and not as an exceptional framework: That should be the strategic community's profile. There is no sign of it at present. Facing the longest list of challenges is the shortest list of answers. A new culture of strategic creativity has yet to emerge.


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