Agenda 2008: The Challenges of Choices
Moving on to 2008
As 2007 draws to a close, we look forward to a new year which will be at least as full of challenges as have the past twelve months. Many of the challenges ahead are a continuation of those we have already been confronting for some time. The question is whether they will offer more opportunities for transatlantic cooperation or conflict not only in the new year but well beyond it. In fact, and as always, they will offer both.
Many Europeans are wondering what a new president in Washington can and will decide to do in order to reach out to a largely skeptical European public when it comes to American power and purpose. Whoever wins next year's election, the next president will face enormous challenges in redefining how the United States is perceived around the world. Be it in connection with the war in Iraq, the continuing tensions in the Middle East, or in connection with arguments over climate change or human rights, there is widespread disaffection towards the policies of the U.S. government, even if there are among some more nuanced distinctions drawn between Washington and the United States at large.
Declining Approval of America
No matter how you measure it, the loss of American credibility is widespread when it comes to American policies. Poll after poll reflects ongoing criticism of American leadership. Some polls, such as The German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends, tell us that a plurality of Europeans think that a changing of the guard in Washington won't change much across the Atlantic. Some believe that the alienation toward the Bush White House has seeped down into a more widespread disapproval of the United States, be it its institutions or even its culture. Many Germans express their concern that the younger generation in Germany has lost confidence in the U.S. as a role model or as an example of competence in solving problems, if not also generating more problems through American policies abroad. They look at Guantanamo, New Orleans, or intelligence failures and wonder what is going on with the world's remaining superpower.
This past year has demonstrated that despite these larger public opinion trends, governments can develop ways of working with each other on difficult issues. Chancellor Merkel, and more recently followed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has demonstrated these skills, something that can serve the next president in Washington well if there are similar skill sets in the White House.
But these same leaders are also very much aware of the domestic parameters in which they can move in relations with the U.S. Perhaps they are hoping that the new president will help enlarge them.
In no small way, leadership on either side of the Atlantic will determine whether the public will be able to grasp what is at stake in the transatlantic relationship. That begins by defining why there is a need to combine forces to meet shared challenges, as opposed to fixating on the differences over methods. But it goes further in defining why it is in the interest of Europeans to secure some, if not all, of American engagement in dealing with threats as well as opportunities.
An Overlap of Interests
The point is not that the Europeans are submitting to American interests but are rather serving their own interests, indeed defining their own, not necessarily in contrast to American interests but rather pointing out where they can overlap - and where they don't. This latter part of the discussion need not result in political tantrums on either side of the Atlantic if the relationship is mature enough to handle both dimensions.
Attitudes in Europe suggest that there is a growing tendency on the part of both the public and their leaders to see the United States as a "mixed bag" of benefits and problems. This is most assuredly a trend which goes in both directions across the Atlantic. While that may have always been the case, the fact is that Europe had far fewer options when dealing with the U.S. in the past few decades than it does now.
That might be illustrated in the economics and trade sector in particular, an area in which the European Union carries a great deal of clout worldwide, at the moment symbolized by the strength of the Euro. The efforts made during this past year, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel, to strengthen the framework of transatlantic trade is of enormous mutual interest, and the stakes are visible on both sides of the ocean across a number of sectors and in the view of major stakeholders. That does not mean there are not any points of friction, but there is a greater likelihood that the goals of working through them are tangible enough to encourage compromise.
Policy problems arise when the perception of those stakes differ. This week in Bali, the debate over climate change and environmental policy directions illustrates the clash of choices and priorities certainly across the Atlantic but it goes well beyond that when one includes other larger carbon producing nations such as China and India. If there is anything which generates these transatlantic clashes at both the governmental and public opinion levels, it is this set of issues, and they will not be going away no matter who wins the White House next November. That is determined as much by the current administration's attitudes as by the lack of a consensus in Congress, which will not disappear readily after the next elections. Yet it is also shaped by competing strategies in Europe and indeed around the world. Al Gore might have looked like a hero to many in Stockholm this past week but forging a consensus on these issues is going to emerge from a lot of compromises, inconvenient for many, for a long time to come.
Both trade and environmental policy demonstrate areas in which the clash of not only governments but also those interests groups which seek to influence their impact on the capacity to create common solutions. One can argue increasingly that the boundaries between foreign and domestic foreign policy are becoming increasingly porous. Yet that development opens up options for both alliances between these domestic forces across borders, as well as battles within them. Business leaders in Europe and the U.S. may seek common frameworks with shared regulations and standards to enable an easier flow of trade. On the other hand, environmental policy debates pit competing forces both within and across borders against each other, which can also lead to stalemates at home and abroad. One can see that now with regard to finding common ground on carbon emissions, fuel efficiency, and the search for alternative resources, all of which will remain a long-term battle on a worldwide scale.
Global Security Challenges
During 2007, the ongoing course of dangerous events in Iraq, Afghanistan, the larger Middle East, or in Africa, just to name a few, did not result in major breakthroughs. Unpredictability still rules in all those areas and over potential solutions.
The decision taken this year in Washington to increase the military presence in Iraq now suggests that there are ways to suppress insurgent violence. Yet there is no guarantee that an Iraqi government can emerge from that opportunity with the skills to rule the country itself. The efforts to stabilize Iraq sufficiently in order to enable a self governing administration in Baghdad to assume responsibility for the future of that troubled country remain long-term, despite what some presidential candidates pontificate about pulling troops out next year. The question is whether the United States can provide an international framework in which others will become stakeholders in the region. That question will have no short term answers, but it will also be directed at Europe and its capacity and willingness to engage.
The same holds true for Afghanistan. In that volatile country, and those on its borders, the question is how much staying power will those countries have in trying to stabilize it have over the next few years. Any answer is going to mean years of engagement there. But as Defense Secretary Gates said this week in Bahrain, the tensions among those nations differing on both their contributions and their commitments are rising. Some might argue that Afghanistan is a crucial test for the viability of NATO. But it certainly is a test of transatlantic resolve in an area of the world which holds security interests stretching out well beyond the Afghan borders.
In both cases, how much sustainable support can be maintained on either side of the Atlantic for that engagement will depend greatly on how the leaderships explain it to their publics.
Then there are the questions of how long the window of opportunity for finding a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians will remain open, what it may cost to keep it open, and who will want to contribute whatever resources that are available. The answers are to be found in looking at the larger regional engagement of all those who were recently in Annapolis, but also including Iran as well. Threading these diplomatic needles will also generate frictions among the key actors currently engaged, but another collapse of this effort can reverberate with similar consequences as we saw in 2000. Whoever wins the presidency cannot afford to let another term in office pass by without grasping the wheel through this unpredictable passage.
Closer to home for the Europeans is the future of the Balkans, the immediate challenge of an independent Kosovo, and the next steps for the European Union as a political agent of change and transformation. How viable can a common European political and defense policy be when competition between the member states remains in place when it comes to determining the directions of Europe? How effectively can the key political leaders in Europe find common ground among themselves let alone forging it across twenty-seven borders?
Specific challenges in the Balkans will require specific and immediate responses, not rhetorical posturing. But in exercising responsibility there, or in other troubled regions, the EU can perhaps enhance both its capabilities as well as its self confidence to act when needed instead of retreating to debates about potential actions.
Working Towards Consensus
Looking back on 2007, and ahead to 2008, there is not going to be a radical change of scenery around the world. The problems we have now will remain, and some new ones will come along as well. In fact, the scenery could get worse in many of those cases cited above.
It is not a given that we will have a transatlantic consensus on any of these issues. One only has to raise the question whether working towards a consensus would serve us better than having none.
A new president in the White House can help to shape the answers to that question. He or she will not be able to quickly transform the environment to be inherited in January of 2009. But a new signal might be sent indicating that the answer to that question is another: do we really have a choice?
This essay appeared in the December 14, 2007, AICGS Advisor.