Trans-Atlantic relations in an election year

Stephen Haseler (picture London Metropolitan University)
Debate at the AGM on 13 March 2004 introduced by Stephen Haseler

It is not possible to separate the debate about European unity from the question of the transatlantic relationship. The fundamental point has been the Cold War, during which Western Europe was dependent on American leadership, or rather its leaders thought it was, and its voters agreed. (I should say that I think it was the correct thing to do.) Since then, Germany and France have emerged from this thinking, while the British are still debating it.

The Iraq war has led to a fundamental change in relations between Europe and America. But this has not yet entered the thinking of the British political establishment. A central issue is the new strategic position of Germany.

Historically, Germany has been oriented towards France on economic questions and to the United States on security. And this changed over the Iraq war as a result of the German election campaign. Gerhard Schröder raised the issue of Iraq in order to win the election. And this did two things.

First of all it changed the security relationship between America and Germany. And secondly this attitude was validated by the German people. If the CDU-CSU coalition should come to power they will retain this eurocentric security approach. In the short term this new approach by Germany has produced a divide between Europe and the UK. And in the longer term it has implications for European unity itself. It leads to a future European unity even on security matters.

Now I will look at American strategy. The Franco-German relationship is clear, aiming not for separation but instead for an independent and autonomous approach to security. But there has been a major change in US geopolitical strategy, described in the National Security Strategy of 2002. These documents are normally dull, but this one is not. The new features in it present problems to Europe and will lead to further distance between United States and Europe. I should emphasise that this strategy is the formal position of the US government rather than just speculation by some of its supporters.

There are three key elements of this American strategy.

Hegemony: the United States intends to prevent any rival superpower from arising. It will maintain an unrivalled dominance and therefore it will engage actively to ensure the disaggregation of relations. It will seek bilateral relations with individual member states rather than with the European Union as a whole. It aims to prevent the unity of Europe in a geo-strategic sense. Particularly important in this will be relations with Poland and the UK, for example. American thinking about French and German cooperation on defence echoes that of the British about the euro, making the same misjudgement that it will not happen. Historically, the United States has been in favour of European unity: that no longer applies to European defence integration.

Preventative war: the kind of wars envisaged are not just pre-emptive but preventative. Pre-emption might be accepted under international law or the traditions of the United Nations – if United States found itself under an “imminent threat”. Preventive war is very different, and implies a much longer term perspective. This is why the debates over Iraq turn on the imminence of the threat from Saddam Hussein. Preventive war implies unilateral action if need be.

Forward strategy: the war on terror involves a forward strategy. This is the view of the Pentagon (more influential than the State Department these days) in which American military power is conceived as mobile, high-tech and deployed abroad through overseas bases. These bases are being set up in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and central Asia. The neo-cons in United States argue the US power should be used to protect US strategic interests, and that the European Union should be enlisted in this task if possible.

This strategy causes tensions with the European Union because France and Germany, for example, do not agree with it.

How sustainable is this US strategy? It is a Bush policy and if he wins the election in November, he will continue with it further. John Kerry by contrast has said very little on the subject, except to say that American military power is over-extended. John Kerry is the most liberal member of the US Senate and is a genuine war hero. He questions the use of American power abroad.

In my view, this strategy is not sustainable. First, because the American economy can’t afford this level of military spending, despite the welfare role that the defence budget plays.

Secondly, the American armed forces are not big enough – they are now having to deploy reservists in Iraq. And thirdly, will US domestic public opinion support a long-term imperial strategy if there are further setbacks?

I’m not sure if the United States has got over the experience of Vietnam yet. In the Kosovo war, Bill Clinton would only allow American pilots to fly at the lowest possible risk. The Iraq war was possible because of an upswing in xenophobia resulting from 9/11. But overall the Americans are not a warlike people and still have the post-Vietnam attitude to war.

There is a powerful group of strategists in Washington who have exploited 9/11. The threat of terrorism and proliferation are serious, but are exaggerated still further by the American neo-cons.

Iraq is as important to the United States are Suez was to Britain. If this goes wrong – as it looks like it will – they will have to rethink their approach. And this may well be Kerry’s view, criticising American unilateralism. If Kerry wins the election in November, then maybe Blair will be set free.

What will this mean for the EU? France and Germany are united as never before. What would be the impact of a Kerry victory and a retrenchment of this extreme forward strategy? In my view, US retrenchment will encourage European unity. They all add strength to the argument in Europe that we need to do more for our own security ourselves.

I don’t think that the EU should adopt a forward strategy on the American model. The EU does not need to spend more on defence than it does now. The Solana description of the threats facing the EU does not require a high level of spending. The European Union can base its spending on the level of the threat: the Americans appear to be spending money for its own sake. The Pentagon has taken a life of its own: it is dangerous when the military bureaucracy becomes a political actor.

British influence on European defence is greater than its influence on European economics. And public opinion in Britain is more positive towards defence cooperation. I don’t think that Blair’s aim is to wreck European defence initiative. We should take it seriously – I’m sure that Italy and Spain will rejoin the core when they get over their current aberrant pro-American policies.

The current trade disputes show Europe’s power when it acts in a united manner. Pascal Lamy is treated as an equal by the United States. The European Union has different interests from United States and therefore should have different policies, for example on the Middle-East and Israel.

In America, it is the executive branch that is in favour of the current defence policy. Congress thinks that the European Union should do more to protect its own interests. So a general policy of retrenchment will give the Europeans more space to develop their own unity.

I would say that defence cooperation between Britain France and Germany is wholly to be welcomed. Franco-German cooperation, historically, has been the way to break logjams in the development of European unity. It will have to be inter-governmental at this stage – that is the best we can do.

The important point is that we can only solve common problems and deal with common threads by common actions. So I’m hopeful about European unity and that the United States will retrench its foreign policy. At the geo-strategic level, Europe will increasingly see that the objectives of foreign policy set out at Maastricht are realistic and necessary.

Stephen Haseler is Deputy Chair of Federal Union. This text is based on the introduction he gave at the Federal Union AGM on 13 March 2004. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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