by Nathalie Tocci
Deputy Director, IAI
June 14, 2013
Taken at face value, democracy and human rights ought to represent the lynchpin of transatlantic resilience. Europe and North America have always been bound by a complex set of economic and security interests. But while the convergence of material interests has physiologically ebbed and flowed in response to developments within and beyond the proverbial West, ideational convergence has always been the solid turf upon which the transatlantic home has stood. The transatlantic partnership has always hinged on the notion of an identity-based community premised on a mutual commitment to liberal democracy, individual human rights and free market capitalism. This powerful constellation of norms and identities, alongside mutual material interests, a deeply intertwined history and societal interconnections has underpinned the longevity of the transatlantic community.
In view of this, democracy and human rights promotion ought to have been the prime area of foreign policy convergence across the Atlantic. While security, economic, environmental, energy or migration policies are driven by changing configurations of interests which often, but not always, converge across the Atlantic, in the democracy and human rights domain strong ideational convergence would suggest that Europe and the United States would be naturally inclined to work together beyond their respective borders.
There was a time in which this was the case. Most starkly in the 1990s, the European Union and the United States rubbed shoulders when promoting Western norms of liberal democracy and supply-side economics through EU and NATO enlargements in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and the imposition of the Washington consensus on developing and transition economies. Democracy and human rights was the area in which a shared normative vision and respective comparative advantages in the means to pursue it fed the discourse on Western global hegemony edging towards an imminent ‘end of history’.
With the turn of the century, that normative convergence seemed to crack. The US and Europe remained committed to democracy and human rights. Both converged on a revision of the divisive norm of humanitarian intervention into the more nuanced global debate on the responsibility to protect. But their interpretations of democracy and human rights, and, above all, their understanding as to whether and how they should be promoted appeared to be dramatically and irreconcilably different. Europeans deplored what they viewed as American readiness to “bomb countries into democracies”, while Americans scoffed at European lameness in tackling head-on human rights abusers beyond its pacified borders. As the mantra went in those years: Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus.
With the second George W. Bush administration, the two consecutive Barack Obama administrations and with decisively more mercurial European governments in Paris and London, the lost transatlantic convergence on the democracy and human rights domain was re-found. The Arab uprisings and the anti-authoritarian drive that has marked them offered the perfect storm to put transatlantic ideational convergence to the test.
Two years into those uprisings and we are still waiting. America and Europe have seen eye-to-eye on the Middle East. Through greater European activism – notably French and British – and America’s “leadership from behind” the transatlantic partners have worked together militarily in Libya and Mali and are seeking – unsuccessfully to date – a political solution to the civil war in Syria. But when it comes to the hard core of democracy and human rights promotion policies, the United States and Europe have pursued autistically separate paths.
In truth, one has to admit that European and American democracy promotion policies, strictly speaking, have never enjoyed close coordination. The bureaucratic logics of these policies are such that specific programmes and projects are normally pursued on a bilateral basis with the recipient country in question. Whereas the EU and the US have always been the most committed norm-exporters, neither have their goals and instruments always dovetailed – with the EU adopting a more top-down and institutional approach whilst the US a more bottom-up and political approach – nor have the two coordinated their policies in a host of areas, from the Balkans and the Caucasus to North Africa and the Middle East.
Yet when faced with such a potent alignment of the stars – shared transatlantic interests, goals and policy means coupled with a formidable transformative wave to confront together in the Middle East – one can legitimately ask “if not now, then never?”
Indeed, the transatlantic community, still firmly embedded in a shared commitment to liberal democracy and human rights, seems destined to travel along separate and often non-communicating planes when it comes to the promotion of these values in the wider world. Uncoordinated American and European policies are unlikely to work at loggerheads with one another, less still to generate transatlantic divergence and disagreement. But in view of the momentous change underway in the Middle East and elsewhere, they are likely to punch well below what their transatlantic weight would warrant.