Europe: Rebalancing the U.S.-European Relationship

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

September 1, 2000

Though it may not seem obvious from a quick scan of world press headlines, relations between the United States and Europe are as healthy as they have ever been. The main disputes mostly concern trade—and are relatively minor at that. Compared with the dustups across the Atlantic over Germany in the 1950s, host nation support and NATO strategy in the 1960s, détente and Vietnam in the 1970s, Euromissiles in the 1980s, and the Balkans in the first half of the 1990s, today’s disagreements over bananas, hormone—injected beef, and airplane hush kits are testament to the essential strength of the relationship.

Yet the consensus on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that all is not well. In part that worry reflects the natural inclination of people to focus on what is wrong rather than on what is going right. But it also evidences a growing sense that however good the relationship may be today, the future looks less promising. A new disagreement about burden sharing—this time focused on the Balkans—seems likely, with the U.S. Congress indicating in votes last spring that Europe cannot take a long-term U.S. military and economic engagement for granted. The European Union’s decision to enhance its capacity for autonomous action in the security field—including defense, long the exclusive preserve of NATO—also worries Washington. And the issue of missile defense hangs as a large cloud over the transatlantic relationship, with many in Europe fearing that its deployment will both weaken the link with America and increase tensions between Russia and the United States at the expense of stability and security for all.

While steeped in the particulars of burden sharing, European defense, and missile defense, the emerging transatlantic security debate involves a larger question that both sides have so far avoided—how to rebalance the relationship to reflect post-Cold War realities. Old habits die hard, and parties on both sides of the Atlantic have clung to traditional patterns of behavior and interaction. The United States has been unwilling to share power and responsibility with Europe, insisting on the preeminence of NATO in European security matters—and thus on its own continued dominance. Europe has been unwilling to shed its dependence on the United States—and has continued to fret about the dual possibility of American abandonment and dominance.

The challenge for the United States and Europe in the years ahead will be to manage the particular problems confronting them in ways that help rebalance the relationship—away from European dependence and American dominance toward a more nearly equal partnership. Meeting that challenge will not be easy. For Europe, it requires devoting greater resources and broadening its strategic vision. For America, it means sharing not just burdens, but power, responsibility, and authority. But as the second post-Cold War decade opens, it is becoming increasingly clear that doing anything less will erode the foundation of the very alliance both sides of the Atlantic are dedicated to preserving.

A Healthy Relationship . . .

At the Cold War’s end, western triumphalism mixed with gloom over the future of the U.S.-European relationship. An alliance founded on opposition to a common threat surely could not survive the disappearance of that threat, or so many argued. A uniting Europe would increasingly seek to distance itself from an America that would revert to paying attention to matters at home rather than abroad. The break in relations would not be sudden, but the alliance would surely atrophy over time and ultimately wither into oblivion.

Yet the alliance not only survived, but successfully transformed itself into an instrument promoting security throughout Europe. Although NATO’s collective defense mission remains a central purpose, the alliance’s primary function today—codified at its 50th anniversary summit in April 1999—is to extend to other parts of Europe the security and stability its members have long enjoyed. The alliance pursues the new mission in two principal ways. First, it has opened its doors to new members and, through the Partnership for Peace, it helps nonmember countries make the reforms necessary for joining NATO. This process should proceed. Second, NATO stands willing and ready to use its military capability to strengthen security and stability in Europe wherever threatened, as exemplified by its intervention and continued presence in the Balkans.

In contrast to the sharp transatlantic disagreements over Balkan policy in the early 1990s, the United States and Europe have also settled on an agreed, joint strategy for the region. Washington takes the lead in the initial stages of any intervention. Military action comes under the auspices of NATO rather than the United Nations. And, over the long term, Europe shoulders the lion’s share of burdens associated with engagement—in terms of both troops and financial and other resources needed for recovery. Ultimately, all agree that stability for the Balkans requires its integration in the European political and economic mainstream, including eventual membership in the European Union.

Despite earlier disagreements over NATO’s future, the Balkans, and other big security issues, today the U.S.-European relationship is robust. Differences that remain—over bananas, the death penalty, child custody cases—are not fundamental differences of interest. Because they involve how we live and what we eat, disputes over these issues can get heated. But family feuds, often nasty and sometimes brutish, are almost always short. They are a function as much of the closeness of the relationship as of the import of the issues involved. That German chancellors and American presidents have the time—the luxury really—to spend part of their bilateral meetings talking about a few child custody cases is proof that at the turn of the century, their relationship is strong.

. . . But Can It Last?

Good U.S.-European relations will not, however, continue automatically. Worries about the static nature of the alliance—characterized by continued U.S. dominance and European dependence, at least in the security area—in the face of fundamental world change are calling into question how long the current steady state of affairs can last.

Indeed, the three security issues facing the alliance today—burden sharing in the Balkans, European defense, and missile defense—are manifestations of the larger problem of having to define the future of the relationship. The way these issues are addressed and ultimately resolved will be important for determining how U.S.-European relations will evolve.

Balkan Burden Sharing

On Capitol Hill the sense is growing that Europe is not doing its fair share in the Balkans. U.S. lawmakers complain that Europe has failed to take over the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, that it provides inadequate economic aid, and that it does not field enough police to maintain public order in Kosovo, a task that still largely falls to U.S. and NATO combat troops. Underlying this litany of complaints is the conviction that the Balkans is really Europe’s problem—and that the United States could withdraw if only Europe would do its fair share.

But Europe is pulling its weight in the Balkans. It deploys nearly 70 percent of the troops in both Kosovo and Bosnia (compared to a U.S. share of 13 percent and 22 percent, respectively). It has spent three times as much as the United States for economic reconstruction and humanitarian assistance in the Balkans during the past decade. And the European share is growing—as, of course, it should be. But the United States also has an interest in remaining engaged in the region—including by fielding troops. Organized violence and war of the kind witnessed in the Balkans during much of the 1990s threaten stability throughout southeastern Europe and beyond. If a small U.S. presence helps stabilize the situation, the price is well worth paying.

European Defense

In recent years, defense has become a major preoccupation of the European Union. Spurred by London’s decision to reverse its longtime opposition to an EU defense role, the EU countries are now committed to improving their armed forces. By 2003 they plan to be able collectively to deploy a military force of 50,000-60,000 troops within two months for up to one year on a variety of operations, from humanitarian relief to crisis management and peace enforcement.

Europe’s new defense commitment has two sources. One is the desire to make Europe’s common security and foreign policy more credible by backing joint action with real military capability. The second is increasing weariness in some European circles—notably in London—about the direction of U.S. policy. There is a sense that the U.S. political climate (as in the debate over burden sharing) is making Washington a less reliable partner, especially when U.S. interests are only marginally involved.

As usual, Washington’s initial reaction to Europe’s new defense commitment was to welcome the new contribution to the common defense, while fretting that a more capable Europe would be less likely to follow the U.S. lead in security matters. Although clever wordsmiths on both sides of the Atlantic have found language for NATO and EU communiqués to reassure each other of the beneficent aims and impact of the EU’s move into defense, unease persists in Washington. The main concern is that an enhanced European defense capacity will come at the expense of NATO—where the United States continues to dominate deliberations.

Washington’s worry that a stronger European defense capacity would work against U.S. interests is misplaced. In today’s security environment, the problem is not European strength, but European weakness. It is this that prompts the frequent calls on Capitol Hill and elsewhere to shed the burden of continued security and defense aid to Europe. That call to retreat from Europe must be resisted—and one way to do so is to make sure that Europe improves its defense capabilities in the manner and by the time it has promised.

Missile Defense

The prospect of a U.S. decision to develop a limited system to defend against new missile threats from states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq has unsettled officials in key European capitals. The main concerns are two. Europe’s foremost worry is that Russia will resist U.S. entreaties to amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow for a limited missile defense deployment and that Washington would go ahead even if it meant withdrawing from a treaty long regarded as the basis of arms control and strategic stability. A second concern is the consequences of a missile shield for European security. Some fear that a United States covered by an impregnable missile defense shield will turn inward. Others worry that U.S. and European approaches to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq will further diverge, with the United States becoming more assertive and Europe trying to distance itself even further from U.S. policy to avoid bearing the brunt of any missile retaliation.

These European concerns must be addressed by those who would commit the United States to deploying a missile defense. Achieving a deal with Russia on modifying the ABM Treaty would ease many of Europe’s more immediate political concerns. Deploying a defense shield that covers not just the United States, but allied territory as well, would ease Europe’s fear of the strategic consequences. Of course, the cost of enlarging the shield would have to be borne by Europe (and thus compete with the need to improve European military forces), but the desirability of doing so is clear in the evolving strategic context.

Toward a New Balance

A decade after the Cold War’s end, the time has come to move away from American dominance and European dependence toward a genuine strategic partnership. Such a partnership would serve both sides equally well. More issues unite than divide the two. The worst bilateral relationship of the United States with a European ally (the one with France) is far better than its bilateral relationship with most other countries. Both sides of the Atlantic share a commitment to market democracy and to the underlying values that have given rise to it over centuries. Both hold key economic and strategic interests in common (even if they often differ on how best to protect or advance them). And cooperation between the two is necessary (and in many cases sufficient) to address many of the most important global issues. But the relationship between the two sides of the Atlantic needs to be updated to reflect these realities—by a Europe more able and willing to take on the tasks of promoting common security and by a United States more willing to share in the responsibility for and leadership of any such effort.