The Future of Euro-American Relations

Relations between the United States and Europe have cooled in the past few years, seemingly mainly due to concrete problems, such as conflicts over the war in Iraq, policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or approaches toward the war against international terrorism.

There are, however, more general trends behind these concrete problems, and it would be naive to assume that the problems will automatically dissipate or disappear if, for example, the current US administration leaves office.

In essence, we are witnessing a long term conflict among three competing concepts of international cooperation–transatlantic cooperation, European integration, and strategic partnership. This conflict intensified due to differing attitudes of the US and Europe toward fighting international terrorism, but it had started after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which catapulted to the US into the position of the world’s sole superpower.

Unipolar versus Multipolar World

Strong transatlantic relations were not competing with the concept of European integration as long as the bipolar world existed. Western Europe needed the US to protect it against various threats associated with the Soviet empire. France was the only prominent member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that partially challenged the leading role of the US in the transatlantic community during the Cold War. Some smaller European countries, such as Austria, Sweden, or Finland opted to remain neutral, but even they indirectly benefited from, and did not challenge, strong US presence in Europe.

After the fall communism, the US became a sole superpower, finding itself in a unique position vis-a-vis the rest of the world. The transatlantic community was not prepared for this shift. When it started developing at the end of the 19th century, it was much more a community of equals than it was both during the Cold War and after the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

The transatlantic community started developing when the US and Great Britain-both democracies-overcame more than one hundred years of alienation and formed an informal alliance based on their shared democratic values. Some other European countries were originally enemies of this transatlantic alliance and began joining it one by one, after they were defeated in World War I and World War II, respectively, or themselves became democracies. However, until the beginning of the Cold War, the US was merely the strongest of several great Atlantic powers.

During the Cold War, NATO became the most visible institutional extension of the growing transatlantic community. The US dominated the community, but its superpower status was largely acceptable, as it was balanced off by the superpower status of the Soviet Union. Most West European nations found it necessary to be shielded by a powerful America.

The ascent of the US to the status of a sole superpower has undermined the spirit of transatlantic cooperation for several reasons. First, with the most visible external threat to the community gone, European states felt less constrained in their global ambitions. Second, the US was much less needed to protect Europe from external threats. Even the threat of international terrorism is not comparable with the threat that the Soviet Union posed at the peak of its power. Third, the project of European integration got a new impetus after the fall of communism, involving gradually most of the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe.

Those satellites joined also NATO, but while the process of NATO enlargement was more or less just a mechanical extension of the US security umbrella (and the transatlantic community) to the new European democracies, the process of EU enlargement represented a new quality; it was part of an ambitious project to transform the united Europe into a new world power.

The concept of European integration, which started after World War II, was originally not intended to be a competitor to the transatlantic community. It was primarily understood as a project involving closer economic ties, which left the areas of security primarily to NATO, while foreign remained fimly in the hands of individual states. As long as Western Europe and North America had a common enemy in the Soviet empire (and world communism in general), the two concepts of cooperation did not clash.

As West European nations began to search for deeper forms of integration, the European Union has gradually developed into a project involving its own political institutions, a common currency, a search for a common European identity (as opposed to American identity), and attempts to build common security and foreign policies.

Ambitions and Reality

These ambitious objectives, however, have not been matched by the willingness of European nations to spend more money on their own security, or to build real pan-European institutions and mechanisms in the areas of defense and foreign policies. In the area of security, Europe has remained dependent on the US security umbrella, but-given European ambitions–this dependence was increasingly seen as humiliating.

NATO has been dominated by the US since its inception. Some big European states would like to create their own security alliance as an alternative to NATO or-in light of the united Europe’s growing economic strength and global weight-at least be seen as more equal partners of the US within NATO. Europe’s frustrations originate in the fact that it has so far not been able to match its ambitions have by real commitment. In fact, the asymmetry in both international influence and military might between the US and Europe has been increasing rather than decreasing.

Unable to compete with the US, the Europeans have tried to keep America „under control“ with insistence on following the international law and solving crises with the help international organizations, such as the United Nations.

The political emphasis of Europe on multilateralism has, however, clashed with the real status of the US as a sole superpower. Perhaps, the US-not being a traditional imperialist power–would have continued playing down its dominance and followed multilateral policies, as it did during the Clinton era. However, 11 September 2001 changed all that.

The brewing conflict between Europe and the US has been exacerbated by several developments after 11 September 2001. The US decided that the threat of international terrorism could not be effectively countered if America continued to rely rigidly on the body of international law and institutions of the international community (such as the United Nations), as they have been created since World War II. The nature of new threats-in particular, the possibility that rogue regimes and terrorist organizations could obtain weapons of mass destruction-requires, in the opinion of the Bush Administration, preemptive strikes and flexibility. The existing international law governs relations among states, but is rather inefficient in dealing with non-state actors, who do not follow the kind of rationality on which the international order has been built so far.

Europe has refused this new US approach, insisting the new threats could be handled within the framework of existing international law and institutions. The conflict over different approaches to the use of „hard power“ has unfortunately also reduced Europe’s willingness to extend its „soft power“ and assist the United States in post-war reconstruction in places, such as Iraq, in which the US decided to use its military power without obtaining an approval of the United Nations.

Strategic Partnership

When it becomes necessary to use military power, the US has increasingly come to rely on ad hoc strategic partnerships (coalitions of the willing) with a variety of countries around the globe, shunning Europe. At the same time, it has been less willing to listen to the cacophony of political voices in Europe.

In other words, Europe could be taken more seriously by the US on the political level if it spoke with one voice. But it has, so far, not been able to achieve even that. The fact that Europe has remained dependent on the US in the area of security and is, at the same time, unable to significantly influence US policies and decisions, has contributed to the growing tension.

The foundations of security and foreign policies of the transatlantic community do not rest at this point on cooperation between the US and the EU but, rather, as in the beginning, on cooperation between the US and Great Britain. Other European countries join this nucleus or stand in opposition to it.

The current rift between the US and Europe, therefore, threatens not only traditional transatlantic ties but also the entire system of international institutions and law. In that respect, the Euro-American conflict marks the beginning of a true revolution in international relations, whose final outcome is at this point still unclear.


Although the growing strain in US-European relations has deeper causes than just political alienation between a majority of European states and one particular US administration, it is, at the same time, clear that transatlantic relations could significantly improve if a new US administration, or the reelected current administration, made a real attempt to make European countries feel the US is sincerely interested in their cooperation. At the same time, those European nations that have been most critical of US actions in the past few years would need to make a real effort to meet the Americans half way.

At the same time, France and Germany, in particular, would need to abandon their ambitions to build a united Europe as a competitor to the US in the areas of foreign and security policies.

At any rate, any attempt of those and other European nations to supplant NATO with a genuine European defense system would not be approved by most countries in „new Europe“ as well as Great Britain. Therefore, any such attempt could ultimately threaten the very unity of „united Europe“.

A recent Marshall German Fund survey showed that while a majority of Europeans insist on following the international law and reject bypassing the United Nations, growing numbers of them are critical of the impotence of the UN and a lack of flexibility of the international law, which makes war with terrorism very difficult.

It seems that the US and European nations could find some common ground around this issue. Europe and the US should, therefore, jointly initiate a global debate about the necessary reforms of the international law and major international institutions, the UN in particular.

The structure of the UN Security Council is a relict of post-WW2 situation and does not reflect the current division of power in the world. Moreover, the work of the organization is hampered by the fact that undemocratic regimes, whose political representatives have no or little legitimacy to speak on behalf of their nations, have a large degree of influence in UN decision-making processes. Finally, the very process of reaching decisions in times of crises is very cumbersome and slow.

The international law, as it stands now, is also a relict of sorts. It was created to govern relations among states, who, in most cases, could be considered rational actors. New threats come, however, from non-state actors, who either ignore the international order or even use its shortcoming to their advantage.

The US and Europe could renew the sense of community if they were able to work together on the needed reforms of the international law and institutions. At the same time, they should jointly formulate a clear doctrine of fighting international terrorism.

What is needed most is a clearer definition of the enemy and measures that can be taken to counter such an enemy. In other words, the US and Europe need to set clear criteria that would be used to determine whether a particular state could be considered an accomplice of international terrorist networks-either because it actively cooperates with terrorists or because it does not control its territory in a way that prevents terrorists from using it as their base. It should determine whether and, if so, under what conditions, a preventive (or preemptive) military strike against terrorist bases located on the territory of other states, or strikes against such states, are permissible.

At the same time, we need clearer criteria for dealing with undemocratic regimes that develop weapons of mass destruction and could potentially pass such weapons onto terrorist groups.
Such initiatives can be successful, however, if they represent joint efforts of the US, Europe, and possibly other nations. They could also serve as good foundations for mending some of the current rifts in the transatlantic community.

The Future of Euro-American Relations – The Peace
Institute, Ljubljana – 7. – 10. 10. 2004


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