The current state of Atlantic relations: Part I of II

Thoughts on Atlantic unity, European unity, and the lessons of the Transatlantic Crisis Photo: Associated Press

SEOUL, May 12, 2011 — When the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, recently admonished the Europeans for lacking enthusiasm toward NATO, he was praised in his home country by the right and the left as if he had done something highly original. But this is not the first time an American official has complained about the lack of “burden-sharing” on the part of the Europeans; nor will it be the last, for the breach between the two poles of the West is wide at the moment and is rivaled only by the breach between the Europeans themselves.

Associated Press U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrives during a Security and Defense Agenda event Friday in Brussels.


It is not that relations between the U.S. and the European states are bad. They are in many ways quite good. What is not so good is the state of Atlantic unity, which goes beyond these mere bilateral ties and denotes a relationship with Europe as a whole. Such a unity, by definition, cannot exist if there is no Europe to unite with. We can have superb relations with every last country in Europe, but without a certain amount of European unity, Atlantic unity disintegrates into shambles.

Even the most cursory reading of history will show this to be true. Atlantic unity and European unity were born simultaneously in the aftermath of World War II under the common threat of the Soviet Union.

The first Cold Warriors – men like Dean Acheson and John McCloy – believed that the unity of Europe was an indispensable element of the Atlantic Alliance. In many ways, they were the first Europeans; it was they who gave the impetus for the European Defense Community, the first program of a common European defense. And on the European side, there were men like Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann to reciprocate, men who, though pan-European, believed firmly that the cause of European unity must advance in unison with the cause of Atlantic unity.

But as time passed and the Cold War ended, Europe ceased to be of strategic interest to America; and many Europeans responded to this new attitude, and this new world, by flirting with a special idea of European unity, according to which Europe would become a superpower, and a rival to America. Such dreams would have been anathema to men such as Monnet and Schumann; but to be fair, the lack of interest for Europe on the American side would have been seen by Eisenhower and Acheson as a betrayal of the prize for which the Cold War had been fought: a permanent marriage between the two poles of the West. In the end, only vows were exchanged, and the union, as envisioned, was never consummated.

Instead, the United States would come face to face with the specter of a Europe separate and rival to its power. Between the two continents, the fissures would widen until, in 2002, they finally reached a breaking point, in the form of the Transatlantic Crisis of that year and the next, fought at least nominally over the War in Iraq. No study of Atlantic relations can do without an analysis of so seminal an event as that crisis; the balance of this essay must be devoted to putting that event into proper perspective.

The Transatlantic Crisis over the War in Iraq

The Transatlantic Crisis was not, as many people believe, a crisis between America and Europe but rather a curious crisis of two parts, composed in equal measure of a crisis between America and the Franco-German Coalition and a crisis between this Franco-German Coalition and the rest of Europe. It was an intra-European crisis; and the great loser of it was not the United States but the Franco-German Coalition; for if memory serves me right, only two European states – Luxembourg and Belgium – followed the Franco-German lead, while the rest of Europe sided with America.

It would be a great mistake to conclude from the popular outcry which the war engendered that, by it, great harm was done to American interests. Sensible people do not judge the correctness of a policy by how much it endears us to a foreign populace. Certainly we would rather have the average European love us than hate us; but if it is to be the latter, we can still survive; a bad name, if uncomfortable, is also surmountable, and its effects must be judged not by readings of public opinion, or the tugs of sentiment, but by the choice of government and policy to which it gives rise. If a government were to be elected with a mandate to harm our interests then this must surely be counted as a loss on our account, but only in Spain did such a thing happen. There a newly elected president removed his country from the coalition of the willing, but even this can hardly to be deemed a loss, as Spain was contributing no more than 1% of the common effort.

If instead we turn our eyes toward the other European states, we see that not a single one of them elected a leader with a mandate to oppose America. Indeed, quite the opposite happened. The French picked Nicholas Sarkozy to lead them; the Germans, Angela Merkel: in short, the two countries which had posed the most vigorous opposition to America in 2003, only a few years later, elected the most pro-American leaders that they could find. If the Bush Administration had lost the heart of Europe, it did not show from the elections.

If anything, the United States has gained from the crisis, by the harm done to the Franco-German Coalition and to the cause which it espoused – the cause of a Europe which would unite to balance America. One need only compare the pronouncements of the European leaders before and after the crisis to realize that something had indeed changed.

In the 90’s, it was common for a European leader to brag about Europe becoming a pole separate from the United States. It would “struggle against American hegemony,” according to Jacques Chirac. “It would be “a superpower on the European continent that stands equal to the United States,” said Romano Prodi.

Such pronouncements were usually couched under the term “multi-polarity.” One would expect such talk to intensify after the Crisis, and momentarily it did. When asked in March 2003 why he had opposed the war in Iraq, Chirac’s first response had nothing to do with Iraq itself – he wanted to “live in a multi-polar world,” he said. But these were only the final outbursts of a dying dream. Today, it is rare to hear a European leader speak of a coming “European superpower,” and the moniker of “multi-polarity” has been appropriated by nations such as India and China, who have the requisite ambitions.

The Europe of today is divided, leaderless, and economically ravaged; and, at least the political aspect of this perilous state must be attributed, in some measure, to the Iraq War and the crisis it engendered. Such a Europe is certainly better for us than a Europe united against our hegemony, but it is better only as a mortal disease is better than death. The cause of European unity is not only an interest but a value for America; and so long as the Europeans do not unite in opposition to us, we have an obligation to support their cause.

Why? It is because we are a nation of ideological, if not messianic tendencies; the cause of democracy maintains a constant pressure on our souls; and sooner or later, this passion must be vented on some unwitting beneficiary. Why not vent this side of us in the continent of Europe, where the soil has been prepared for our cause, instead of, say, the Middle East, where the cause of democracy must still grow in hostile sands?  Instead of trying to create democracies, why not first unite those that already exist? Surely the formidable prestige of Barack Obama can be brought to bear on such a dream. Surely the risks here are more bearable than those of a Middle Eastern venture. Surely, we can only gain, in this world of constant flux and rising powers, from a West that acts as one.

Such is the dream. For it to become reality, we must give it substance, and that substance must be of practical value to all sides, European and American. The substance that I will propose as a common goal is the creation of a European defense force such as our forefathers envisioned in the European Defense Community. How this can be done will be the subject of the next article. 


Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate Sciences Po Paris. American foreign policy is his main interest. Read more of Benjamin’s writing in A Word on the National Interest in the Communities at the Washington Times.

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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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