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A renewed atmosphere of friendship and willingness to cooperate is apparent in relations between Europe and the United States. US Vice-President Joe Biden, in his speech at the 2009 Munich Security Conference, set out the USA’s position: ‘We will engage. We will listen. We will consult. America needs the world, just as I believe the world needs America.’ In the same vein, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy asserted, in a joint article published in the run-up to the Munich conference, that Europe and the USA needed each other and warned that unilateral decision making by the USA would contradict the new multilateralist spirit of transatlantic relations.
The question is whether, for all the good intentions, today’s warm rapport will withstand the pressures of differing interests on either side of the Atlantic.
Some potentially difficult issues are already becoming apparent. President Barack Obama has long made it clear that he expects the European NATO members to send more troops to Afghanistan. It was therefore sobering—if not unanticipated—that the NATO meeting following the Munich conference resulted in only a marginal increase in European troop contributions. Other US demands include that Europeans share responsibility for prisoners at Guantánamo Bay as the detention centre there is closed. Europeans, for their part, are expecting the USA to step up its efforts to address climate change.
The challenges facing Euro-Atlantic relations are further complicated by the question of European unity. In their article, Merkel and Sarkozy declared that the European Union (EU) needed to speak with a stronger and more united voice in order to be an effective partner to the USA. In the words of David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, European countries ‘need to show that we want to be not just bilateral partners of the US but also European partners’.
European cooperation certainly needs to improve, but in what form and under whose leadership? For Merkel and Sarkozy, there are three dimensions to European cooperation: Franco-German cooperation, the EU and NATO. However, many of the new EU member states see the European cooperation of today as different groups of states cooperating on different matters and want to have as much influence as the older members.
In practice, we will not often see a truly united European position. Europe is bound to be divided on some matters and the USA will side with different countries depending on the issue. On energy, for example, Biden and General James Jones, U.S. National Security Advisor, signaled at the Munich conference, that the USA expects its European allies to improve their energy security by reducing their reliance on Russian energy. Miliband spoke along the same lines of the need for a proper energy market and more diversified sources of supply. Some countries now highly dependent on Russian energy, such as Germany and Italy, will find the guidance hard to follow.
As they wait for the Obama Administration to state its positions, Europeans also remain divided on questions of free trade versus protectionism, NATO enlargement and relations with Russia.
Shortly after taking office in May 2007, President Sarkozy declared that France would be willing to re-enter NATO’s integrated military command, which it left in 1966. Its re-entry would be a great boost to transatlantic cooperation, and Sarkozy’s announcement was greeted positively in the USA. Sarkozy laid out two demands: that France be given high-profile positions in the command structure and that the USA accept a strong European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).
On the former, the obstacles that hampered a similar attempt by President Jacques Chirac 10 years ago now seem to have been cleared, and France has reportedly been promised the leadership of both Allied Command Transformation, Norfolk, Virginia and Joint Command Lisbon.
While the details of the strong ESDP envisaged by Sarkozy are uncertain, all sides seem to agree that EU and NATO forces should be complementary rather than competing. One thing is certain, however: in order to accomplish a strengthened ESDP, France would need the cooperation of the UK, the number-one military power in Europe and a country whose views on the ESDP may not always coincide with its own.
The crucial remaining question is whether the French National Assembly and the French public—which have long perceived France as being stronger and more influential on its own—will accept France’s re-entry. The idea is being marketed to the French with the argument that France will be an independent member of NATO. But this image of an ‘independent France’ jars with Merkel and Sarkozy’s call for a more united Europe.
The evident wishes on both sides of the Atlantic for a new era of multilateralism and France’s hoped-for return to NATO’s integrated military command give cause for optimism. While we may not see a united transatlantic or even a united European position more than occasionally, we will most probably see a better atmosphere of deliberation. In addition, the return to the NATO fold of one of the world’s strongest military forces will strengthen the alliance, even if the change will not be dramatic, as several steps in this direction have been made in recent years. Finally, NATO, in keeping with the new ambitions for Euro-Atlantic relations, now has a golden opportunity to become a real discussion forum for important issues. This will benefit NATO by improving the decisions that it makes. It will also benefit NATO’s members by making them feel that they are listened to, thereby increasing cohesion—something that may be as important as leadership.