Dr. Yannis. A. Stivachtis
(Director, International Studies Program
Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University)


There is no doubt that US-European relations are in a period of transition, and that the stresses and strains of globalization are increasing both the number and the seriousness of the challenges that confront transatlantic relations.

The events of 9/11 and the Iraq War have added significantly to these stresses and strains. At the same time, international terrorism, the nuclearization of North Korea and especially Iran, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the transformation of Russia into a stable and cooperative member of the international community, the growing power of China, the political and economic transformation and integration of the Caucasian and Central Asian states, the integration and stabilization of the Balkan countries, the promotion of peace and stability in the Middle East, poverty, climate change, AIDS and other emergent problems and situations require further cooperation among countries at the regional, global and institutional levels.

Therefore, cooperation between the U.S. and Europe is more imperative than ever to deal effectively with these problems.  It is fair to say that the challenges of crafting a new relationship between the U.S. and the EU as well as between the U.S. and NATO are more regional than global, but the implications of success or failure will be global.

The transatlantic relationship is still in crisis, despite efforts to improve it since the Iraq War. This is not to say that differences between the two sides of the Atlantic did not exist before the war. Actually, post-1945 relations between Europe and the U.S. were fraught with disagreements and never free of crisis since the Suez crisis of 1956. Moreover, despite trans-Atlantic proclamations of solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. and Europe parted ways on issues from global warming and biotechnology to peacekeeping and national missile defense.

Questions such as, the future role of NATO and its relationship to the common European Security and Defense policy (ESDP), or what constitutes terrorism and what the rights of captured suspected terrorists are, have been added to the list of US-European disagreements.

There are two reasons for concern regarding the transatlantic rift. First, if European leaders conclude that Europe must become counterweight to the U.S., rather than a partner, it will be difficult to engage in the kind of open search for a common ground than an elective partnership requires. Second, there is a risk that public opinion in both the U.S. and Europe will make it difficult even for leaders who want to forge a new relationship to make the necessary accommodations.

If both sides would actively work to heal the breach, a new opportunity could be created. A vibrant transatlantic partnership remains a real possibility, but only if both sides make the necessary political commitment.
There are strong reasons to believe that the security challenges facing the U.S. and Europe are more shared than divergent. The most dramatic case is terrorism. Closely related is the common interest in halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the nuclearization of Iran and North Korea. This commonality of threats is clearly perceived by publics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Actually, Americans and Europeans see eye to eye on more issues than one would expect from reading newspapers and magazines. But while elites on both sides of the Atlantic bemoan a largely illusory gap over the use of military force, biotechnology, and global warming, surveys of American and European public opinion highlight sharp differences over global leadership, defense spending, and the Middle East that threaten the future of the last century’s most successful alliance.

There are other important, shared interests as well. The transformation of Russia into a stable cooperative member of the international community is a priority both for the U.S. and Europe. They also have an interest in promoting a stable regime in Ukraine. It is necessary for the U.S. and EU to form a united front to meet these challenges because first, there is a risk that dangerous materials related to WMD will fall into the wrong hands; and second, the spread of conflict along those countries’ periphery could destabilize neighboring countries and provide safe havens for terrorists and other international criminal organizations. Likewise, in the Caucasus and Central Asia both sides share a stake in promoting political and economic transformation and integrating these states into larger communities such as the OSCE.

This would also minimize the risk of instability spreading and prevent those countries of becoming havens for international terrorists and criminals. Similarly, there is a common interest in integrating the Balkans politically and economically. Dealing with Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as other political issues in the Middle East are also of a great concern for both sides although the U.S. plays a dominant role in the region. Finally, US-European cooperation will be more effective in dealing with the rising power of China through engagement but also containment.

The post Iraq War realities have shown that it is no longer simply a question of adapting transatlantic institutions to new realities. The changing structure of relations between the U.S. and Europe implies that a new basis for the relationship must be found if transatlantic cooperation and partnership is to continue. The future course of relations will be determined above all by U.S. policy towards Europe and the Atlantic Alliance.

Wise policy can help forge a new, more enduring strategic partnership, through which the two sides of the Atlantic cooperate in meeting the many major challenges and opportunities of the evolving world together. But a policy that takes Europe for granted and routinely ignores or even belittles European concerns, may force Europe to conclude that the costs of continued alliance outweigh its benefits.

There is no doubt that the U.S. and Europe have considerable potential to pursue common security interests. Several key steps must be taken to make this potential a reality. First, it is critical to avoid the trap of ‘division of labor’ in the security realm, which could be devastating for the prospects of future cooperation. Second, and closely related to avoiding division of labor as a matter of policy, is the crucial necessity for Europe to develop at least some ‘high-end’ military capabilities to allow European forces to operate effectively with the U.S. Third, is the need for both the U.S. and Europe to enhance their ability to contribute to peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction. Fourth, is the importance of preserving consensus at the heart of alliance decision-making. Some have argued that with the expansion of NATO, the time has come to reconsider the consensus role. One way to increase efficiency without destroying consensus would be to strengthen the role of the Secretary General in managing the internal and administrative affairs of the alliance, while reserving policy for the member states. Fifth is the need to make further progress on linking and de-conflicting NATO and EU capabilities. Sixth is the need for enhanced transatlantic defense industrial cooperation. Seventh, one future pillar for transatlantic cooperation is to strengthen US-European coordination in building the infrastructure of global governance through strengthening institutions such as the UN and its specialized agencies, the World Bank, the IFM, G-8, OECD and regional development banks.
Finally, cooperation can also be achieved in strengthening the global economic infrastructure, sustaining the global ecosystem, and combating terrorism and international crime.

To translate the potential of the transatlantic relationship into a more positive reality will require two kinds of development. First, the EU itself must take further steps to institutionalize its own capacity to act in these areas. Foreign policy and especially defense policy remain the areas where the future of a ‘European’ voice is most uncertain. Second, the U.S. and Europe need to establish more formal, effective mechanisms for consultation and even decision-making.

The restoration of transatlantic relations requires policies and actions that governments on both sides of the Atlantic should simultaneously adopt and not only a unilateral change of course. Developing a new, sustainable transatlantic relationship requires a series of deliberate decisions from both the U.S. and EU if a partnership of choice and not necessity is to be established.

For the U.S., this means avoiding the temptation, offered by unprecedented strength, to go it alone in pursuit of narrowly defined national interests. For the EU, the new partnership requires a willingness to accept that the EU plays a uniquely valuable role as a leader in a world where power still matters, and that a commitment to a rule-based international order does not obviate the need to act decisively against those who do not share that vision.

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