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Lasting liaison

Simon Serfaty places the transatlantic relationship in its historical context and considers issues likely to shape it in the coming years.

Visionary words: President Truman's ideas served as a beacon to light up post-war darkness and still illuminate the way forward ( © NATO - 65Kb)

When future historians look back to the year 2001, they will likely be in awe of what was achieved in the second half of the previous century. What was a daring vision — and even, many warned, a dangerous illusion — gradually became an irreversible reality. History changed its ways, and geography moved, as the states of Europe developed an integrated personality l'amricaine while the United States was adopting a security identity l'europenne.

The institutions formed in the wake of the Second World War, which were, in part, inspired by the "Europe first" policy of the administration of President Harry S. Truman, have contributed to the evolution of a responsible Euro-Atlantic community of interests and values, without which neither the United States nor Europe could live as well, as freely, and as safely as they do today. Moreover, even after the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union remain the institutional pillars of this community.

Despite the many accomplishments inspired by the transatlantic link, Americans and Europeans remain deeply sceptical about each other. Indeed, reported US ambivalence over Europe's evolution towards a union of states and Europe's alleged ambiguities over US leadership within NATO continue to generate concern about a rift in transatlantic relations. Predictably, apprehension among Europe's nation-states is largely to do with the consequences of their transformation. In the United States, however, the apprehension has to do with the feared emergence of Europe as a counterweight that could act independently of, or even against, the United States. However exaggerated such apprehension may be, it cannot be ignored. Four times in the 20th century — in 1917, 1941, 1949 and 1989 — US power and leadership helped save Europeans from themselves to the benefit of all, including the United States. Nevertheless, too many in Europe remain willing to question US leadership as intrusive, deceptive, ineffective and even dangerous.

European anxieties were especially evident during the most recent presidential elections in the United States. Then, the language used in some European media to present the two main contenders, and especially the Republican candidate, bordered on the offensive. Much concern seemed to reflect a simplistic belief that changes in political majorities or presidential leadership would inevitably result in shifts in the country's foreign and security policies. However, experience of the past 50 years suggests that policy changes during the life of an administration are often more profound than those from one to the next, as external events have frequently caused presidents to change directions. In this way, Jimmy Carter's foreign policy effectively turned 180 degrees in January 1980, a year before his successor's inauguration, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan changed course as the "evil empire" he had battled earlier unravelled. And his successor's defining interest for world leadership was relinquished in autumn 1991 when George Bush assumed that his re-election required a new presidential image. That image, however, suited Bill Clinton better until 1994 when, in the wake of the congressional elections of that year, he re-invented himself as a world leader and embarked upon many of the policies, whose consequences have now been inherited by his successor.

To think that in 2001 a new American president might, by design or inexperience, turn away from Europe is to presume a luxury of choice that ceases to exist once a political campaign is over. The US presence in Europe has become so complete as to end any prospect of disengagement. In short, the partition line carefully built across the Atlantic in the 19th century has been swept away by the repeated European storms of the 20th century. Although the United States is not a European power, either by vocation or by choice, it is a power in Europe, by position as well as by interests.

Early in the 21st century, both NATO and the European Union face a full and complex agenda. While the tasks and priorities differ from one institution to the other, the general principle remains the same: widen in order to deepen, deepen in order to widen, and reform in order to do both. Neither institution, however, can expect to address its agenda independently of the other. Each institutional agenda is separable from the other, but neither can be separated from the broader transatlantic agenda to which it belongs.

High on the transatlantic agenda are prospects of a National Missile Defense (NMD) and a European and Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), which each side of the Atlantic is prone to present as a test of post-Cold War cohesion. The test, however, is hardly convincing as both NMD and ESDP continue to raise too many legitimate questions with too little evidence to offer enough credible answers. Can it work? Assuming it does work, is it affordable? Assuming it is affordable, is it cost-effective? Assuming it is cost-effective, is it necessary? Assuming it is necessary, will its impact exceed whatever gains it permits? And so it goes for both NMD and ESDP — a parallel debate over intentions that are so misrepresented on and about each side of the Atlantic as to risk consequences that neither side wants or can afford. Moreover, for the next several years such a debate will be premature, as Europe is no more likely to rely on its virtual ESDP to fight without the United States than the United States is likely to distance itself from Europe behind its virtual NMD. Instead, both ESDP and NMD will likely remain, above all, the source of debate among Europeans and Americans respectively, rather than between them.

In any case, ESDP is what every US administration since 1945 has expected of Europe — namely, an enhanced military capacity that would lighten the US burden by acting with or without, but not against or in spite of, the United States. Moreover, conversely, NMD is what Europe wants out of the United States — enhanced protection that would reduce the consequences of failure should a conflict, started accidentally or by design, spread to the United States, its allies and friends.

Rather than threatening to decouple the United States from Europe, launch another Cold War, accelerate a new arms race, and destabilise deterrence, as its critics have argued, NMD seeks to ensure continued US engagement, bury the Cold War, avoid military competition, and stabilise deterrence. The United States understands that today's unipolar world is transitory, and that ascending powers and nuisance states will eventually challenge the post-Cold War order and, therefore, the interests of the United States and its allies. By choice (Alliance cohesion), necessity (radars in Greenland and England), and foresight (the rise of rogue states and other unspecified threats), the states of Europe would do well to reconsider their objections to NMD. Meanwhile, the United States would do well to expand the concept into that of a multi-lateral system that would cover Europe and others, instead of deploying a more limited system, in spite of allied opinion.

Improving EU-US and EU-NATO relations have been hidden features of both NATO and EU enlargement. Since the Washington and Rome Treaties were signed in 1949 and 1957 respectively, there has been an implicit assumption, in the United States as well as in Europe, that both institutions would be enlarged in a way that brought NATO members into the then European Community and EC members into NATO. The initial six EC countries were all founding members of NATO, and four of the six countries that joined the European Community between 1973 and 1986 were already members of NATO (Denmark, Greece, Portugal and the United Kingdom), while a fifth late entrant (Spain) joined the Alliance in a matter of weeks. Indeed, by 1986, Ireland was the only EC country that was not a member of the then 16-member Atlantic Alliance, while Turkey, Norway and Iceland were the only European NATO members that were not part of the European Union of 12. Since the end of the Cold War, however, this gap has widened, with all three new EU countries in 1995 being non-NATO members (Austria, Finland, and Sweden) and all three new NATO countries in 1999 being non-EU members (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland).

Despite the many accomplishments inspired by the transatlantic link, Americans and Europeans remain deeply sceptical about each other

Closing this membership gap between the two Western institutions would facilitate the institutional complementarity sought by both Europe and the United States. It could also serve as an implicit guideline for future enlargement — creating what the late Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, would have called parallele convergente, with the point of convergence reached when all EU countries are also NATO members, and all European NATO countries are also EU members. By spring 2002, some applicant countries should have made enough progress to permit NATO and the European Union, meeting in separate or joint summits, to enforce their respective commitments to enlargement.

EU-NATO complementarity is not only a matter of membership. It is also a policy question. Since neither institution addresses all issues, both can attend to separate, though not separable, functions. In this way, NATO can protect its members from external aggression, while the European Union can attend to the soft-security issues that might otherwise disrupt the peace. In several primary areas of instability and even conflict — including southeastern Europe and the Aegean — better coordination between these two institutions and their members would be desirable. Arguably, some of the horror that plagued the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s could have been avoided had not only NATO but also the European Union been involved earlier, and hopes to escape further terror hinge decisively on a European involvement in a way that the United States has occasionally failed to recognise.

There is more to the transatlantic agenda, to be sure. Russia is a case in point — too close to ignore, too big to integrate, and too nuclear to offend. Russia can still be expected to try to exploit any opportunity to build a wedge between Europe and the United States — whether over NMD, NATO enlargement, ESDP or EU enlargement. Here, it is critical to convince Moscow that the expansion of the Euro-Atlantic neighbourhood also helps widen the area of NATO security and EU affluence to non-NATO and non-EU countries, including, above all, Russia. Outside Russia, Europe's institutional orphans, countries outside both the European Union and NATO, which may have to learn to live on their own for a longer period of time should not be abandoned either. Enhanced cooperation is imperative, not only with members of a reinforced NATO Partnership for Peace, but also with bold and generous EU associate status.

The Greater Middle East, extending from North Africa through the Middle East and into the Gulf, is another area which would benefit from a coordinated transatlantic approach. Here, even though interests are not always common, whether within Europe or between Europe and the United States, goals are usually similar and policies, even when not common, can be compatible. Moreover, even though capabilities are uneven, they are sufficiently complementary for compatible policies to achieve common goals more effectively when the United States and the states of Europe act jointly, rather than separately.

Asia, too, is an area about which Americans and Europeans must learn to think in unison, if they are to act jointly or in a complementary fashion. This is especially the case with respect to China, a country which must feature in any discussion about NMD and the future of nuclear deterrence. But working in unison outside the Euro-Atlantic area requires enhanced mechanisms for transatlantic policy coordination and consultation.

This cooperative transatlantic agenda and the responsive dialogue it requires are not about new visions. Rather, the vision is the same as that which inspired those European and US statesmen who created NATO and the European Union and whose ideas served as a beacon to light up the post-war darkness. On both sides of the Atlantic, post-war leaders shared a comparable vision of a failed past and, accordingly, pursued similar ambitions to escape their respective histories and start anew. Under another set of post-war conditions, the beacon held by President Truman and others still illuminates the path forward, as President Bush and other political leaders complete their predecessors' vision of a whole and free Europe moving as a counterpart of the United States within a strong and cohesive Euro-Atlantic community.

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