Europe is Still on the Agenda

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

November 1, 2007

Europe, it seems fair to say, is not at the top of the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda.With 160,000 troops in Iraq, a nuclear crisis looming with Iran, rising violence in Afghanistan, and the emergence of new great powers like India and China, the administration – and Americans in general – can be forgiven for paying more attention to other parts of the world. When I raised European issues recently with a top foreign policy adviser to one of the main presidential candidates, I was bluntly told “there are no European issues in the campaign.” (I can’t reveal which candidate I’m referring to, but this conversation was with one of her top advisers.)

In fact, while the Europe agenda may not be the dominant one, it includes a number of pressing issues that the United States must confront. Top Bush officials know they have only just over a year left to repair the deep transatlantic rift created by Iraq and work toward the goal of a “Europe whole and free” that was outlined by the first President Bush. Based on discussions with these officials, here is what the final year’s agenda looks like:

Kosovo – The Americans are determined to end Kosovo’s uncertain status by the end of 2007. Last August, they agreed to give the parties another 120 days to reach an agreement before proceeding with the “supervised independence” proposed by UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari, but no one expects such an agreement to be reached. Belgrade and Moscow may come forward at the last minute with a proposal that may sound reasonable but will in fact be designed to disrupt consensus, and after December 10 the United States will recognise an independent Kosovo.Administration officials expect most EU members to join them, but believe that some (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Spain) will not.They expect Europeans to maintain troops in Kosovo after recognition.

NATO – US officials believe that France under Nicolas Sarkozy will no longer systematically block the alliance’s transformation. They claim to be ready in return to lift longstanding opposition to European defence efforts so long as Europeans focus on real capabilities rather than rhetoric or institutions. They realise that a “grand bargain” with France – France’s full reintegration into NATO, US support for European defence, and perhaps a new NATO strategic concept – may not be possible before Bush’s term ends, but they want to try. The greatest potential stumbling block on NATO is Afghanistan: if Europeans conclude that the mission is simply too costly and dangerous and pull out, American support for NATO could erode.

Turkey – As if tensions with Turkey were not already strained enough by the Iraq war and the Kurdish issue, moves in the US House of Representatives to recognise a Turkish “genocide” against Armenians in 1915 have stoked the sense of crisis. The administration fears that such a provocation could strengthen Turkish hardliners and make a Turkish military incursion into Iraq more likely.Washington also feels caught between the secular Kemalist establishment and the Islamicoriented government, both of which accuse it of sympathising with the other side. US officials know that high-profile efforts to press the EU to accept Turkey as a member could be counterproductive, but they have not abandoned that goal. At a time of strained Turkish relations with the United States the last thing Turkey needs is to feel ostracised from the West as a whole.

Russia – “Concern is not a policy,” some wise official once said, but concern seems the best description of US policy toward Russia today. Putin has the wind in his sails with high oil prices and a stratospheric popularity rating, and Russia seems bent on standing up to the West after years of perceived subjugation. So Moscow is unlikely to play what Washington would consider a constructive role on Kosovo, Iran, missile defence, the Caucasus, NATO enlargement, or other key issues. Almost all US officials now agree with this dismal view, but none really know what to do about it. Compromising on issues like Kosovo or Georgia to obtain Russian help with others (like Iran), they say, would constitute selling out friends and sacrificing principles, and thus is not an option. The goal for January 2009 is a pragmatic relationship with a cooperative Russia – but few believe this goal will be reached.

America of course has other important aims in Europe: restoring its positive image in the eyes of European publics; deploying missile defences in central Europe without worsening relations with Russia even more; winning EU support for tougher economic sanctions on Iran; making clear that Georgia is part of the Western “family”; helping to consolidate democracy in Ukraine; and keeping political and economic reform in the Balkans on track. These issues may not loom large in the US election campaign – but they cannot be ignored, whether Americans like it or not.