20th Mar 2018


Kerry's first trip gives clues on EU-US relations

So, US secretary of state John Kerry's first trip in his new job will be next week - to Europe and the Middle East.

One of the key issues on his agenda, even for the European leg of his tour, will be Syria. 

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  • No Brussels. But Europe features heavily on Kerry's symbolic first trip (Photo: state.gov)

Though the Middle East Peace Process will be the weather vane topic in terms of how Obama II engages in the region, Kerry will not be going to Israel and the Palestinian territories because the Israeli government is still putting itself back together after elections.

Foreign policy geeks are all trying to work out what his itinerary signals for what to expect from Washington on the international front.

Comparisons aplenty are being made with Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Clinton's equivalent inaugural trip, which took in China, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea.

Does Kerry’s choice of destinations mean that last year’s US pivot to Asia is over?

Had the US hoped to hand responsibility for ensuring stability in the Middle East and north Africa (Mena) to Europe, but was then disappointed that it did not step up to the plate?

Does Kerry’s trip mean that Europe is back in favour and the transatlantic partnership is safe and sound?

When US leader Barack Obama first announced, in autumn 2011, that he was to intensify the US' role in the Asia-Pacific region, it prompted much hand-wringing in Europe.

But it is unclear whether EU-US relations suffered as a result.

The European Council on Foreign Relations' (ECFR) latest "scorecard," which tracks the effectiveness of European foreign policy year on year, found that in 2012 EU-US ties were resilient.

We cited as evidence the success of the G8 summit at Camp David and the Nato summit in Chicago in May 2012, compared with the G20 summit in Los Cabos a month later, which delivered little and drew precious little attention.

Whatever the intention may have been with regard to continuing or reducing US resources in MENA, throughout 2012, American attention kept being drawn to the region.

From supporting Arab transitions, most notably in Egypt, to the ongoing conflict in Syria, to the Iranian nuclear programme and Israel's Operation Pillar of Defence in Gaza in autumn, the US remained watchful.

In the majority of these dossiers co-ordination with the EU has remained close, on the E3+3 process on Iran, through the Friends of Syria Group and at the UN.

As a result, the European External Action Service (EEAS) delegation in Washington is one of a select few EEAS missions which has begun to play a serious negotiation and co-ordination role in advancing EU policy.

And yet … the EU capital, Brussels, is notable by its absence in Kerry's agenda next week.

Critics might argue that what at first glance looked like EU-US co-ordination was, on closer inspection, the EU simply following a US lead on crunch issues.

Either way, had the US seriously withdrawn its attentions from the EU’s southern neighbourhood in 2012, Europe would have struggled.

The EU continues to focus on the technical aspects of its co-operation with the MENA region, without bringing to bear its significant potential influence in other ways, through political, diplomatic and security engagement.

Europeans have failed to find a way round Chinese and Russian intransigence on the conflict in Syria, at the UN or outside of this forum.

Insufficient resources have been put into supporting state-building in Libya after the intervention in 2011.

Efforts on security-to-security engagement have been largely absent, with only isolated, small scale bilateral programmes from certain EU countries on security sector reform.

Meanwhile, just south of MENA, and with significant implications for it, when the Mali conflict escalated in January, France was forced to rely on US intelligence, reconnaissance and technical support to stop jihadists from overrunning Bamako.

Whichever way you read them, Kerry’s travel plans mean that Europe needs to up its game in MENA, which has huge strategic significance for EU countries.

Continuing to just get by in its near-neighbourhood, with or without full-blooded US support, is not the way to plan for the coming year.

There is perhaps a subtle reminder in the runes of Kerry's travel choices - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – that the EU's immediate neighbours on the Mediterranean Sea fringe are for Europe to deal with.

Given the uncertain future of Tunisia, the lack of security in Libya, dim prospects for reform in Morocco and complex relations with Algeria, it is probably more than enough.

Susi Dennison is a fellow at the London-based think tank, the ECFR

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