European Affairs

It is time for an unsparing rethink of why Europe finds itself still in the quandary of its chronic inability to impress itself on the world in a manner commensurate with its interests, vulnerabilities and potential influence. Patterned ways of stating the problem have had a stultifying effect on the all too intermittent discourse on what should and could be done to rectify matters. For effective change, what are the core assumptions that need to be (re)-examined with realism and clarity? There seem to be five.

European unity is the sine qua non for a meaningful CFSP.

It is self-evident that no single European power is able to make a major impression on the most serious international trouble-spots, but beyond that facile postulate, the picture loses clarity. It is by no means clear where the threshold for effectiveness lies, i.e. what aggregation of means, methods and prescience would make a difference. Unanimity is ideal; overwhelming consensus is highly desirable. But, in practice, a lesser constellation of countries may be sufficient. Circumstances – the nature(s) of the problem, the features of the landscape, the deployable resources, the skill with which they are utilized – determine what level of concert is required. Indeed, the quest for consensus itself can be a liability if it delays action by prolonging deliberations. Agreement can often only be achieved on the basis of a fragile compromise formula that elides differences. It becomes primarily a reflection of group solidarity rather than a considered judgment as to what might work best.

If one accepts the validity of this criticism, does it follow logically that it would be good to jettison the unanimity rule that governs legally-binding actions launched by the EU and with its authority? At a practical level, the answer probably is “yes. The next question then becomes that hardy perennial: What alternative is there? And at what price should it be pursued? The answer is contingent. It depends foremost on (a) the importance attached to addressing a given external issue in Europe’s interests on European terms and (b) the degree of convergence in interpreting what to do. Those seem straightforward notions, but other factors enter into the equation: the strength of commitment by a critical mass of governments to exert themselves in doing things that may prove risky and costly (as denominated in various “currencies economic and political); the level of accord (i.e. whether it covers a range of follow-on actions and/or a set of intersecting issues or is a self-limiting one-shop affair); and the available mechanisms for collaboration. Yes, a constant presence by High Representative Javier Solana and an enhanced Council secretariat could, together, make some practical difference. But these possible contributions are not likely to be crucial.

Europe’s shortage of military assets is the critical weakness that militates against playing the game of “high politics and thereby hamstrings any serious effort at dealing with the really tough problems.

This familiar litany is a staple of repeated American accusations that Europe does not pull its weight in joint enterprises (e.g. Afghanistan). European leaders nod their mea culpa and pledge to do better. Their embarrassed responses are qualified only by the occasional quiet aside that European governments’ offers of help were spurned until the evolving situation (there and in Iraq) dictated Washington’s call for help. Closer examination yields reasons to doubt the centrality of the force-disparity factor in explaining the inhibitions of European governments about trying to crack the truly tough nuts, notably the crises of the Greater Middle East cited above.

There is even more reason to question how critical this “disparity factor is in perpetuating Europe’s dependency relationship with the United States. In Iraq, arguably the most consequential of external crises and surely the most contentious, it seems clear in retrospect that the Europeans were destined to play a minor role even if their diplomatic backing and military clout had been larger. The Bush administration was fixed on making it an American show. It was the key to their grand strategy for the Middle East (fuelled by post-9/11 passions and directed by remarkably willful people). It was meant to send the message – loud and clear – that America was ready to use its power to put its indelible mark on the world. The matter of influence cannot be reduced to physical capabilities. The British had a significant presence; their impact on what has been done is inconsequential. British highest ranking diplomatic and military leaders in Baghdad were granted grand titles while they were relegated in practice to the role of spear-carriers in a Washington production. What if other European allies had been militarily present? Suppose France and Germany each had sent 10,000 troops, with cruise missiles and even had the (still-unbuilt) A-400 military transport aircraft – all things long demanded by Washington. Even then, in all probability, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the U.S. pro-consul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, would have clung jealously to their undivided powers, with the results now visible.

Harmony has been restored to the Euro-American couple, and there is a bright outlook for convivial cooperation to improve further with the arrival of a new administration in Washington.

There is a tendency to attach undue importance to the cordiality that has put some balm on the raw psychic wounds left by the Iraq trauma of 2003. Europeans dread the prospect of estrangement from the United States: Dealing with a dangerous world makes them decidedly uncomfortable and the prospect of attempting it in contradiction to the United States is intolerable. Given this axiom, one can understand that there is a strong disposition in Europe to overstate the present, and prospective, degree of concert. In this light, the prevailing European attitude toward the United States may be explained as expedient realism – a holding action until January 2009 when a new President is inaugurated. That argument rests on two premises: that a change at the White House will redress grievances and alleviate anxieties; and that Europeans will use the time productively to make substantial progress in meeting the other conditions for an effective CFSP. How credible are these assumptions? On the latter, the EU’s lamentable record in failing repeatedly to meet even scaled back goals speaks for itself. As to the former, there are grounds for skepticism.

Perhaps too widely (still), the Bush administration is viewed as an aberration that caused a deviation from a presumed norm of transatlantic constructive engagement, open debate, and reciprocal ascriptions of good intentions. That fosters an assumption that a new day will dawn were a Democrat to reside in the White House. In reality, no such radical change in attitude is in the cards no matter what the change in administrations. It is true that Americans have had their fill of interventionist “Wilsonianism in boots” at least for the time being. What is less sure is that the newfound modesty and moderation will endure. High anxiety over jihadist terrorism continues and any return to normalcy will be neither quick nor easy. The next president will be less audacious, less arrogant and less parochial in calculating the advantages of bringing allies along. Still, any administration will want to keep its own counsel and, at the end of the day, to rely on its own judgment. One need only to monitor the discourse within the American foreign policy community to appreciate how natural it is for Americans to place themselves in the position of command – figuratively and literally. The discussion is punctuated with “they must’s” and “they should’s” applied to allies and adversaries.

Any joint project executed by the European Union furthers the cause of CFSP.

This simple proposition is correct in two senses, one practical and one symbolic. The experience of coordinated efforts, especially those involving military deployments, oils the machinery of collaboration. That improves latent capabilities that make joint action attractive the next time such a prospect arises. European-mounted peacemaking-cum-national-construction projects in Bosnia and Kosovo has a salutary effect that extends beyond those locales (no matter how one assesses their intrinsic importance). Symbolically, they declare the reality of “Europe” as exemplified in the European Union. Too, by imparting some practical ingredient of meaning to CFSP/ESDP, they burnish the image of both in the minds of governments and citizenry and the EU’s own institutions. That said, there is a risk of inflating accomplishments. To suspend critical judgment of what is valuable and important in a gush on satisfaction that the EU can do something is unhealthy. In Lebanon, the EU success in mustering troops for the United Nations force there and then providing coordination for a wider multinational force, has been celebrated as further evidence confirming the EU’s special vocation for peacekeeping. At the outset, the UN-peacekeeping, with EU help, was associated with mediation and reconciliation efforts among the country’s antagonistic factions – a dimension that added luster to the mission. So, too, did the vague hope that it could make some contribution to ameliorating acute Israeli/Palestinian tensions. But the force’s rapid marginalization with regard to both these well-intended initiatives showed how overdone the self-congratulations had been. Moreover, the entire UN-EU chapter of the Lebanon saga was marginal to the main story, which played around these themes: 1) Washington’s reversion to unilateral policy-making; 2) the subordination of U.S. ties to the European allies to U.S. ties to Israel; and 3) the Europeans’ overt or tacit acceptance of American policies that have proved as destabilizing in Palestine and Lebanon as in Iraq.

The European Union must observe a high ethical standard in handling its external relations in order to ensure that CFSP will play to the EU’s strength as a model and a unique community of peace and conciliation.

There is no gainsaying that the EU is a moral political community in important respects. That hallmark of its political nature, though, poses complications when it comes to grappling with the complexities of the world beyond Europe’s borders. One complicating factor is a disposition to superimpose on others the Europeans’ own calculus of enlightened interest. A glaring example was the prevailing attitude during the early phases of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia: Europeans’ reactions often amounted to the plaintive exclamations of frustration: Why can’t they think reasonably and rationally, the way we do? A congruent sentiment is the tendency to see Europe’s own history as somehow aberrant. The endemic strife that marked intra-European relations is now viewed as something that contemporary Europe has outgrown. By implication, other countries occupying unruly precincts would do well to learn Europe’s lessons about conflict being overcome and relegated to the archives of historical memory. The limitation of this approach to international politics lies in its inattentiveness to the passions and calculated ambitions that fueled Europe’s wars. These past conflicts are bundled together as one intensely negative reference point, leaving Europeans with what might be called “an Orpheus complex” – meaning they fear that if they look over their shoulders at the hell from which they are now liberated, they could be cast back into it. Yet, metaphorically, that is the domain, “the underworld,” that is still inhabited by many groups who are “out there” for Europeans to have to deal with. To peruse Europe’s past is not a morbid, unhealthy activity; it does not risk stirring up old ghosts. Instead, it is a way to gain perspective on oneself and on what motivates others.

Observing the above admonitions of what not to do clears the way for the fresh intellectual excursions that must precede better policy innovations. What guidelines can mark out that course? First, tangible actions taken with conviction on matters of consequence are the indispensable building-blocks for a credible, meaningful CFSP. Policies that are mainly rhetorical, policies that center on marginal issues, policies that insert themselves into the seams of American diplomacy – none have the potential either to bolster European self-confidence or to win respect abroad. Nor can they resolve any of the serious challenges to major interests. Repeated declarations in favor of the road-map to peace and justice in the Holy Land or assuming the custodial responsibility for Kosovo are steps incapable of changing anything fundamental. By contrast, taking steps to engage the Hamas leadership, to confront Russia on the rules of the politico-economic game, to pursue serious European ideas about a stable Persian Gulf region – these would reverberate in foreign capitals (including Washington) while strengthening Europeans’ sense of themselves in determining their own future.

The current course – which features half-measures, thin consensus, allergy to confrontation with anyone and instinctive deference to whomever occupies the White House – can only perpetuate the current state of affairs. Solidarity in error is no virtue.

But grasping the nettle of change can involve risk and pain. So a second ingredient necessary for Europe to become an actor who counts on the world stage is political courage. That is a potentially inflammable term. So, I hasten to say that it is not a reiteration of the “Venus versus Mars” formulation of Robert Kagan’s work. (That overworked notion is simplistic, and of little more analytical value than the coarser descriptions of Europeans as a group characterized by debilitating softness and elastic moral standards.) Political courage, in my mind, involves two things: foremost is the intellectual courage to speak candidly, both to others and to one’s own peoples, about major external developments. This would entail explaining what Europe’s stakes are; what tough and risky decisions have to be made; why consensus is highly desirable but may be unreachable; and what is required to exert influence that matches Europe’s place in the world. Too, this brand of courage involves recognizing the difference in moral thinking as applicable to intra-community affairs and as applicable to the harsher spheres of international politics. Clarifying the moral calculus as applied to various sorts of international engagements is essential amid the current confusion and ambivalence as what is justifiable intervention. Leaders automatically use the vocabulary of political morality, but most of them are ill-equipped to explain the interplay among humanistic, security, political, and economic considerations that arise with pressing issues such as Darfur, Palestine, Iraq, the Persian Gulf and Russia. Only if consciousness is raised in this way will European countries be enabled to move beyond the limiting choices of abstention, deference or disjointed action.

Finally, a goodly measure of self-confidence is in order. Europe is excessively meek, tentative and uncertain. This is an area where style and substance, form and function, are intertwined. A noticeable, costly manifestation of inadequate European self-confidence is the vacillation and inconsistency in assessing threat. The swing from understated to overstated threat is evident in European governments’ post-9/11 reactions. Temperate-sounding in public, privately (one might say clandestinely), they have been extreme. The most striking instance is European complicity in the American program of “extraordinary rendition:” this collaboration is behavior of fearful people, not convinced allies. To change it, Europe should reject the myth of its own impotence – a myth whose acceptance is as disingenuous as it is tempting. Elite feelings of acting under urgent pressure stand in contrast to public stoicism. European publics are overwhelmingly opposed to extraordinary rendition, associated torture, and American policy in Iraq. So this is not a matter where European leaders can credibly invoke the need to mollify public feeling to justify their actions. A finer sense of proportion is in order: Dangers emanating from the Islamic world are real and important, but Western civilization will endure, and likely continue to thrive, whatever the outcome of enterprises to track down the Taliban in the Hindu Kush, foster a decent government in Baghdad or even dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. What Franklin Roosevelt said about “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, unreasoning, unjustified fear” is pertinent to Europe today. Exaggerated fear can be paralyzing and, alternatively, produce misguided actions that are both rash and craven. Reasoned, thoughtful appraisal of those things we rightfully should fear is the basis for effective action. It comes as a product of measured self-confidence, and itself generates healthy self-confidence. That is the virtuous circle an outward-looking Europe should strive for.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.).


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.