President Barack Obama took office in late January 2009, and there can be little doubt that he remains highly popular in Europe a year on. But it is also hard to escape the conclusion that despite the best of intentions on both sides of the Atlantic, there is dissatisfaction with the state of transatlantic relations. One hears criticism from Europeans about a U.S. lack of attention, about engaging with Russia more than with America’s own allies, especially in Central Europe, about under-valuing the European Union and about waiting for the Obama Administration to make up its mind on Afghanistan.
Equally, one hears American frustrations that despite President Obama’s investment of time and energy, including several trips to Europe, there has yet to be any substantial increased European investment in joining with the United States to meet global challenges, starting with NATO’s top priority, the war in Afghanistan. For many Americans, working with Europe is seen as process-oriented and time-consuming, without delivering real results.
These criticisms are all a bit unfair, but on both sides the unrealistic euphoria of a year ago has given way to a perhaps exaggerated sense of disappointment and bruised feelings.
The more realistic view is that both European and American complaints reflect long-term underlying challenges, and that these have come into sharper focus because it is no longer possible to blame them on the Bush Administration. For one of the major effects of the Obama presidency is that by taking the Bush Administration out of the equation, some uncomfortable truths have been exposed.
First, despite all the rhetoric of European unity and the new Lisbon treaty, there are major policy differences among European nations on some of the most important foreign and security policy issues: Russia, energy and Afghanistan spring to mind, although there are others too.
Second, because of these policy divisions, the advent of the Lisbon treaty, which mostly promises structural and process changes, appears unlikely to make a real difference to Europe’s inability to act as a coherent player that is able to make full use of its substantial political, economic and security resources. Where its member states already agree, the new EU “foreign minister” appointed under the treaty will have solid ground on which to act. But on the most important and difficult challenges, EU governments will still hold strongly to their national prerogatives and positions.
The signals from the selection of the EU’s new President of the European Council and its High Representative for Foreign and Security policy show that the major European states recognise this. Rather than select well-known, charismatic and strong leaders, EU heads of government instead chose lower key consensus-builders whose role is likely to be that of coordinating member states. And rather than putting their best people forward for the Foreign Minister portfolio, many member states put a higher priority on securing key economic portfolios in the incoming European Commission.
Third, despite the efforts of committed Atlanticists in both the Bush and Obama Administrations, working together with Europe does not in itself seem to be a priority for a United States that must turn its attention to the economy, healthcare, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and engaging such troublesome actors as North Korea and Burma.
The theory put forward by these Atlanticists, among whom I count myself, is that the U.S. and Europe form a single community that shares core democratic and human values; that we face the same global challenges and to deal with them effectively, the Atlantic partners must work together. But this theory only gains wider acceptance when the U.S.-European partnership actually produces results. It is hard to make the case when results are lacking and Europe is seen to be divided and inward-looking, making only grudging contributions to the common effort.
The “Obama effect” has thus lifted the veil on a host of deep-rooted problems; just because the United States has a different president, global and transatlantic challenges have not gotten any easier – only more visible. And while overcoming these problems should be the task that Europeans and Americans set for themselves, the natural tendency of both will likely be to exacerbate them. The EU will be drawn toward an extended period of inward-looking institution-building now the Lisbon treaty is in force and a new EU leadership is settling in. The U.S. will be inclined to focus its energies elsewhere – regional crises and rising powers – rather than investing further effort in Europe. Atlanticists on both sides need to work to reverse these trends.
These tendencies can be overcome. Both sides should offer fresh leadership to re-define and re-invigorate an effective U.S.-European strategic partnership. As its first and defining leadership team under the Lisbon treaty, Europe’s new leaders should surprise critics and assert a strong role, rooted in a values-based, outward-looking concept of the EU as a global actor and strategic partner with the United States. And the Obama Administration has an opportunity to reach out to this new European leadership with a broader, bolder vision and a fresh commitment to a transatlantic community willing and able to tackling global challenges together.
The key to these efforts will be the setting of an ambitious transatlantic agenda to drive cooperation forward. It should include the following elements:
• Revamp US-EU structures: The U.S.-EU relationship has become hidebound by process. The Lisbon treaty brings a chance to start over with new structures and approaches. The relationship should be made more flexible, and inclusive of the U.S. at early stages, driven by a substantive agenda and focused on joint action. It needs to allow for coordination between the U.S. and individual EU member states, as well as the European Union’s presidency and Commission. This coordination should be part of the whole process of U.S. and EU-decisionmaking, rather than the setting-up of a negotiation between two sides after decisions have already been made (see the report by Daniel S. Hamilton and Frances G. Burwell, “Shoulder to Shoulder: Forging a Strategic US-EU Partnership”, December 2009).
• Revive the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace: The integration of Central and Eastern Europe into Euro-Atlantic institutions has been one of the great success stories in recent history. Over 100m people now live in freedom, growing prosperity and security. Yet there remain populations in Europe’s south and east who do not, and the commitment to further growth of this democratic space in Europe has been flagging on both sides of the Atlantic. We therefore need a renewed commitment to building a democratic, prosperous and secure European continent for all its citizens – including those in Europe’s South and East. And to create the incentive for much-needed reforms there, the EU and NATO should reiterate, credibly and strongly, that membership remains open to all European nations who seek it, and meet the rigorous standards of both.
• Forge a new Transatlantic consensus on dealing with Russia: As Russia has become more authoritarian at home and more assertive in promoting its “sphere of influence” abroad, Europe is divided between those who seek protection from Russia, and those who seek to entangle it through engagement. We need the transatlantic community – Western and Central Europe and North America – to make unity their top priority. They should commit to a broadly-based approach to dealing with a more assertive Russia that respects and balances all our different interests and anxieties. A lop-sided strategy – toughness without openness, or engagement without firm principles – would perpetuate a divided transatlantic community and give an incentive for Russia’s assertive behaviour to continue.
• Revitalise NATO: Just as a strong European Union is a core American interest, a strong NATO must be seen as a core EU interest. Today there is talk of “three NATOs” – one focused on expeditionary roles, one focused on passive territorial defence against existential threats, and one focused on more actively engaging and defending Europe’s east. As NATO prepares its new Strategic Concept, these need to merge into a single vision that unites the transatlantic community. To do so requires a true political deal in which the U.S. and Europe face security challenges equally, no matter where they emerge, with America remaining a committed European power and Europe becoming an equal partner with the United States in tackling global security threats.
• Forge strategic U.S.-European energy cooperation: The recent U.S.-EU summit decision to launch an Energy Council has the potential to be a major step forward as the shared interests of the U.S. and European economies in having diversified, reliable access to increasingly green sources of energy are overwhelming. Overcoming years of divided efforts, this joint Council should capitalise on our combined market strength, investment capacity and world leadership in technology and innovation. In doing so we can create the conditions where it becomes cost-effective to move away from high-carbon and high-dependency fuels. Increasing our low-carbon energy independence would in turn give weight to an independent, values-based transatlantic foreign policy.
• Get Afghanistan and Pakistan right: The above agenda can be derailed if we fail in Afghanistan. Failure would be catastrophic for the human rights of the population there, would destabilise Pakistan, increase regional instability and empower Islamist extremism. It would also probably cause the United States to reject the notion that Europe can be an effective global partner, settling instead into the view of Europe as a mere regional player and, in contrast to most other regions, one that requires little U.S. attention. We are already on a dangerous path with European contributions seen by Americans to have been only sparing. Partly as consequence and partly as cause, the United States is taking things more into its own hands. Because the future of transatlantic cooperation depends on it, Europe and the United States must give highest priority to a shared, transatlantic approach on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
President Obama’s first year has highlighted the real, underlying challenges to the transatlantic partnership. His second year, and the first year of the new EU leadership armed with the Lisbon treaty, should now be a year of building: What’s needed is the deep, architectural work of establishing a stronger U.S.-European strategic partnership with a compelling agenda that will carry us into the future.
Kurt Volker is an Atlantic Council Senior Advisor and former US Ambassador to NATO. This essay was previously published in Europe’s World as "The ‘Obama effect’ has been to lay bare deep transatlantic tensions." Photo credit: Getty Images.