The United States, France, and Europe at the Outset of the New Administration

Antony Blinken
Antony Blinken Deputy Secretary of State - U.S. Department of State

March 1, 2001

In a recent commentary, French strategist Dominique Moisi neatly encapsulated the prevailing view in France that U.S.-French and U.S.-European relations are headed for troubled times with the change of administrations in Washington. “Europe has much more in common with California than with Texas?Most Europeans, including Frenchmen, are moved by the universal nature of Hollywood’s message, because they have contributed to it. If they feel anything towards the Texas culture taking over the White House, it is alienation. Texas is another world, one most Europeans want nothing to do with.” From values-laden issues like the death penalty to interests-based differences over missile defense, the French fear that the Bush administration could exacerbate transatlantic tensions that lurked under the surface during the Clinton years.

These concerns were brought vividly to life during Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recent trip to Europe, the first by a senior Bush administration official. At the Munich Wehrkunde Conference, Rumsfeld addressed Allies eager to hear first hand where the new administration is headed on key security issues. Rumsfeld’s remarks were temperate in tone. But their substance?including strong support for National Missile Defense (NMD), skepticism about Europe’s proposed rapid reaction force, and agnosticism about keeping American troops in the Balkans?left Europeans unsettled about the immediate future of U.S.-European relations.

While this tension is real, it is less a product of divergent policies than it is a reflection of the changing transatlantic relationship, precipitated by the end of the Cold War but only now coming into sharp relief. The end of the Cold War ended America and Europe’s existential interdependence. Into the vacuum surged two largely complementary but sometimes conflicting phenomena: American “hyper-power” and a new European identity forged by economic, political and security integration. As a result, Americans and Europeans focus less on our common values and interests and fixate more on our differences. Despite those differences, Americans and Europeans remain each other’s partner of choice for meeting the challenges and maximizing the possibilities of the 21st century. The Bush administration and its European counterparts should keep that fundamental fact in mind as they address the transatlantic security agenda in the weeks ahead. Here are the front burner issues.

National Missile Defense. Bolstered by Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain, Rumsfeld claimed a bipartisan consensus on NMD. The question, he insisted, is no longer “whether” to deploy, but rather “what and when.” The problem is that the Europeans, with the French in the lead, still do not understand the “why.” Rumsfeld invited the European allies to continue a dialogue on NMD and the emerging missile threat that the Clinton administration began. In the nine months leading up to President Clinton’s decision to postpone a deployment decision, the Clinton administration conducted more than 60 high level meetings with Europeans on NMD, at NATO or bilaterally — approximately two discussions every week. The administration debunked many misunderstandings, such as the peculiar logic advanced by “decoupling” alarmists, who warn that if an effective NMD is deployed a more secure America will become a less dependable ally for Europe. But Washington failed to overcome Europe’s profound skepticism about the need for missile defense.

In Munich, one European after another made it clear that the Bush administration will find the going even tougher if it insists on a more expansive, technologically unproven system and on discarding the ABM treaty. Nor can the new administration count on building a conservative Atlantic coalition in support of NMD that goes beyond Britain’s William Hague. The German CDU (in public) and French officials close to President Chirac (in private) were among the harshest critics of America’s missile shield.

The smart move for the Bush administration would be to consult extensively with its European allies, to engage the Russians on ABM modifications and to then embrace a limited missile defense plan. This means a land-based system with a small number of interceptors that would not threaten the rationale of mutual assured destruction. A limited system could be sold to Europeans, Russians and probably the Chinese. More important, it could be deployed close to the time new missile threats are expected actually to emerge. Since the political and strategic imperative for missile defense is based on the emerging missile threat highlighted by the Rumsfeld Report, it would be ironic if the Bush administration chose to pursue a more complicated system that could not be deployed until years after that threat became real.

The EU Rapid Reaction Force. European leaders listened in vain for Rumsfeld to encourage their conventional defense efforts. After all, for decades, Americans grumbled that Europe was not doing enough to meet our common security needs. Now, Europeans seem poised to assume more of these burdens. In Kosovo, Europeans are providing 80 percent of the troops. More important, the European Union has vowed to activate a 60,000 strong rapid reaction force by 2003 that would act in crises where NATO itself is not engaged (Albania, for example, or Sierra Leone). It would cost the Bush administration little to support the European security and defense policy (ESDP). It would gain the administration some practical benefits, such as enhanced European capabilities, and much good will, given the importance ESDP holds for fostering a sense of European identity.

The European Union could claim a 60,000 person strong rapid reaction force tomorrow simply by adding EU patches to the uniforms of its troops. The real test is whether Europeans will give this force the means to get to a conflict quickly, to remain there indefinitely, and to act effectively and in concert with NATO. This will require Europeans to downsize and professionalize their militaries, and, ultimately, to spend more on defense. The European Union also must develop this capacity in cooperation, not in competition, with NATO. It should, for example, coordinate force planning with NATO and use NATO standards to measure progress. In turn, NATO must make its assets available to the EU force to avoid unnecessary spending and duplication.

The French often are accused of harboring “autonomous ambitions” for ESDP. Where Americans and other European allies see a complement to NATO, France sees a European army. Despite wishful thinking by some French strategists, and wolf-crying by some Americans, ESDP will not amount to a “European army” that threatens NATO. The French Ministry of Defense would be the first to admit that Europe will need NATO’s unique capabilities for decades to come. ESDP could lead to a more equitable sharing of the defense burden and create a NATO whose European members have the training, technology and resources to act closer to par with America. The Bush administration should get on the bandwagon, the better to steer it to the right destination.

American Troops in the Balkans. Europeans expressed great concern when Condoleezza Rice implied during the presidential campaign that a Bush administration would withdraw American troops from the Balkans quickly, unilaterally and totally. Europeans, starting with the French, see the presence of American troops as an irreplaceable deterrent to mischief makers — a tacit admission that the rhetoric of ESDP far outstrips its reality. Europeans also believe that an American troop presence will deter Washington from criticizing Europe’s Balkan policy. The Bush team reassured them that Bush would draw down, not withdraw, American troops and that he would do so over time, and in consultation with its allies. If conditions permit, that is the right policy. Europeans cannot expect the United States to stay in the Balkans indefinitely. Indeed, the Clinton administration pursued a steady force reduction in both Bosnia and Kosovo. By the same token, if the Bush administration is serious about reducing American forces in the Balkans, it should get serious about supporting Europe’s defense efforts. The more capable the Europeans are, the better they will be able to take up any resulting slack. The weaker they are, the more likely America will be called upon again to pull European irons out of a Balkan fire. A trade-off of European support for an American draw-down in the Balkans in return for active US support for ESDP therefore makes sense on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dealing with “States of Concern”. To the extent there is a transatlantic rift emerging, it concerns differences in the way Europeans and Americans perceive threats to our security. More accurately, even when we agree on the threat from “states of concern” like Iraq, we often disagree on how to react. Americans reflexively choose containment, Europeans engagement. If these tactical differences persist, they could evolve into a genuine strategic divergence. The new administration should spare no effort to engage the Europeans in a strategic dialogue that would assess the threats we face and seek common ground in the way we meet them.

The place to start is Iraq. Arguably, the containment policy pursued over the past decade has proven strategically sound, even if it was aesthetically displeasing. Saddam endured, but he was kept in a box from which he could not menace his neighbors. However, the twin pillars of containment — the sanctions regime and the no-fly zones — risk collapsing for lack of allied support. The problem is not that the French and other Europeans do not believe Saddam is a threat to regional security. They do. But they see the current sanctions regime as ineffectual at best, and unacceptable to the extent that it does more harm to the Iraqi people than to Saddam’s regime. They are even more skeptical of the no-fly zones, which lack the legitimacy of an international mandate beyond America and Britain. The Bush Administration could forge a more common approach to Iraq by refocusing the sanctions regime on weapons procurement and the finances of Saddam and his cronies, by abandoning talk of overturning the regime, and by enforcing the no-fly zones more selectively. In return the Europeans, starting with the French, could stop demonizing America for perpetrating a genocide against innocent Iraqis and start aggressively enforcing a tighter sanctions regime. Forging common policies from the somewhat disparate perspectives the Bush administration, France and the other Allies bring to the table will be hard work. A complicating factor is the perception prevalent in Europe and especially in France that our societies are diverging. This so-called “values gap”, nicely captured by Moisi and centered on the view that the United States is gun crazy, death-penalty obsessed and beholden to “savage capitalism”, is a gross distortion of reality. After all, Americans are engaged in a profound debate about the death penalty. By most measures violent crime is at a thirty-five year low. And a society convinced that greed is good would not attack the very symbol of capitalist success/excess — Microsoft.

Atlanticists on both sides of the ocean have their work cut out for them. But if the past is prologue, the mission is very possible. After all, fretting about the future of U.S.-European relations is as old as the alliance itself. Virtually every decade brings a new crisis: Suez in the 1950s, France’s departure from NATO’s military command in the 1960s, the Siberian pipeline affair in the early 1980s, the proposed deployment of US intermediate range missiles in Europe in the mid-1980s. Each crisis generates new conventional wisdom that the United States and Europe are growing apart. So it goes today: seminar after seminar on strategic divergence, screaming headlines about rising anti-Americanism, caustic references to US hegemony. Pas de panique — we have been and we will remain the best of foul weather friends.

Antony Blinken served on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 2001, including as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs. He is joining the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a senior fellow.