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US, Europe should mend rift

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US, Europe should mend rift

With the rise of China and Russia, transatlantic relationship gains strategic importance

  • Protesters at the climate conference in Copenhagen, December 2009.
    Matthew McDermott/flickrProtesters at the climate conference in Copenhagen, December 2009.

Speeches in the European Parliament rarely rate attention, and the same, sadly, can be said of the remarks of the EU's first "foreign minister," Catherine Ashton, who has been struggling to establish her position as the international voice of Europe since taking office in December.

But Ashton, who has suffered the slings and arrows of turf-conscious French, German, British and other European foreign ministries for months now, on Wednesday did something rarely done by diplomats: She was frank.

Speaking to the European Parliament, Ashton warned that India, China and other rising powers would not wait for Europe to get its act together in foreign affairs. "If we pull together we can safeguard our interests," she said. "If not, others will make the decisions for us. It's that simple."

While you could read that as an attempt to argue for the relevance of her particular job, it also has the advantage of being true. Throughout Europe right now, anxious policymakers fret that China has usurped the EU as the focus of American global policymaking and that a "G2" world is emerging that will further diminish Europe's voice.

Europe's fear of being pushed to the margin of world affairs has been fueled by a series of American decisions that, deliberately or not, feed a particularly European gloom about the coming decades and has contributed to a particularly choppy period in U.S.-European relations.

Having adjusted its philosophical approach to the world to emphasize "soft" power in the past decade, European policymakers now realize that in a world where their economic throw-weight diminishes, the soft approach could lead to their irrelevance.

"European elites are paralyzed by sight of a future they fear has been claimed by the U.S. and China," wrote Phillip Stevens in his Financial Times column recently. "The postmodern view of geopolitics struggles to measure up against the rise of great powers in Asia, which put narrow national interests well ahead of wider mutual obligations."

The inability of the U.S. and EU to forge a common approach in Copenhagen set the tone, but three far less serious tiffs have supercharged Europe's suspicion that Washington has a waning interest in European opinion.

The first of these perceived slights was Obama's announcement that he would forego the annual U.S.-EU summit scheduled for Madrid in May. While the decision might seem completely rational to anyone who has read the final communiques of past such gatherings, the White House announcement touched off a spate of eulogies for transatlantic relations in European media. The U.S. has since backtracked somewhat, pledging a summit-level meeting in the autumn.

Another spat, this time between the U.S. and the United Kingdom, involves the Falkland Islands — Las Malvinas to Argentines. Argentina's troubled government has been loudly complaining about British oil exploration in the island's territorial waters lately, stirring memories of the 1982 war fought by the two nations. A furor erupted in Britain earlier this week when, answering a question from a British reporter, the State Department spokesman described the U.S. position on the centuries-old territorial dispute with a term British conservatives equate with treason: "neutrality."

"Our position remains one of neutrality," the spokesman said. "The U.S. recognizes de facto U.K. administration of the islands but takes no position on the sovereignty claims of either party." A typical response in the British media, fond of references to the "Special Relationship" forged long ago by Churchill and Roosevelt, came from the right-leaning military analyst Nile Gardiner in The Telegraph:

Thousands of British soldiers are laying their lives on the line alongside their American allies on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Yet the president of the United States is either unwilling or too timid to offer a single word of support for the British people, who face a mounting confrontation with a corrupt, populist Argentine government that is threatening a blockade of British territory.

Still another dispute has arisen as a result of the convoluted nature of Pentagon procurement policies. After years of political wrangling, corruption and bid-rigging in the U.S., a European-American consortium (comprised of Northrop Grumman and Airbus-parent EADS) finally decided to drop out of a $35 billion contract for airborne refueling tankers, conceding the ground to Boeing. The March 9 decision quickly brought claims of protectionism from the EU, with the European Commission saying it feared the "terms of tender were such as to inhibit open competition for the contract." Airbus' Chairman Thomas Enders made the same point somewhat less diplomatically.

More than a year into the Obama administration, nothing like the disdain that characterized Bush-era ties with Europe is present. Yet a host of disputes, resentments and misunderstandings have proliferated that have made both sides uneasy:

A suspicion in Europe that the U.S. administration, in spite of its own center-left sympathies, is happy to see the EU's business model come under strain due to the improvidence of some of its more socialist members (i.e., the "PIIGS"). Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on March 11 issued the clearest signal yet that Washington does not agree with EU calls for curbs on hedge funds and private equity firms which critics blame for exacerbating the EU's sovereign debt crisis;

Anger in Washington about European NATO members' relatively small contribution to the Afghan war;

The neutralization of Britain as a "bridge" between Europe and America. This is largely because British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, an "Atlanticist" himself, has felt compelled in a political year to distance himself from Washington because of the lingering memory of the Iraq War and the risk that his political opponents will renew charges that Labour has been Washington's "lapdog";

A sense of disappointment in Europe that President Obama has not brought the sea change in global affairs and U.S.-European ties that many in Europe had expected;

Anger in Brussels at Obama's decision to cut the EU out of last-minute dealings with China and other major players so that a minimalist "deal" on climate change could be salvaged at the otherwise moribund Copenhagen summit last December;

Similar feelings when Obama announced a series of regulatory reform proposals for the banking industry unilaterally, without coordinating with the G20's Financial Stability Board;

Unhappiness in Washington at the tendency of Europe's largest continental powers, Germany and France, to be deferential to Russia, which in large part is due to Moscow's demonstrated willingness to use its energy resources for leverage. The sale of several large French warships to Russia earlier this year drove home poignantly the differing perspectives of Russia prevalent on the two sides of the Atlantic;

A host of bilateral disputes involving individual countries, including Turkish fury over a U.S. congressional resolution on the Armenian genocide, and Polish and Czech disappointment that their risky decisions to invite U.S. missile bases onto their territory have been for naught now that Obama has cancelled those programs in deference to Russia.

It would be tempting to argue the wheels are coming off the transatlantic relationship — indeed, some already have made that point. But in reality, more is right than wrong. On a day-to-day basis, it remains history's most important ever multinational alliance, and economically, there is no more powerful combination.

Still, the thrill is gone. Indeed, the dangers here lie in both sides taking the other for granted in a world where simple equations dictate that each will be proportionately less able to call the shots as years go by. Europe may never completely come to terms with Russia and America may be destined for serious tensions with China, but there is nothing inevitable about a falling out between Europe and America, and nothing in that dire prospect for either side to relish.

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