U.S. – Europe Defense Dialogue: Time to get the Priorities right

Posted in Europe | 14-Dec-03 | Author: Ronald Asmus

Ronald D. Asmus is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Member of the International Advisory Board of Worldsecuritynetwork.com
Exclusively for Worldsecuritynetwork.com by its U.S. Member of the International Advisory Board

Observers on both sides of the Atlantic have just witnessed the latest in a series of bouts of jousting between American and European officials of a particular persuasion over European defense. As officials on both sides of the Atlantic engage in the latest round of trans-Atlantic trench warfare over the EU’s latest plans for its own defense identity, accusations are hurled at each other with increasing ferocity.

Senior American officials suggest the alliance’s future is at stake. Europeans, in turn, deny such charges and question whether Washington is not pursing a policy of keeping Europe weak and divided. Moreover, many of the issues and documents are becoming so obscure and complex that few other than the high priests of NATO and EU theology can remembers just who pledged what, when and why. One is reminded of the story about the three individuals who understood all the ins and outs of the complicated border and minority dispute between Germany and Denmark in the late 19th century and the fact that one had died, the second had gone crazy and the third had forgotten many of the key details.

As one of the senior American officials responsible for European security at the time of St. Malo who also took part in the first two years of ESDP negotiations, I must admit that at times I, too, no longer quite remember just who said what when and how we ended up where we are today. I also have to admit that I never expected this fight to drag on so long or become so bitter. In many ways, I have a gnawing feeling that both sides have lost sight of the bigger picture and failed to keep their respective eyes on the ball.

It is obvious, for example, that it is in America’s interest to see the emergence of a pro-Atlanticist, outward-looking and effective European partner that can help Washington address the growing list of threats we face, most of which emanate from the continent. For Europe to be able to mobilize itself to meet those challenges, the EU and European integration is key, including in the realm of foreign and defense policy. It is equally obvious that it is in the EU’s interest to pursue integration in a fashion that strengthens and does not weaken the trans-Atlantic link and which, above all, does not undercut or erode Washington’s own commitment to European defense.

So why has this dispute become so hard and bitter? If we leave aside the specifics for a moment, at least part of the answer may lie in the following observation. If Washington were convinced that the EU was on the path of becoming a pro-Atlanticist and effective institutions that would bring Europe together and mobilize its resources to act as a better partner in meeting new threats, we would be its biggest supporters, including or maybe even especially in the realm of defense. But very few Americans believe that today. Instead a growing number of Americans believe – rightly or wrongly - that the EU is on a very different path, that the two sides of the Atlantic are drifting apart and that it is essential to preserve those ties we still have. And lest we forget, NATO is the only meaningful contractual relationship that anchors the U.S. in Europe.

US-EU Summit in Washington DC on June 25, 2003
On the continent, on the other hand, the U.S. desire to preserve the status quo is seen to be increasingly out of touch with modern day European politics and realities, the American fears over drift are all too often brushed aside as overstated and at least this Administration increasingly seen – rightly or wrongly - as lacking credibility when it claims to care about the overall health of the relationship. If the U.S. were credibly committed to helping the EU succeed, many Europeans would take American complaints or suggestions about managing the detail much more seriously.

It is time to get out of the bureaucratic trenches, put down the green eyeshades used to interpret existing documents and think differently. Our current course is not the way to solve trans-Atlantic tensions over European defense which has increasingly reached a bureaucratic dead end. What we need is an open and honest debate about the new threats we face and what we want to try to tackle together in strategic terms. That is the debate we are ducking, instead preferring to argue over the details of obscure headquarters and planning mechanisms whose significance most people no longer remember or understand. It is time to go back to the basics and get our priorities right.