Europe must be realistic about life after Bush
By François Heisbourg; Published: February 6 2008 18:30 | Last updated: February 6 2008 18:30
Such expectations will inevitably be dashed. If they continue to be entertained, the post-Bush honeymoon will be quickly followed by mutual recrimination and disappointment across the Atlantic.
First, there is uncertainty over the presidential election. Europeans tend to assume the next president will be a Democrat. Although Republicans are still far from snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, they are in the process of selecting a candidate who could just possibly win, aided by the bout of fratricide in the Democratic contest.
Unlike most of his colleagues on Capitol Hill, Senator John McCain has a real interest in and knowledge of international affairs. However, he has scant patience with fractious behaviour from America’s allies. His brand of unilateralism would be less messianic than that of Mr Bush but his relationship with the Europeans would be, at best, in the “tough love” category, as witnessed by his statements in the yearly Munich International Security Conference, which he has regularly attended.
However, the still probable victory of a Democrat would not automatically usher in a return to a golden age of European-American relations. The calamities of the Bush era have made us forget how fraught the relationship was during most of the Clinton presidency. Nato was in deep trouble during the years in which the US chose to stay out of the wars of Yugoslav succession. Franco-British attempts at enhanced European defence co-operation were met with fierce disapproval by the Clinton administration. Most importantly, the US and the world have changed since the 1990s. Post-9/11, the US will not allow its security posture to be constrained by multilateral commitments, whether to the United Nations or to Nato. Simultaneously, with the rise of Asia and turmoil in the Middle East, the transatlantic relationship has ceased to be pivotal for the US: the mission will determine the coalition, militarily, strategically and politically.
There is one factor that has not changed in US foreign policy: democracy promotion. This takes on a more humane and multilateral face in the comments of Democratic policy advisers than seen in the heyday of neo-conservatism. Nevertheless, combined with post-9/11 priorities, such neo-Wilsonian militancy will tend to divide rather than unite the Atlantic partners. All the more so since the Democrats – and many Republicans – hold the view that what was at fault in the transatlantic relationship was the Bush administration’s incompetence. Therefore, once it is gone, Europeans will be expected to fall into line with the policies of a vastly more competent and attentive new administration. This is the American mirror image of Europe’s expectations. It is the simultaneous dashing of these hopes that may well lead to a rapid deterioration of transatlantic relations. The trouble would be compounded if the tensions in the global economy led to trade wars.
At this early stage, such a crisis is not inevitable. The habit of dialogue between Europe and the US makes it possible to agree on what to expect from each other in the run-up to January 20 2009. The one big thing that still distinguishes the European-American relationship from all others is this ability to communicate and think together, despite (and possibly because of) numerous disagreements in the past. The various actors in the transatlantic debate – think-tanks, the media, governments – should start this process now. A mature and stable transatlantic partnership is possible – but not on the basis of unreasonable hopes of a second honeymoon.
The writer, special adviser at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Paris, also chairs the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Geneva Centre for Security Policy
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008