America: a European power?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

Back in the 1990s and in an age when transatlantic relations were more stable and predictable than they are now, US diplomats felt fully part and parcel of the European family of nations. Along with Canada, the US was a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe as well as a founding member of NATO. It was not in Europe due to conquest or forcing its will on others but because the Europeans wanted it to be there. The head of the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Geir Lundestad, famously called this “empire by invitation”.  

The rationale for America to be considered as of Europe if not actually in Europe was best expounded by the US diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, in a celebrated article in Foreign Affairs. Holbrooke referred to the usual reasons of history, political values and culture, but he also stressed the American role in balancing relations among European nations and managing the frequent crises that broke out between them. Holbrooke no doubt had in mind the inability of the European powers to impose peace in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s before the US stepped in. Later he was to boast that he had stayed up in Washington all night working the telephones – while Europe slept – to prevent a war between Turkey and Greece over an uninhabited rock in the eastern Mediterranean. This barb was an early stimulus to the EU to move ahead with its common foreign and security policy. 

Yet Holbrooke had a point. The agreement that ended the Yugoslav conflict was named after Dayton, Ohio, not Dijon, France; and the three countries that joined NATO in its first post-Cold War enlargement signed the NATO treaty at the Truman Library in Missouri, not the Grand Place in Brussels. The US supported decisively the key events in transforming Europe after 1989 – notably the unification of Europe and the enlargement of NATO – at a time when many European powers were hesitant.  

Yet since the advent of the Trump administration, the notion of the US as the trouble-shooter of all Europe’s security crises has suffered a blow. Trump has made clear his disaffection with NATO and repeatedly underlined that US security commitments to its allies are based on defence spending rather than common values. He has decided to withdraw nearly 10,000 US troops from Germany from an already small number (around 30,000) that is not enough to fight Russia without considerable US reinforcements being sent quickly across the Atlantic.

The US has made a recent return to European diplomacy

Already back in the Obama administration the US indicated that it preferred to “lead from behind” on crises in and around Europe. It entered NATO’s air campaign against Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 late and reluctantly. It showed little interest in post-conflict stabilisation in Libya. The Ukraine crisis after Russia’s incursion into Crimea and the Donbas in 2014 was largely left to France and Germany to resolve vis-à-vis Russia.

Washington accepted rather than enthusiastically worked for the most recent rounds of NATO enlargement to Montenegro and North Macedonia. It has not given a vision of the future place of Ukraine and Georgia in Euro-Atlantic security structures despite the promises of President George W. Bush that they would one day be NATO members. The US recently announced that it was winding down its limited forces and air surveillance capacities in the Sahel where France and many other EU countries have been fighting jihadist extremists and helping to build local security forces. The small savings here seem wholly disproportionate to the impact of the withdrawal of these key niche capabilities. The days when European peace-making was brokered in Washington or on American ships and airbases seemed to be over.

But wait a minute. This gloomy prognosis suddenly looks premature. The US has made a recent return to European diplomacy. It may be counter-intuitive but it is welcome nonetheless. This week, Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has been in Greece. He has concluded agreements to use the Souda Bay naval base in Crete and to station a new US command ship there. The US and Greece are also reinforcing their energy cooperation. Pompeo used his meetings with the Greek government to nudge it towards negotiations with Turkey on their dispute in the eastern Mediterranean. Historically the US has had a poor image in Greece so this is quite a reversal. It was a US diplomat, Matthew Nimitz, who worked tirelessly for 20 years to solve the dispute between Greece and North Macedonia over the latter’s official name.   

Just a few weeks ago we were also treated to the spectacle of a White House meeting hosted by Trump where the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement on economic cooperation. This could improve the atmosphere between Belgrade and Pristina that might facilitate the EU’s efforts to restart the political dialogue and move forward on the issues of minority rights and recognition. The US has also taken a firm stand against Lukashenko’s rigging of the elections in Belarus and threatened similar sanctions to those being considered by the EU. Similar noises are being made in Washington regarding the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny.

The US might operate in parallel rather than in synergy with the EU

This new bout of American diplomacy in Europe is welcome. The EU can do with a helping hand.  We learned from innumerable crises in the past – from Cyprus to the Balkans – that when Europe and America combine their forces and pull on the same rope they exert far more geopolitical weight on events than when they operate separately. It is obvious when the EU has to deal with difficult actors such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia or China that if it can agree on a common approach with Washington, we are much more likely to shape events rather than be driven by them. So does this new US engagement in Europe’s multiple crises mean that the EU no longer needs to worry about its strategic autonomy or about its aspirations to become a true geopolitical actor?  Can we return to past practice and rely on the US as the cavalry force that can pull our chestnuts out of the fire? The answer is no, and for four reasons.  

In the first place, the US interest is selective. It is not present in every crisis where the EU needs to engage. Often it is supportive rhetorically – which is useful – but it does not mean that the US is willing to devote its resources and the time and efforts of its diplomats to assisting the countries in Europe’s neighbourhood or to finding lasting solutions to the various flashpoints. Ultimately it is the EU which will need to come up with the investments and association agreements to stabilise and transform the countries on its periphery. So while US leverage is helpful in pacifying hot spots,  sooner or later the EU will have to take the lead in developing the long term security, economic and rule of law structures and relationships.

The second factor is that the US might operate in parallel rather than in synergy with the EU and thus complicate, rather than facilitate, the EU’s policies. For instance in the current US-sponsored talks on the normalisation of their economic relations, both Serbia and Kosovo were persuaded to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (and Serbia to move its embassy there) which contradicts EU policy on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. If Washington and Brussels share a common set of objectives and negotiating strategy, that is one thing. Yet if they do not properly coordinate or favour one side over the other or send different messages, there is a risk that the parties on the ground will go “forum shopping” and play one side off against the other.

It is good that the US is back in the diplomatic game in Europe

In third place there will be occasions when the EU (or some of its larger member states) and the US will be at loggerheads if not on a collision course. The Iraq War in 2003 was one such occasion. The US withdrawals from the Paris climate agreement and the Iranian nuclear deal are others. While cooperating more on European diplomacy, Washington has still been lukewarm if not hostile to proposals for EU strategic autonomy and cooperation on defence capabilities and defence industry development. Yet the lesson of the past three decades is that sometimes US leadership will be there, and sometimes not. Unlike in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Europe cannot allow itself to be paralysed by the absence of US leadership. It has to have the will and the capabilities to act on its own and at short notice. In short diplomatic cooperation with the US must not reposition Brussels into a dependency relationship vis-à-vis Washington whereby Europeans are obliged to support every US action on the global stage as the price of securing American involvement in Europe’s problems.  

Finally unlike many countries of Europe, particularly in the east, the US has moved towards seeing China as its principal threat rather than Russia. This makes Washington reluctant to confront Russia so as not to drive it further into the arms of Beijing. During the Cold War the US came to see practically everything that was happening in the world as a reflection of its competition with the Soviet Union. There is a risk that the same will soon be the case with China – whether this be in the field of military power, trade and economics, technology, health, human rights and culture.  

Europe by contrast cannot benchmark its interests according to one single global adversary. It has a diversity of different actors to contend with and a broader set of international issues to manage, from climate change to data privacy to COVID-19 vaccines.  This requires the EU to operate through a diverse set of partnerships, sometimes called ‘mini-lateralism’, and with middle-sized powers and international and regional organisations across the globe. The EU needs to work via persuasion rather than muscle-flexing in bilateral relationships. So it has ultimately a different approach to power projection and a different diplomatic toolbox to the US. 

It is good that the US is back in the diplomatic game in Europe. Long may it last. It certainly reminds us that the US is indeed, as Holbrooke once put it, a “European power”. But it is not the power of Europe. That is a lesson the EU needs to constantly remember.

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