The United States and Europe – an uneasy transatlantic partnership

A series of recent scandals have been straining the relationship between two of the most influential poles on the international arena. From spying on allies to using colourful language, Europe and the United States have reached a new low of trust between each other, or at least in the eyes of the European public. Is it time for the EU to assert a role, more equal to that of the United States? Or is it doomed to be a normative, civil power that ‘cleans up’ after the US ‘kicks the door down’? Can EU foreign policy make any substantial impact and could it be as influential as that of the United States?

The end of the Cold War opened an entirely different page in European–US relations. The Soviet threat that held the alliance strongly together was gone, changing the structure of international relations. Gradually, the US and Europe changed the agendas of their foreign policies. The Europeans focused on deepening and widening the integration process, while the Americans focused on Asia and the Western hemisphere. The nature of the new emerging security challenges was different as well; from a large scale military confrontation to terrorism and the rise of ‘the rest’. Adapting to the new environment both assumed two entirely different roles. Greatly unrestrained and overwhelmingly powerful the US took a largely unilateral, pragmatic position, relying primarily on hard and economic power to defend its interest around the globe. The European Union chose to take the path of institutionalism in dealing with international crises and rely greatly on its ability to project soft power.

There is an obvious divergence in the values that drive the two approaches. Values are the foundation on which a pluralistic security community, such as the North Atlantic one rests. The EU’s European Security Strategy which argued for “a world seen as offering justice and opportunity for everyone” and “stability, security and well-being for all” clashes with America’s “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. With the increased consolidation of its power the EU starts to see itself as a challenger to US norms. This in terms creates tension, but it is not enough to seriously damage the relationship, since no vital interests have been threatened. So far the crack appears to be only on the surface. Europeans seem content for now with their second place and distinct bilateral relations with the US, although the need and profit of an ever more united Europe is obvious.

The European Union has the largest share in the global GDP. Naturally, it has the potential to be a force of primary importance. Several questions arise; can there be a place for positive power, a ‘force for good’, and are the ‘carrots’ enough without a strong and credible coercive element in its policies? And what is the EU loosing because of choosing a foreign policy based on values?

The current EU foreign policy problems stem from the ambiguity of the European project. It is a state in creation that, because of the difficult and pioneering transformation it goes through, faces many dysfunctionalities. One step towards integration cannot function without support from another. For example a common currency cannot exist without a banking union and a common fiscal policy. Disunity among the major EU players is another major problem. Until full EU sovereignty is reached and a consolidated foreign policy emerges, the only step towards improving the current situation is by introducing ‘heavy weight’ European politicians to the key EU positions.

Unknown and inexperienced, Herman Van Rompuy and Baroness Catherine Ashton were the first to give a face to the EU and its institutions, and while Baroness Ashton is fairly successful with brokering agreements such as the one between Serbia and the breakaway province of Kosovo, the President of the European Council has remained largely unknown and heavily ridiculed because of his “damp rag” charisma. An influential figure would definitely attract more public attention, and his word would create the authority and legitimacy the EU lacks. With the appearance of a “low grade bank clerk” Rompuy fails to summon any seriousness a political figure of this magnitude should possess. Ashton is also far from being as influential as her male Russian and American counterparts.

The Ukraine has proven to be another tough test for the EU. The idea of Europe still proves to be attractive, and attractive enough to cause large scale civil unrest. The EU however looks completely helpless before Russia. So helpless that it is even dismissed by its closest ally with the colourful “F* the EU – Exactly!”. As with the violent break down of Yugoslavia, the Europeans need help from outside. This time it is diplomatic and not military. It seem that the incentives are enough, but without a serious coercive element to chase away the competition, all efforts to welcome in Ukraine and to be considered seriously on the international arena will be in vain.