“Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures” - Samuel Johnson
Aside perhaps from Charles and Diana, no relationship has received more attention from the pundits over the past 50 years than the transatlantic partnership. It has seemed to be on life-support too many times to count – most recently in the run-up to the Iraq war. Somewhat ironically, however, Iraq, and subsequent events, may have proven to be an important step in putting the relationship between Europe and North America on a modern, solid 21st century footing.
2003 seemed to many commentators to be the beginning of the end of the transatlantic relationship as it has evolved since WWII. Some major European countries (and Canada, for that matter) refused to join the coalition the US had established to oust Saddam Hussein from power. This sparked a flood of commentary that a uniting Europe was finally charting a more independent path, no longer ‘reflexively’ following Washington’s lead.
At the same time – and in no small part spurred by the controversy over the war – efforts to build a more robust and unified European foreign policy, backed up by European military capabilities, gathered steam. As the Battle Groups were established, and the post of European Foreign Minister became accepted by all EU governments, the tools for more autonomous European action also took shape.
Finally, on the economic front, the solidity and ascendancy of the Euro has had an important psychological impact. The US dollar is no longer the automatic reserve currency of choice – a story which made the front-pages only when a Brazilian supermodel purportedly announced she wished henceforth to be paid in Euros, rather than greenbacks.
Taken together, these indicators led some to believe that a six-decade old marriage was finally on the rocks. The reality is that the transatlantic relationship is emerging from a period of rapid evolution as strong and as relevant as ever, but a bit more modern as well – with a more equitable distribution of assets and responsibilities, and with the prospect, while still joined in partnership, that Europe and North America would also engage more fully with other global partners who are increasingly important on the world stage.
Far from establishing European political ‘autonomy’ once and for all, as the more hardcore Europeanists had hoped, Iraq 2003 has clearly demonstrated its limits. The reality in 2003 was a split EU, a split NATO and a split UN, with many important European countries on either side of the line. The war has made it clear that the idea of a Europe uniting in opposition to the United States is still a political impossibility in any realistic scenario.
This is an important realization, one which has not escaped Washington. It has cooled many of the concerns that successive administrations have held about the implications of a developing European foreign policy. A Europe united in partnership with North America is a daily reality, in Afghanistan, on Iran and across a host of issues. A European ‘counterweight’ to the US is a fantasy abandoned now by all but the most hard-core Europhiles.
On the capability front, as well, concerns in Washington have been, if not cooled, transformed. In the past, there was extreme sensitivity to the development of European structures, in particular with regards to military planning, which might promote a separate approach to tackling security challenges.
Today, Washington’s concerns are different – and they are shared as much by EU countries. Put simply, there is too much work to go around, and not enough capability to do it. Far from being worried about having competition, Washington would welcome a stronger European partner to help shoulder the burdens of international security.
It is happening? To an extent, yes. The EU has taken a much more active role in Africa than NATO has ever done; the deployment of a French-led EU mission to Chad is perhaps the most vivid example. In Afghanistan, around 20,000 European troops are helping to support Afghan development under the NATO banner. And there are many more examples, from Lebanon to Kosovo.
There are, however, real limitations on this fledgling capability. The EU faces the same shortfalls in key enablers from which the UN and NATO both suffer. Furthermore, the EU simply doesn’t have, and will not have, the muscle or the reach that NATO can muster – which means that for crises far away from the Euro-Atlantic area, or higher up the conflict spectrum, NATO will be the only option for the Euro-Atlantic community
On the capability front too, then, the old concerns about competition are giving way to new challenges: to ensure that scarce defence budgets are spent in such as way that Europe can conduct expensive operations and, at the same time, invest in modern capabilities that are effective in 21st century operations and allow for continued interoperability with the United States.
This is only one of many challenges that the transatlantic community will face in the 21st century. The list is long: managing global warming, proliferation, terrorism and a host of other potential threats in a way that marshals the vast potential of cooperation between Europe and North America, rather than becoming irritants between them. China and India are increasingly becoming major players on the world stage. And long-standing differences in culture, threat assessment and simple power make it unlikely that the change of Administration in 2009 will bring about the sea-change in US foreign policy for which some in Europe clearly hope.
But the fundamentals of the relationship remain as strong as ever: the world’s most integrated economies; shared core values; a similar, if not identical, perspective on how to tackle most challenges; and the shared knowledge that there is no more powerful an agent for positive change than a united Euro-Atlantic community. NATO, as the embodiment of that relationship, is more active than ever. EU-US bilateral cooperation, from trade to Iran, is also steadily deepening. For all of the occasional reports that the relationship is on the rocks, the transatlantic relationship still makes sense to both partners.
This article was written on a personal basis, and does not represent the official position of NATO.