by Stefano Silvestri
Past President, IAI
January 22, 2014
For both the United States and Europe, the foreign policy scenario is in disarray. By the end of this year NATO should withdraw the bulk of its fighting forces from Afghanistan without any certainty of the outcome. The intervention in Libya has ousted a regime without replacing it with one capable of controlling the country’s territory and borders. The policy on Syria has miserably failed, leaving President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patron, Vladimir Putin, in charge and the country in the hands of a throng of militias. A moderate optimism on the nuclear negotiations with Iran cannot mask the mounting confrontation between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East. The Arab Spring is still alive in Tunisia, but has been buried elsewhere, first of all in Egypt. The US-China relationship is not progressing. On the contrary, the influence of the regional allies of the US (Japan and South Korea in particular) is increasing and this limits American flexibility to confront a more assertive and growingly and disturbingly nationalist China. Generally speaking, while the US remains at the centre of the global system, its ability to steer it in the desired direction has diminished.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that many Americans press the European allies to take on greater responsibility, at least for their surrounding regions. All the more so because the existence of the Atlantic Alliance and of the European Union should eliminate the risks of fragmentation, nationalist confrontations and strategic stiffness experienced in Asia. We are even witnessing the birth of a new strategic doctrine called “Leading from Behind”: not really flattering, but presumably best than a “Puppet Master” strategy.
The US has traditionally dealt with its European allies bilaterally rather than in multilateral contexts, but the existence of such multilateral frames has made its approach easier and more stable, compensating the “fragmentation effect” that could have resulted from pushing too hard on the pedal of bilateralism. During the Cold War years, the existence of a common political and military threat was enough to harmonize the international perceptions of the Allies, cementing both the Atlantic and European frames. No similar threat exists now. In parallel, the increasing length and costs of the multilateral military and civilian interventions, and their generally mixed or unsatisfactory results explain the lack of enthusiasm for new grand initiatives, at least in the strategic-security policy field.
The Atlantic divide between Europe and America is, in fact, deepening. More and more frequently the Atlantic relationship is based on different “coalitions of the willing” (opposed by the unwilling) with different groups of European countries striking their own deals with the US and choosing diverging paths. In part this is the effect of the US’s increasingly polarized domestic politics and of significant disagreements among EU member states. The former element is diminishing the American ability to work out consistent foreign policy strategies based on solid bipartisan compromises, which would make it easier for the US to gain the high degree of international consensus it needs to implement its foreign policy agenda. The latter factor is reducing the value of the EU’s framework, raising the bar for reaching consensus and, more disturbingly, questioning commitments and solidarity, even within the “willing” group. Crisis management operations have become more complex, long-term commitments are generally avoided and follow-up operations, even when badly needed (such as in Libya or Afghanistan), require very difficult negotiations. This latter factor may reduce the risks of “mission creep”, in the sense that it exposes the US and its European allies to a lesser risk of entangling themselves in never-ending operations. However, it also reduces their ability to manage the crisis that triggered US and European action and puts into question the usefulness (and sometimes the legitimacy) of the initial intervention.
The diminishing reliance on multilateral fora strongly curtails the European and American ability to preserve the present system of global governance and the possibility of upgrading it. To reverse this negative trend is not easy. A major obstacle is the unequal relationship between Europeans and Americans in the defence sector. As a matter of fact, such an imbalance in this field has characterized the transatlantic relationship since the end of World War II, but since the end of the Cold War it has become much greater, particularly as regards the use of new technologies. A case in point is the attempt to control the new “commons” made available by the scientific and technological advances, most notably the outer space and the cyber space, both essential for maintaining military superiority.
The American and the European approaches to the regulation of these two “commons” are somewhat different, stemming from the different technological and military strength of these countries. While Europeans pursue the establishment of multilateral rules and codes of conduct to reduce competition and avoid conflicts, Americans aim at maintaining their superiority. One is a defensive, the other one an offensive approach. The US and the EU share many interests, such as fighting criminality, managing crises, preserving and promoting their economic interests, etc., but the US is much less open to subscribing to common rules that could hamper its freedom of action and curb its power. However, as is the case when strong common rules are in place, also the “dominance” approach has costs. One is that it spurs a technological race among major powers to offset the superiority of the US or at least to reduce, as much as possible, its impact on other nations’ autonomy. Another problem is a politically divisive effect among the US’s allies as well as between the US and the rest of the world.
Consider, for instance, the cyber space question. The race for technological superiority, which is already going on, is rapidly assuming the profile of a strategic conflict, coupled with hot debates on the nature, possibility and consequences of a so-called (but still only loosely defined) “cyber war”. It is incredibly difficult to establish when a cyber action can be defined as an attack, and when such an attack can be considered an act of war. Equally difficult is to apportion responsibility. Defensive moves can be easily interpreted as offensive, and more or less legitimate intrusions for intelligence purposes can be misconstrued as attacks. The risk of misunderstandings and unnecessary escalation is high.
The unchecked race for hi-tech superiority is dividing the allies. It is not a new phenomenon, though. Communication intelligence has had its own rules and ad hoc international coalitions since World War II and the establishment of the so-called five-eye agreements linking together the US with other English-speaking nations (the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). The debate around “Echelon”, years ago, has many points in common with the present one about the “Datagate” and the National Security Agency (NSA) operations, with the same protagonists. The new element is the astounding dimension of the data collection and the indiscriminate, massive violation of the privacy of all, from terrorists to innocent people and heads of allied governments, from private industries to military and intelligence organizations, from foreign to US citizens. An operation of this scale gives a new meaning to the word “intelligence”, posing problems of legitimacy, political control and human rights.
A defining character of this activity is its discriminatory approach: some allies are “more equal” than others. It should not be surprising, therefore, if, given the American unwillingness to multilateralize its intelligence arrangements or effectively limit their reach, some Allies are queuing to enter the inner circle, while others will in any case remain on its fringes and possibly work against it. This will further fragment European solidarity and weaken the European frame, also because it will run counter the “EU acquis” on these matters and further impair progress toward a truly effective European Security and Defence Policy.
Similar considerations can be made for the outer space, albeit with lesser negative consequences given the greater degree of technological cooperation and the existence of some customary forms of information-sharing, an already established and significant European Space Policy, and forms of international cooperation, for instance to avoid accidents, control space debris, etc. At least for now, the outer space is somewhat more transparent and less divisive than the cyber space, but it also remains a potentially divisive issue.
The transatlantic relationship will remain unequal for many years to come, even if the European Union were to unexpectedly accelerate its integration drive, fully including defence and security. The divisive effect of the US’s bilateral relations with individual EU member states is playing against such a drive, however, even if it is the Europeans themselves that bear the primary responsibility for this. These divisions are unhealthy and run counter the interests of both the US and Europe. The attempt to negotiate a new economic transatlantic compact (the so called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP) could, if successful, give a new positive meaning to the Atlantic community, but it would not automatically re-establish the strategic consensus on defence and security.
This would require a more complex and lengthy approach from both sides, partially rebalancing the present state of the Atlantic Alliance, increasingly dependent on US money and military resources even if the physical military presence in Europe of the US is rapidly shrinking to little more than a symbolic token. A renewed relationship between the EU and NATO could help in this direction, provided NATO and EU member states find the necessary determination to overcome the petty quarrels among some of them that have so far prevented even a minimum of strategic dialogue between the two organizations. At the same time, Europeans should rebuild and deepen their strategic consensus, today embodied only in a very short and rather general document agreed by the European Council in 2003 and never really upgraded (the 2008 review could not be really considered an upgrade) nor extended to cover operational issues. Only the proven willingness of the Europeans to take on new strategic responsibilities collectively could pave the way for a more balanced transatlantic relationship.
These developments would be insufficient, however, if the US itself did not accept new forms of power-sharing and re-discover the importance as well as the usefulness of multilateralism. Only parallel efforts and changes on both sides of the Atlantic could revamp the perspective of a better and more peaceful global governance.