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Europe Talks Back | The Nation

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Europe Talks Back

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George W. Bush's European trip came at a time when American policy-makers, who once dismissed the European Union for its weakness and indecision on the world stage, are worrying about Europe's more assertive foreign policy. More than once this year, Washington has found itself upstaged as Europe showed itself willing and able to defy Washington on behalf of the larger global interest--organizing international opposition to the White House's repudiation of the Kyoto accords and taking it upon itself to keep the prospects of détente alive on the Korean peninsula, not to mention the role it played in voting the United States off the United Nations Human Rights Commission and its International Narcotics Control Board.

Still, the real danger is not a European-American divide, as serious as that would be, but a Europe that reverts to its old docile self when faced with Bush Administration pressure, deferring to Washington on issues like missile defense and NATO enlargement even when it disagrees with US policy. Although more confident in the foreign policy arena than it once was, the European Union is still struggling to develop a common foreign and defense policy and is reluctant to antagonize Washington on issues central to the transatlantic relationship. But it would be a mistake for European leaders to appease this Administration in the name of good relations with Washington. For on issues like global climate change, diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, missile defense and NATO enlargement, the EU better represents American interests and moral concerns than does the current Administration.

An immediate challenge is Washington's repudiation of the Kyoto accords on global warming. Europe is currently considering whether to continue with the treaty without the formal participation of the United States, which accounts for about 25 percent of greenhouse gases. The Administration hoped that Bush's more moderate tone of late would persuade Europe to back down or that there would be a lengthy renegotiation of the accord, but his pre-departure speech flopped. Many Americans will support Europe's decision to press ahead by demanding that US companies and local governments reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Even without full American compliance, it would keep the Kyoto accords alive.

European leaders must also stand firm on the question of missile defense. Many Americans share Europe's concerns: that Bush's missile defense will not work, that it will renuclearize great-power relations, and that it will eat up resources desperately needed to promote economic development and stability in the Balkans and other troubled regions. Only if Europe speaks with a clear and confident voice will it be possible for these American opposition voices to gain leverage in the US debate. The Administration hopes European governments will buy into the program and even cover part of the cost. But a Bush speech in Brussels to leaders of NATO countries was met with open doubts.

The Administration's plan for NATO enlargement, said to include the Baltic states, will be another test of European foreign policy. Many European leaders are skeptical about the wisdom of extending the NATO alliance up to Russia's borders. They know that what the countries in Eastern Europe need now is not a military alliance but more economic reform, more investment and more trade. They also know just how important Russia is to European security. Europe needs a constructive and reasonably strong Russia, one that can keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists, that can supply Europe and its eastern neighbors with cheap energy, that can help keep Belarus and the Ukraine from collapsing and that can help maintain order in the Caucasus and Central Asia. NATO expansion would unnecessarily put this critical relationship with Russia at risk and distract EU candidate countries from necessary economic reforms.

Europe may be reluctant to question Washington's lead on NATO issues for fear of weakening the US military commitment. But nothing should prevent Europe from staking out a contrary position on NATO that would be shared by a significant part of the US foreign policy establishment. Indeed, Europe has more leverage with Washington than at any time in the long history of the transatlantic relationship. There is now no military threat in Europe or even in the larger European zone that requires an American military presence. To be sure, Europe would prefer to have the United States shoulder part of the burden in the Balkans, particularly in Kosovo. But there is no reason it can't handle these problems without America's high-tech military, especially in light of the Pentagon's now-famous reluctance to put US soldiers at risk.

On a range of international issues, Europe brings an important perspective and experience to world affairs. It understands better than does the Bush Administration that foreign policy is more than a matter of advancing national power, and that economic development is more than imposing a free market economy without the requisite social and political institutions. Indeed, Europe's recent experience--after centuries of conflict--of pooling sovereignty, of knitting together diverse national perspectives, of encouraging democracy and economic reform and of managing more powerful neighbors is exactly what countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa might learn from. What Europe has been able to do over the past several decades and what it is trying to extend to the countries of Eastern Europe is what other regions could do to overcome decades of mutual suspicion to tackle common problems, reduce trade barriers and cooperate to stabilize currencies.

But this example will be lost if Europe remains in America's shadow, if it follows Washington's lead and makes missile defense and NATO enlargement the capstones of its international policy in the first decade of the twenty-first century. US interests and values would be better served by a Europe that acts as both a balance and a complement to American power.

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