What trans-Atlantic crisis?

Posted in NATO | 24-Feb-05 | Author: Mohammed Ayoob| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. & Europe, Inc.

EAST LANSING, Michigan The main purpose behind President George W. Bush's visit to Europe is said to be mending fences with European allies. Beyond the waxing and waning of rhetoric, however, the health of the alliance was never in doubt.

Alarmist analyses about the health of the trans-Atlantic alliance, so popular in the wake of the Iraq war, underestimated the ties that bind the affluent, industrialized, and powerful countries of the global North. They failed to recognize - or deliberately ignored - the common grand design that underpins the North Atlantic "Concert," the major industrialized democracies of Western Europe and North America.

The major objective of this Concert is to retain its member states' privileged position in economic and security arenas by concentrating wealth in the global North, controlling access to strategic resources, and retaining a decisive global military advantage.

The Concert controls the international economic regime through its preponderance in multilateral financial institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank, and through the G-7 - the apex body that in many ways governs the international economic system. Through these institutions, Concert states use the mantra of globalization to force open vulnerable economies. At the same time, they protect their own developed economies through tariff and nontariff barriers from floods of cheap products from the global South - products that could harm the interests of influential lobbies in the West.

Similarly, intellectual property rights regimes protect industrialized states' interests, despite the harm to crucial sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, in poorer nations. While advocates of globalization call for the free mobility of capital, which benefits the North, few ever speak of the free mobility of labor, which would aid the South.

A similar trend is visible in the military sphere, where technology has facilitated a revolution in military affairs (RMA). The United States sits in lonely glory at the top of the technological-military pyramid. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States accounted for nearly half of the world's total military expenditure in 2003, with the high-income countries together accounting for three-quarters of the total.

The gap in resources devoted to military research and development is even greater among the developed countries; the U.S. federal budget for fiscal year 2005 allocated $70 billion for this, more than any other country or group of countries did. More importantly, U.S. military R&D is at the cutting edge of high-tech weapons research - possibly a generation ahead of research elsewhere in the industrialized world.

The group of major industrialized European countries plus Japan and Israel are clustered probably two-thirds of the way up the RMA pyramid, primarily because, as U.S. allies, they share in technological advances. The rest of the states form the base of the pyramid, except for a few, such as China and maybe India, which are steadily clawing their way up. For those toward the bottom of the pyramid, the extreme gap in technological prowess inspires feelings ranging from discomfort to fear of intervention, as in Yugoslavia and Iraq.

All members of the dominant Concert are committed to maintaining this stratification in the economic and security spheres. This is the glue that binds them, despite occasional policy differences. Any differences are tactical; the objective of maintaining the Concert's dominance is never in question. Sometimes, as with Iraq, the United States may rush ahead of its allies because of its unrivaled power or the influence of domestic lobbies. Though allies may express discomfort, they quickly maneuver to bridge the gap between the United States and those most uneasy with American unilateralism. Actions since the disputes over Iraq, both within and outside the United Nations, have demonstrated the eagerness on both sides not to let tactical differences permanently damage the cohesion of the Concert.

Periodic demonstrations of such tactical differences often help advance collective objectives. In the case of Iran, for instance, the Europeans and the Americans have engaged in what could be seen as a delicately crafted "good cop, bad cop" routine. This dynamic has given the Europeans extra clout with Tehran by implying that if Iran failed to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue, the Europeans may not be able to curb U.S. interventionist proclivities. The prospect of U.S. unilateralism is a good ploy with which to scare recalcitrant states.

The current Concert is unique in the history of alliances because one member has a tremendous advantage over the others in terms of military capabilities. Because of this, the world may appear unipolar. But this asymmetry does not detract from the unity of purpose demonstrated by the North Atlantic Concert. The Iraq war will cause no lasting rifts among members: In the eyes of the alliance, the Concert's absolute gains trump gains or complaints of individual member states.

The same cannot be said of the Concert's relationship with the rest of the international community, as seen in relations with countries such as Iraq, Syria, Iran and Libya. Also notable is the implicit threat against other states, including China and Russia, which may be obdurate enough to defy the vital interests of the Concert. We still live in a basically realist world.

(Mohammed Ayoob is professor of international relations at Michigan State University. This commentary is extracted from a more comprehensive article co-authored with Matthew Zierler that will be published in the World Policy Journal. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu).)