Europe and America’s debate about foreign policy

Europe and America’s debate about foreign policy

Bulletin article
Tomas Valasek
01 June 2007

Washington’s holiday from strategic debates is over. In the years immediately after September 11th, feelings of solidarity with a president at war prevented serious discussions on the merits of US foreign policy. But now the Iraq debacle has ended all that, and few argue that the country is on the right course. The current debates on America’s role in the world could lead to a profound change in the direction of US foreign policy. This is a country that has to learn from its own mistakes, but once it does, it tends to apply the lessons learned with a vengeance. The history of America is replete with examples of dramatic reversals. Think of the switch from Wilsonian idealism in the 1910s to isolationism in the 1930s to Truman’s post-war internationalism.

The starting point for today’s discussion is that the neo-conservative moment has passed. The choice now is between realism and international liberalism, or some mixture of the two. Only people at the margins of the political spectrum argue for isolationism. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, a dean at Princeton University, has written, “isolationism is a non-starter in a 21st century world of intense economic and security interdependence”.

Realist thinkers, always opposed to a values-based foreign policy, claim that events in Iraq have proved them right. They believe democracy promotion to be futile and that the urge to curb and balance US power will prevent all but the most ardent allies from supporting Washington. Worse, realists say, values-based policy can be dangerous. They view Iraq as a distraction from the urgent business of dealing with proven nuclear proliferators such as North Korea.

Liberal internationalists share with neo-conservatives the focus on exporting values. Many, such as Hillary Clinton, supported the Iraq war. But unlike neoconservatives, who stress America’s exceptionalism, internationalists view the US as the dominant node of a global web of rules and institutions. This web builds confidence and inspires co-operation which, the liberals say, keeps the peace more effectively than US power alone. For many liberals, the damage inflicted on valued institutions and relationships outweighed the benefits of ousting Saddam Hussein.

Both a realist and a liberal internationalist US president would expect Europe to strengthen its capabilities in foreign policy and defence. Realists would likely leave much of the security on and around the continent entirely to the EU, as they seek to reprioritise US engagement. With the exception of Russia, they tend to see most of the other issues before Europe today – such as the unfinished political map of the Balkans, frozen conflicts in the Black Sea region or human rights in Africa – as peripheral to US interests.

The realists may aggravate Europe’s divisions over what is already its most divisive foreign policy brief: Russia. Realists have criticised the Bush administration for making too many demands on Russia, and for failing to prioritise them. Many of the EU’s new members would be worried by such a pragmatic stance towards Russia, and may compensate by seeking to toughen the EU’s policy on Russia. Liberal internationalists, too, would expect significantly more from the EU. They are likely to view it as a potentially useful partner. While the liberals’ track record is not entirely supportive – one of their number, Madeleine Albright, was a harsh critic of the EU’s nascent defence policy when secretary of state – the world has changed. A like-minded institution such as the EU could be a useful partner for a US that is badly overstretched in the Middle East.

An internationalist president would probably move early to propose a partnership with EU. He or she may attribute much of Europe’s reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan to a dislike of George W Bush and presume that, with him gone, Europe would be ready to step up its efforts. Liberal internationalists would take a more hands-on approach to the EU, seeking to harness its power to advance common goals. Europe, still smarting from its painful divisions over Iraq, may find the close embrace stifling.

A liberal internationalist US policy would also expose the differences in European views of the US. It would make the US seem more ‘European’, and thus make Europeans less comfortable in adopting anti-American attitudes. Countries that seek to use the EU to ‘balance’ American power will therefore find themselves under pressure; those advocating closer transatlantic links will be emboldened. Almost irrespective of who comes to power, the next US president will expect Europe to deliver more on foreign policy and defence. With the US’s military interest in Europe set to decline, the EU’s battlegroups – operational for the first time this year – are more likely to be tested in practice. EU governments are currently embroiled in discussions over whether to extend the battlegroups to the air and the seas. They would be better advised to focus on strengthening the current model; strategic airlift in particular remains a weak spot.

A realist US president would take a more ‘pragmatic’ line towards Moscow, which would reinforce the need for the Europeans to become more coherent on Russia. The May EU-Russia summit in Samara, while tense, produced one important breakthrough: Angela Merkel rightly stressed the Union’s solidarity and stood up for the Poles, Estonians and others who have recently come under Russian pressure. The new EU states noted this with approval. The EU must now build on the new sense of togetherness. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has the right to demand a more constructive attitude from some of the new member-states.

Europe also needs to improve its decision-making. A liberal internationalist president will treat – at least initially – Europe as a full partner, which could re-establish some of the trust lost during the Iraq war. But the EU’s current foreign policy machinery is a mess – too many changes too often. The amending treaty being pushed by the German presidency would help, for example by abolishing the rotating presidency and creating a clear go-to person for EU foreign policy. It would give the EU a better chance of playing a full partner to the next US president.

Copyright is held by the Centre for European Reform. You may not copy, reproduce, republish or circulate in any way the content from this publication except for your own personal and non-commercial use. Any other use requires the prior written permission of the Centre for European Reform.