The Great Game in Europe: How the U.S. can play

By John O’Sullivan

All great realignments are hammered out on the anvil of crisis. Ever since theend of the Cold War, both U.S. domestic politics and the shape of the West havebeen in an uncertain state. With socialism and statist liberalism discreditedby the collapse of centrally planned economies, parties of Left and Right havebeen maneuvering in the dark, hoping to bump into winning issues. No one couldquite define what issues would be the dividing lines between liberals and conservativesin future battles. Similarly, the West no longer had a sure instinct for whatits joint interests dictated — or if indeed it any longer had joint interestsin international politics. Maybe Europe and America were destined, as the Frenchhad been arguing since de Gaulle, to journey in different directions until theybecame rivals for world influence.
The first great post-Cold War crisis — Kuwait — seemed to refute this pessimistic Gaullism. But the second great crisis — Bosnia — amply confirmed it. Britain and France united to oppose the American approach of “lift and strike” — i.e., lift the U.N. arms embargo that effectively favored the Serb aggressors over the Bosnian victims, and strike by assisting the outgunned Bosnian forces with U.S. air sorties. Their opposition was based originally on a crude but understandable calculation that since the Serbs were bound to win anyway, we should not prolong the war by giving false hope to the Bosnians that the West would come to their aid. As the Cambridge historian Brendan Simms points out in his magisterial Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, however, this Anglo-French Machtpolitik was itself prolonged, indeed redoubled, long after it had become clear that the Serbs were not going to enjoy a runaway victory. London and Paris did all they could to prevent the Americans from assisting Bosnia — until their calculations were devastatingly rebuked by the course of the war itself, in which the modest U.S. and NATO intervention reversed Bosnian losses and forced the Serbs to negotiate. In persisting with their strategic and moral folly over a secondary issue, moreover, the Brits put their vital relationship with Washington to its greatest strain since Suez.
The Bosnia crisis teaches a number of lessons. It casts a harsh light on the argument that the Europeans have adopted an enlightened international ethic of rules over military force. As the bloody corpse of Bosnia circa 1994 demonstrated, a pacific multilateralism can be at least as brutal as intervention — without being as likely to attain its objective. Furthermore, the fact that Anglo-French opposition deterred Washington from its successful intervention for more than two years shows the degree to which U.S. policy can be distorted by a failure to play alliance politics effectively.
These lessons were quickly forgotten after 9/11 and the successful Afghan intervention temporarily strengthened the Atlantic alliance. For a while it seemed that “the Europeans” would back the U.S. on whatever course the war on terrorism took. Indeed, some Europeans complained about their exclusion from fighting the Afghan war. It helped that Tony Blair had succeeded the hapless Tories and was prepared to support America in a campaign against terrorism — indeed, to advance a Gladstonian moral argument for such a campaign that fitted very comfortably with the conservative Wilsonianism driving U.S. policy.
September 11 also increased the relative importance of the Atlantic alliance by exposing alternatives to it as illusory. Though President Bush had come into office hoping to make Latin America a U.S. economic (and ultimately diplomatic) partner in competition with a united Europe and a Japan-led Asia, none of the Latin nations was prepared to play a forward role in helping America in the war on terror. Nor were they in much shape to do so. Latin America is currently suffering a series of economic reverses, and is retreating from its recent market reforms. Leftist governments have been installed in Venezuela and Brazil; Mexico is disappointed by the failure of the U.S. to liberalize immigration post-9/11; narco-terrorism is rampant in Colombia and reviving in Peru; and Brazil would prefer to unite Latin America around itself rather than around the U.S. With the exception of Chile, they are too embroiled in their own problems to push hard for Bush’s Free Trade Area of the Americas. And even if it were to be constructed, it would bring no serious military or diplomatic benefits in its train. You might say that Latin America is the U.S. ally of the future — and always will be.
Russia was a different matter. Bush’s personal rapport with President Putin resulted in highly useful anti-terrorist cooperation. The moral cost was high — turning a blind eye to the Russian war on Chechnya — but, unlike the Realpolitik of Hurd and Rifkind, it did at least achieve results. Yet there were obvious limits to the usefulness of a Russo-American alliance alone: Russia is a struggling power with a declining population, a poor economy, and weak political institutions.
In short, maintaining the alliance with Europe — and adding Russia to it — was the strategic approach plainly dictated by American interests. But then along came Iraq.
Iraq is now a crisis because Bush decided to remove Saddam Hussein before the dictator could acquire and perhaps use weapons of mass destruction. Bush’s boldness may be justified — I think it is — but it is also bound to be questioned by those who prefer peace at any price (fascinatingly, the German government), by those who think arms-control procedures superior to military force (the liberal foreign-policy establishment), and by the broad Left. Such groups exist on both sides of the Atlantic, but 9/11 has cowed many Americans who generally think along such lines. The result is that opposition to the war on Iraq has been expressed most visibly and vocally in Europe. America and Europe thus see each other — not quite correctly — as representing the pro- and anti-war sides respectively on Iraq. This powerful sense is producing divisions within political parties, within individual nations, within Europe, and across the Atlantic — in short, major realignments. And how it proceeds in the next few weeks may well determine the shape of the West and of world politics for the next few decades.
In recent weeks there have been four events, none earthshaking in itself, but together foreshadowing great changes. First: France and Germany — seeing that they were vulnerable to being outvoted in an enlarged European Community — sought to exploit the Iraq crisis to nail down a common European foreign policy, one that would make Europe a counterweight to American power. Second: Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, responding to this, described France and Germany as” Old Europe,” contrasting them with the new Europe of the post-Communist democracies in eastern and central Europe. Third: A letter signed by eight European leaders, including Tony Blair, called for European support for the U.S. on Iraq and the war on terrorism. Fourth: Blair and France’s President Chirac agreed to significantly advance a European defense policy outside NATO — with naval cooperation as well as a European Rapid Reaction Force.
The first and fourth items in this list point to a future in which the Europeans develop a separate and rival political and military identity from the U.S. The second and third items suggest that there are forces in Europe that would prefer Europe to unite under continued American leadership. All four items suggest that although nothing is predetermined, the dividing lines would pit an alliance of the peripheral and post-Communist states against the central powers of France, Germany, and Benelux. And Item Four reminds us that Tony Blair is both a pivotal and an ambiguous figure who wants both to be “at the heart of Europe” and also America’s best friend.
In other words, there is all to play for. But America will not end up with a favorable result unless Bush and his administration decide what Euro-Atlantic structure they want, and set out vigorously to achieve it. Let us now ask what it is they should want.
In the first place, they should want not one Europe but several. In other words, Europe should continue to integrate, but not along the simple lines of a single European structure. Instead, the U.S. should encourage the overlapping structures of a variable-geometry Europe. If we are lucky, we would end up with something like this:
One. A central core of France, Germany, Benelux, and a small number of other countries such as Austria would form, in effect, a new “European” nation-state.
It would be the biggest single European country, as Germany was in the past, but it would not possess direct political power over the rest of Europe. And its indirect power and influence would be curbed by the continuing presence of the U.S.
Two. Most other European nations would be members of a European Community, something a little more than a free-trade area but less than a federation. This confederation would exercise less power over the domestic policies of its member states than Brussels does today. And it might or might not include Turkey.
Three. All European states would be members of a kind of European moral order, structured loosely around the Council of Europe and various treaties and conventions, rooted ultimately in the willingness of European states to subscribe to common rules protecting ethnic minorities, freedom of the press, border disputes, and so on.
If the U.S. wants this result, it should move diplomatically to exploit the suppressed tensions between Atlanticist Europeans and Europe Firsters. Once this dispute is out in the open, it would revive a similar debate over whether the economic structures of the EU, constructed for a smaller and more homogeneous community, are suitable for an EU that may one day cover the whole of Europe. Plainly they are not. If the U.S. were known to favor the flexible Europe described above, the disputes over foreign policy, economic policy, and the proper limits of integration might significantly enliven the convention now meeting under the chairmanship of Giscard d’Estaing — and even tilt its recommendations. With the French and Germans wishing to push ahead to full federalism, and the British and East Europeans wanting a less rigid union, the U.S. should favor a compromise that lets the former push ahead to full federal statehood in return for liberalizing the wider European community.
Another U.S. interest — which happens to be a clear European interest as well — is that the U.S. should remain firmly rooted in Europe as a military and diplomatic leader. In current terms, that should mean two specific policies. Bush should revive the idea of the Transatlantic Free Trade Area that would unite the EU, the U.S., and Canada, and any non-EU European state that wished to join. The U.S. should also strongly discourage the development of the EU as a military power, urge the winding down of its fledgling Rapid Reaction Force, and insist that NATO be the only serious European defense force. There would be strong resistance to this pressure from the Franco-German bloc — and Blair would have to be strong-armed into changing the policy that constitutes his best claim to be a “good European.” But this crucial question admits of no compromise. It should be a prime U.S. aim that the common European Security policy either fade away or become the sole responsibility of the Franco-German-Benelux federal state where, with luck and after several budgetary retrenchments, it might provide an honor guard for the rotating dual presidency in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Brussels, and San Marino.
This entrenchment of the U.S. in Europe would pave the way for the gradual but full admission of Russia into the West. One lesson of the period from 1949 to the end of the century is that the American presence in Europe means that no European nation need fear its neighbor. All that the U.S. requires in return is a willingness to contribute to the general defense. And it has proved very lax in enforcing even that. If America is firmly anchored to the Continent, then there is no need for Europeans to fear Russia as a NATO member any more than there would be to fear a hypothetical Franco-German federal entity. And from Russia’s point of view, the shrinkage of the EU as a provider of security would mean that the U.S. is the only game in town.
That would remove every objection to Russia’s NATO (and wider EU) membership, save only the historical suspicion of Russia among its former satellites. What the latter want is clear evidence that Russia has abandoned its imperial nostalgia, is now firmly committed to a different course, and would not therefore use its NATO membership to obstruct American protection. According to opinion polls, generational change in Russia already seems to be producing a public opinion that is less suspicious of the West. Putin needs to build on this with such “confidence-building” methods as retiring the oligarchs from politics; protecting the freedom of the press rather than buying it up; ensuring that mafia organizations are either forced out of business or half forced, half bribed into reconstructing themselves as respectable companies; and eventually apologizing to eastern Europeans for the Stalinist occupation. Painful tasks, some of them, but worthwhile if they help to bring about a stable and prosperous Euro-Atlantic Community from Vancouver to Vladivostok.
We can reasonably assume, I think, that such a super-NATO would deal with threats to security in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. But it would almost certainly hold aloof from the rest of Asia, from Australasia and the Pacific, and from Africa. Except for the former French colonies, security problems in these regions would be dealt with by the U.S. and allies chosen for each occasion, probably under the umbrella of United Nations approval. But which allies? The allies that gave the U.S. the first practical help in Afghanistan (apart from the Afghans, of course) were the U.K., New Zealand, and Australia. And, by an extraordinary coincidence, the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are the joint owners of the main world electronic intelligence-gathering operation, known as Echelon. The EU parliament regards this as a sinister anti-European commercial-spying operation, but the British show no signs of giving up their membership in it.
Such persistent and interesting links have led people in recent days to talk of something called “the Anglosphere” — namely the cultural sympathies, economic ties, and forms of political cooperation that link the different English-speaking countries. This even applies to countries that are, so to speak, on the margin of the Anglosphere. One of the diplomatic shifts since September 11, interestingly, is the growing de facto alliance between the U.S. and another English-speaking power, namely India. There is a growing Anglosphere solidarity outside the NATO area with investment patterns, immigration preferences, and cultural interpenetration all reflecting a burgeoning sense of common cultural identity — what one writer 100 years ago called “the moral citizenship of the English-speaking world.”
The significance of this Anglosphere is, of course, modest and marginal if the U.S. pursues and achieves the Atlantic convergence outlined above. If, however, the two sides of the Atlantic gradually separate into two rival and potentially hostile superpowers, then the Anglosphere would become an important alternative to Europe as a source of diplomatic support and military assistance.
And here we return to the pivotal and ambiguous figure of Prime Minister Blair — and the Blair-Bush relationship. If Blair determines to place himself at the head of a campaign of the peripheral and post-Communist states, he can almost certainly bring about the wider Euro-Atlantic community described above. If he goes along with France and Germany in order to place himself at the heart of Europe, he will find eventually that he lacks even the limited sovereignty to join America in Anglosphere interventions outside Europe. Transatlantic relations would then become a series of Bosnian crises.
How he jumps will be decided in large measure by what pressure Bush puts upon him. And Bush himself will be subjected to pressures — from the State Department, to drift along with a European integration ultimately damaging to America; from neoconservatives, who think that Europe is anti-Semitic, anti-American, and “finished”; and from realistic Pentagon hawks, who have in the past argued against allowing a European superpower to emerge. In the midst of all these pressures, Bush will be anxious to please his loyal friend who is himself confused about what to do. On such matters do the fates of empiresdepend.

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