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Starting over again

Christoph Bertram assesses European concerns and expectations at the change of tenant in the White House.

Back to the future: President Bush has assembled a foreign policy team that is largely the same as the one which left office with his father eight years ago ( © Reuters - 27Kb)

Whenever a new face moves into the White House, European governments hold their breath. The massive turnover of key individuals that accompanies all presidential changeovers means that many in the new administration are inevitably finding their feet in the early months. Moreover, while every US presidential candidate promises to outdo the incumbent in "strengthening relations with our allies", Europeans have learned to be cautious. They have never had reason to doubt the good will of a new president, but have sometimes felt uneasy about the qualifications of some of the new team or suspicious of the seemingly irrepressible urge to reassess the previous administration's policies and develop new visions.

This time, however, things are different. President George W. Bush has assembled a foreign policy team that is largely the same as the one which left office with his father eight years ago. That administration was highly respected for its deft handling of German reunification, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But familiarity with this team has failed to reassure Europe's foreign policy community. It is not the competence of the new administration that causes concern, but its new agenda. Many Europeans fear they may face awkward choices on Euro-Atlantic issues like missile defence and NATO enlargement, as well as issues further afield, where the United States is adopting a tougher stance, such as policy towards Iraq and China, on Russia and on global warming.

Such fears are largely unjustified when it comes to the more traditional Alliance issues. They appear divisive but should turn out to be perfectly manageable. The real problems lie beyond NATO's agenda. On such wider security issues, no coordination exists between the United States and its European Allies and there is a genuine risk that the gap in transatlantic policy perceptions, which has opened in recent years, will widen.

Looking at the traditional security agenda, US plans for a National Missile Defense (NMD), one of the new president's priorities, have generated the most controversy to date. Yet the issue is already waning, as European governments realise that they can do little about Washington's decision to proceed. Many Allies had opposed NMD out of concern about the Russian reaction. However, with Russian President Vladimir Putin sending out signals of a possible deal, combining drastic cuts in Russian and US offensive strategic forces with an adjustment of the ABM Treaty, Europeans are beginning to recognise that NMD may actually offer new opportunities for strategic arms reductions. They are becoming aware, as are the Russians, that the proliferation of ballistic missiles will one day be a real threat to their own security. If the introduction of NMD is reconciled with a formal regime of restraint and accompanied by significant cuts in nuclear arsenals, the grounds for opposing it disappear. Even active participation in an Alliance-wide system becomes an attractive, if distant, prospect.

We are, of course, not there yet. Real negotiations with Russia on amending the ABM Treaty need to take place and suggestions for deep cuts in nuclear warheads are no more than tentative. But now, at least, there is an objective that Europeans can share. The NMD project, which still has to prove its viability, need not necessarily divide the Alliance as long as any decision on abandoning the ABM Treaty is delayed.

Many NMD supporters in the United States wonder why their European Allies attach such importance to a treaty, which they regard as an anachronism from a time when the Soviet Union existed and limitations on missile defences seemed a key element for the transparency of nuclear deterrence between the super powers. Europeans readily concede that the world has changed, but feel that the rules of nuclear competition are no less important in the new security environment. Formally, the ABM Treaty may be a bilateral agreement between Russia and the United States, but it shapes the calculations of existing and future nuclear powers and offers a measure of predictability in international nuclear competition. Europeans would, therefore, not object even to major revisions of the treaty, but would be deeply troubled by its demise. The United States should take this concern seriously, and can well afford to do so. The long lead-time for any realistic NMD system means that there is no hurry to quit the treaty. Since the Russian government appears inclined to consider some revision, European wishes could well be satisfied without hobbling US plans.

NATO's second round of enlargement is another potential cause for transatlantic strain. A decision on which, if any, candidate countries to invite to join the Alliance is due at the next NATO Summit in Prague in 2002 and few European governments are pushing the issue. However, they realise that simply postponing the decision is not an option because of commitments made at the 1999 Washington Summit. Enlargement is on the Alliance agenda because all members have put it there, not just the United States.

While no clear line is as yet emerging, the contours of the debate are becoming clearer. But Allied leaders cannot wait until Prague to make up their minds. This is because the Baltic republics will inevitably be on the agenda, whether or not they are invited to join the Alliance in the next wave, as a result of Russia's protests that their membership would pose an unacceptable affront to its own security. The decision to include or exclude them from the next membership round should, therefore, be communicated to Russia and to the Baltic republics well in advance of the Prague Summit and not sprung on them at the last minute. If the Baltic republics are admitted, Russia needs to be reassured about the absence of any hostile intent. If the Baltic republics are put on hold, they will need clear reassurances that this will not weaken their existing, more indirect security ties with the West. There is therefore not that much time to prepare the consensus needed within the Alliance, generate the necessary US domestic support, particularly in the Senate, and develop a common strategy to implement the decision.

Another potential candidate for transatlantic misgivings is the European Union's intention to establish a rapid reaction force by 2003. Already circumspect under the Clinton administration, US support is likely to remain somewhat less than enthusiastic under the new leadership. The United States continues to see NATO as the central instrument of its European policy and does not want to see the organisation weakened by any separate European defence project. Nevertheless, within weeks of coming to power the new administration was picking up roughly where the previous one left off: no overwhelming welcome for the European initiative but no obstruction either. The only caveat is that whatever new European coordination structures are created should remain anchored to NATO.

The reasons for the Bush administration's relatively relaxed attitude are those that guided its predecessor. If the European Allies strengthen their military effort, even under a European flag, this will serve the Alliance as a whole. Moreover, since the Europeans will continue to depend on US assets for any serious operation for the foreseeable future, the United States will retain a powerful veto. The advantages clearly outweigh the risks. President Bush's declared position is now to give European governments the chance to live up to their word.

Ironically, the real risk to transatlantic relations may be the failure of the Europeans to meet their self-imposed target, rather than their success. The project will be judged not on the institutions it builds, but on the additional military punch it delivers. While new EU bodies dealing with security matters have been set up remarkably rapidly, the goal of a credible autonomous military capability remains elusive.

No one expects miracles by 2003. But to be credible, the European venture requires at least a measurable increase, matched by necessary funds, in force intervention capabilities. In their commitments to the future rapid reaction force, EU countries have largely drawn on the existing pool of forces. They have yet to increase the number of operational soldiers and devote real money to improving military mobility. Unless they do so in the next two years, their credibility in the United States and in Europe will surely suffer severely. The failure to meet targets, after all the promises made in NATO and EU communiqus, could lead to major transatlantic misgivings as well as to recriminations among European countries. The United States can afford to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. The Europeans cannot.

Security for the West has become a wider brief than that addressed in existing Alliance structures

If the Europeans do produce something tangible by 2003, their success will add to the military options of the West in general. European governments may then feel encouraged to go further in pooling their military resources and policies and US apprehension about a NATO that is less US-centric may then gain some ground. But the challenge of adapting the Alliance to changing times and circumstances has to be met in any case. Indeed, a greater European contribution to crisis management on the continent would only help meet it more effectively. But these are matters that need not be addressed in President Bush's first term.

While NATO's current structures will thus prove, once again, capable of addressing and defusing any of the potentially divisive Euro-Atlantic issues on the horizon, the same is not true for security items outside NATO's geographic remit. Two examples, those of Iraq and China, may illustrate the general problem.

On Iraq, frustration is common. Neither sanctions nor no-fly zones have succeeded in forcing Baghdad to drop its rearmament plans or to readmit UN inspectors. Meanwhile, support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is rising in the Arab world in the wake of the breakdown of the Middle East peace process, weakening the West's influence in this petroleum-producing region. Neither the United States nor the European Allies have an answer to the problem. However, their instincts point in very different directions. Europeans prefer a "political solution" without being able to formulate it. The new US administration is leaning towards tougher military action. It is difficult to see how this gap could be bridged.

While welcome, efforts to devise "smart sanctions", which would target the regime rather than the Iraqi people, are unlikely to produce tangible results quickly. Other avenues will, therefore, have to be pursued. Here, the underlying European and US preferences are likely to cause friction, with the United States potentially blaming the failure of military action on the lack of European support, and the Europeans responding by blaming US unilateralism for frustrating their political approach.

China is another case in point. Here, the differences between the two sides of the Atlantic are less pronounced, largely because Europeans do not have much of a China policy, unless the pursuit of commercial interests and a general wish not to isolate China qualifies as one. The United States, on the other hand, is one of the pillars of stability in Asia and its relationship with China affects the region as a whole. The apparent toughening of the US approach to China under the Bush administration could have wide repercussions. Europe might see it as another example of US unilateralism, doubly resented because it highlights the absence of any real European strategy.

Areas of potential transatlantic discord in traditional Alliance issues, such as missile defence, enlargement and European defence integration, appear to be on the road to resolution. Together with its European Allies, the Bush administration will handle them no less effectively than previous administrations. However, Iraq and China underline the fact that security for the West has become a much wider brief than that addressed in existing Alliance structures, as well as the desirability of closer policy and crisis coordination between the United States and its European Allies beyond NATO's geographic remit. Here, the United States has little practice of consulting Europe on its policies, and perhaps little inclination. But an increasingly confident European Union, which through its own enlargement process is being drawn closer to crisis regions further afield, will gradually develop a sense of its own responsibility for international order. And achieving such order will largely depend on the two major Western power units working together.

The Clinton administration seemed instinctively willing to begin thinking of evolving the relationship with Europe along those lines, even though it is far from clear how such cooperation could be organised. The Bush administration and its supporters in Congress have not revealed a similar disposition and seem both unprepared and unwilling to develop one. It is on these wider, global issues then, rather than the familiar Alliance themes, that the European-US relationship will face its greatest challenge.

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