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Europe and America

by Adrian Taylor

“Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign world” George Washington, September 19th 1796 [1]

“The stunning and unexpectedly rapid success of the military campaign in Afghanistan was a tribute to American capacity, but it has perhaps reinforced some dangerous instincts : that the projection of military power is the only basis of true security ; that the U.S. can rely on no one but itself ; and that allies may be useful as an optional extra” Christopher Patten, 15 February 2002 [2]

A bad patch in relations ? The commentaries fill our newspapers that the US and Europe are headed for a bad patch. The threads, which held the Old and New Continents together, are gradually fraying. NATO has been consigned to the scrap heap, unable to provide the flexibility or muscle required by the US. The Europeans criticise the “unilateralist” tendencies of the US, calling for alternative policies, and then prove completely incapable of agreeing on what these other options should look like. And as with all frustrated teenagers, the less the EU is able to exert influence on parent US, the more it seeks to inflict annoyance with the tool it does master : trade disputes.

End of an era ? So is this old relationship destined to decline ? The question is not without moment, as the entire peace of the world is premised upon the stability of this relationship according to received wisdom. It is precisely this axis which is the focus of global wealth, and the fount of liberal democratic values and their spread across the world.

…Or so some would have us believe. At this point the average article launches into an affirmation that “shared values” and “common interests” will ensure the maintenance of transatlantic stability, and anything else would be catastrophic.

Time for new thinking The cold war is over. Strange as it may sound, this fact is only now seeping into the circles that run transatlantic relations. There is no intrinsic reason why interests should be common across the Atlantic any more. The US is demographically becoming ever more diverse – and definitely non-European. Despite the endless denials, this has an impact on policy. Moreover, Europe is waking up to the fact that as an increasingly united entity, it really must put its own house in order, and then move rapidly on to its immediate geographical backyard. This necessarily means a prolonged period of introspection.

Rather than denying these facts it is time to embrace them fully. For it is absolutely right that the US look to the wider world and not Europe first. Europe is not the centre of the American universe. There is no reason why it should be, despite trade and investment. Moreover, it is absolutely vital that the EU get its own house in order, not least so as it can build that extension Eastwards, and find an appropriate connection to those to its South. And yes, this will mean increasing tensions across the Atlantic. And no, that is not a bad thing.

Seen from the rest of the world I distinctly recall one off-the-record conversation with an Indian diplomat. When I asked what he really thought of European integration, he paused and said : “It is just the first step in your dream to creating a union with North America, so as the white man can prolong their oppression of all other races”. He was well educated, had lived in Europe a number of years, and was always affable on a personal level. And yet in this one statement, he framed the problem that “the West” faces. It is seen by many the world over as the rich elite which has dominated the globe, raped the planet through its colonial exploitation (a European speciality) and imposed an unfair trading systems (Europeans and Americans combined), and used military action against those who do not bend to its will (now seen as a US speciality).

The whining of jealous, misinformed voices ? Maybe. But does this make them voices to be ignored ? Hardly. And in this context, having a US that looks more to the rest of the world, rather than to Europe is a good thing. Indeed, having a Europe that at last starts focusing on the poverty on its doorstep, rather than bending over backwards to please a transatlantic parent is equally a good thing. And if there are enough tussles between the EU and US, maybe it may even start building a new realignment of the world, where the rich start looking for poor partners as allies, developing a real North-South dialogue.

And the Unilateral America ? In the current circumstances, the US is “damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t”. On the one hand it is told to intervene as much as possible in the Middle East (Israel-Palestine) but also not to do anything that will upset the locals (Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia). Horrific as it may sound to Europeans, the US should be left to its own folly. The hard facts will one day catch up with any President who thinks that war-war beats jaw-jaw. The more orphans that are left around the world, the more would-be martyrs who will line up for a deadly revenge.

Until Europe is of an age where it can offer genuine alternatives, and the means to put them into practice, it would be better off to keep quiet and get on with building a serious Common Foreign and Security Policy, rather than criticising.

Above all “stay cool” Europe and the US are destined to drift apart. This is not a bad thing ; on the contrary, it is probably the one chance the world now has to build a genuine new order where the poor are given a chance to catch up with the rich. Without this process, the division between the haves and have not will grow, until Marx’s revolutionary class warfare becomes applicable on a global scale (bourgeois = rich West, proletariat = poor South).

For those of us who like both sides of the Atlantic, let us not waste time on trying to save the debris of yesterday’s institutions. NATO and a transatlantic free trade area are not the way forward. The thing that will prevent the inevitable clashes from doing serious damage is the ability of individuals at every level of society to keep on holding a dialogue with those on the other continent. It is those thousands and thousands of individual bridges which will keep the continents from an irreparable tear, not the crumbling edifices built by governments. In that respect Europeans can learn something from Americans : the notion of “staying cool”.


[1] Farewell Address, quoted in “George Washington, Writings”, The Library of America, 1997, p. 975

[2] Article, Financial Times

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