23rd Mar 2018


Time for honest audit of EU-US relations

With pressure coming from every direction, the EU and the US now, more than ever, need an honest discussion about their partnership. They should figure out how best to consolidate their strengths and plan a course of action.

The electoral year in the United States poses a challenge to Europeans, but it also offers an opportunity for them to reflect upon the state of the transatlantic partnership and present their vision of it.

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  • Obama (l) and EU commission chief Barroso: Obama's competitors in the presidential race are less EU-friendly (Photo: Lawrence Jackson/The White House)

The next presidency will not be about repairing America's image but about reaffirming US global leadership.

In this year's State of the Union address, Barack Obama argued that "the renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe" and "anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline ... does not know what they are talking about."

His likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, wishes to restore American supremacy by insisting "on [a] military so powerful that no one would ever think of challenging it."

Who the Republican candidate will end up being is still up in the air as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich continue to battle it out. Both candidates have excellent foreign policy advisors, but the amount of Europe-bashing coming from both camps is already a concern.

Regardless of who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years, three issues will take precedence on the transatlantic agenda.

First, amidst the budgetary cuts in the US, any future global police-type military operations will be carried out more selectively.

But when the US national interest is under threat, shrewd accounting goes out the window. In any confrontation between Israel and Iran, the US will be forced to prove its "iron clad commitment to Israel's security." Although Obama remains committed to the diplomatic path to stop Iran from getting its hands on nuclear weapon, he has not taken any options off the table.

His Republican competitors speak even more openly about military intervention, accusing Obama of failing to "show Iran that [the US] ha[s] the capacity to remove them militarily from their plans to have nuclear weapons." Any military confrontation in the region will have direct implications for Europe, including military involvement if Iran retaliates.

Second, concerns about the growing importance of China - and an increasing fear of China - in the US will need to be addressed.

In Romney's words, "China has made it clear that it intends to be a military and economic superpower" but it remains to be seen whether its rulers will "lead their people to a new era of freedom and prosperity or will they go down a darker path, intimidating their neighbours." Although 58 percent of Americans support a stronger relationship between the US and China, 20 percent say China is the biggest threat to the US - an 11 percent increase since November 2009.

By strengthening the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific, which Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced during their last visits to the region, the US is proving its commitment to remain a Pacific power.

To act as an economic bulwark to China's regional dominance, Obama proposed an ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership and intends to create a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate unfair trade practices. But these plans have caused uneasiness among Europeans who are afraid that similar moves will be interpreted as a direct challenge to China, in turn launching new competition in the region.

Even more worrying is the language of Republican contenders calling for a strong military capability in the Pacific and deepening cooperation with India and other regional allies.

Finally, normalising relations with Arab countries and the Muslims will remain a huge challenge.

Despite the many efforts of the Obama Administration, the US presence in Afghanistan and its clear position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still make Muslims sceptical of the US intentions.

While Obama believes that "the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace," his Republican opponents underline Israel's growing security problems and call for increasing the level of military assistance and co-ordination (Romney) while at the same time describing the Palestinians as "an invented people" (Gingrich).

Such statements cause consternation among Europeans who tend to shun these kind of black-and-white viewpoints. This more cautious approach is particularly important considering the colossal changes taking place in the Arab world.

How Washington responds to these challenges will no doubt have serious implications for Europe. But instead of hoping for the best, Europeans should finally get their act together and focus on three major objectives: launching a comprehensive review of the European Security Strategy; adopting a credible and enforceable strategy for Asia; and consolidating policies towards the southern neighbourhood and Palestinian statehood.

What we have instead is a catalogue of half-measures. The establishment of the European External Action Service was a messy exercise but it cannot be used indefinitely as an excuse for inaction and a lack of policies.

Patryk Pawlak is a research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris

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