European Affairs

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The Waiting Game

On both sides of the Atlantic, these are times of suspense, almost of suspended animation—as if people were waiting for a new direction.

One factor in this sense of uncertainty has been a series of great miscalculations in the last five years. The United States did not anticipate that Iraq would jeopardize so many long-term interests and global stakes in the Middle East. Leaders of the EU did not expect to see the draft constitution derailed to such damaging effect. A sudden qualitative change in elite perceptions about global warming suddenly raised a combined challenge of environmental rescue and energy security. (The latter problem has a special face in Europe because of Russia’s emergent leverage as the main natural-gas provider for the EU.) Even the Doha round may fall prey to over-optimistic assumptions in its timetable.

Another factor of hesitation is the sweeping leadership turnover under way in key nations of the Transatlantic relationship. If so much attention has been paid to the emergence of Chancellor Merkel in Germany, it is partly because she is part of a largely generational change in Europe. France is about to see the end of President Chirac’s disappointing tenure. In Britain, Prime Minister Blair, already in decline, is due to hand over power this summer. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Prodi can install a stable center of political gravity in Italy. Poland, in its new capacity as an EU member, lacks the international sophistication of its leadership in the Solidarity era. In the United States, the lame-duck Bush administration may have surprises still in store in its last 18 months in power. But nothing yet, including the November shift in the political control in Congress, shows where U.S. policy will go after 2008. The Bush administration could be forced to admit failure in Iraq (and Afghanistan) by year-end, whereas if its policies there produce any signs of success, they will take much more time to gain credibility. So the best that Bush-backers can hope for is a slow calendar. The same is true in Europe for optimists waiting for the recovery of Transatlantic mutual confidence and purposefulness.

All this fits a waiting game. These days it centers on unspoken decorum: “Don’t pick quarrels right now.” And the corollary is: “Don’t even think about trying to mount a major initiative.” Politically realistic, this stance can overlook the more basic reality that any game needs a play book. For the waiting game, this means a deliberate strategy of preparing for opportunities. Instead, too few leaders seem to be shaping political positions and opinion-makers in their nations—for the times ahead, for better or for worse. Frustrating as these days may seem, crises and worse shocks may lie in wait.

Whatever the future holds, history repeatedly demonstrates that, in good times and bad, people on both sides of the Atlantic do better when they work together. That communality needs to be brought back into focus. For that purpose, we hope that European Affairs’ pages offer some words to the wise.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.


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