Estranged Partners

Jessica T. Mathews

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy magazine

In recent years, reaching back well before the present U.S. administration, the United States and Europe have found themselves on opposite sides of a sobering?and rapidly growing?number of global issues. Taken together, these issues will determine the rules of the road for the future international system, and in doing so will have a lasting impact on the global distribution of wealth and the long-term security of individuals and nations. When the United States and Europe see eye to eye, there is little they cannot accomplish. When they do not agree, however, there is little they can achieve.

Today's differences amount to much more than the quarrels among friends that have characterized the relationship for decades. Consider the recent record: In a solid bloc, the European Union (EU) approved, and the United States did not, the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the ban on antipersonnel land mines, the biodiversity treaty, and a verification mechanism for the Biological Weapons Control Treaty. The two erstwhile allies are also deeply divided over a U.S. suggestion that it is prepared to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty unilaterally so that it might begin building an extensive national missile defense system. Likewise, deep divisions exist over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a United Nations-brokered nonbinding treaty limiting exports of small arms, treatment of the environment in the World Trade Organization (WTO), and regulation of genetically modified (GM) foods. The two powers also have squabbled over support for the United Nations, the amount of resources that should be invested in conflict prevention, and their respective contributions to international assistance.

Even taking into account that disputes get attention while cooperation passes largely unremarked, these differences illustrate a stark trend between long-standing allies that share deep political convictions and, presumably, the same long-term hopes for the world.

When U.S.-European disagreements touch upon traditional security issues, such as missile defense or biological-weapons verification, Europe still demurs. But the United States has time and again profoundly misjudged the world's new willingness to adopt international agreements?despite U.S. opposition? when those agreements have vigorous backing from the EU. As a result, Washington has repeatedly found itself on the wrong side of lopsided international judgments. The vote on the land mine ban was 142 to 0, with 18 abstentions; on the ICC it was 120 to 7, with 21 abstentions; and on Kyoto in 2001 it was 178 to 1, with only the United States opposed. The division on the nuclear test ban was similar.

With the exception of Israel and India, not a single democracy shared the U.S. view on any of these issues. Rather, the United States found itself in uncomfortable company with the likes of China, Cuba, Libya, Iraq, and Iran. While the individual merits of each of these decisions are open to debate, the pattern is unmistakably not in the U.S. interest. No country, no matter how strong, will remain a legitimate leader for long when it is the odd man out on so many decisions that command the support of the vast majority of the world's countries.

This strange situation has emerged from a decade of extraordinary upheaval. At its outset, the end of the Cold War meant the loss of the automatic deference accorded the United States as the leader in the fight against a common, mortal enemy. The absence of an external enemy, in turn, allowed domestic politics to acquire a much larger role in foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic. And, in the United States, the end of that long conflict brought with it a much diminished willingness to spend effort and money on providing international public goods?everything from building new multilateral regimes and institutions to giving financial or technological aid.

In the midst of these dramatic changes, Europe has been engaged in nothing less than an attempt to invent a new kind of political unit?a historic development the United States has consistently underestimated. American experts prophesied failure every step along the way to the common currency. And they have let themselves be blinded by Europe's failures in the security realm to how much is being accomplished in the economic and political spheres.

Since Europe's integration is a gigantic exercise in pooling, even perhaps in redefining, national sovereignty, it has particular consequences for the global agenda. For the sake of integration, Europeans have seen cherished national symbols changed, as happened with French cheese, Danish ham, and German beer, or eliminated as in the case of currencies. While plenty of doubts, discomforts, and even backlashes over the process have surfaced, it continues to roll forward. The awkward mechanics of integration have allowed Europeans to acquire day-to-day experience?and hence a level of comfort?with exactly the kind of painful compromise, frustrating negotiations, and less-than-perfect outcomes that characterize multilateral problem solving in larger forums like the United Nations, the WTO, and the secretariats of major global treaties.

Meanwhile, the integration of the European continent has been taking place against a backdrop of a broader form of integration in economics, politics, and information and communications technology. We call it globalization. One of globalization's principal effects is to shift activity into transnational space, whether it be geographic space (oceans and atmosphere), natural-resource space (climate, fisheries, and biodiversity), or cyberspace (monetary transactions and information). However, major international treaties and institutions do not recognize any type of transnational space. All of these institutions assume a 19th-century world in which everything of value lies neatly within some nation's borders. There is no political will to reinvent, or even to significantly amend, their charters. So as more political and economic activity shifts into this new transnational zone, we are stuck with a system of rules that ignores this emerging global landscape and has precious little institutional capacity to manage what happens in it. Globalization therefore means an ever larger and more demanding international agenda, more engagement by countries in each other's affairs over matters farther and farther behind each other's borders, and, even among friends, more collisions of interest.

Finally, this busy decade has seen a huge increase in the international role of nonstate actors, especially of multinational business and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but also of multinational bodies and criminal groups. This proliferation in the number of voices on the international stage democratizes but also greatly complicates international decision making. It puts greater weight on (and ensures greater difficulty in securing) domestic consensus before governments can even begin to negotiate. It means that governments have little control over what gets on the international agenda, much less the eventual outcome. The negotiations to ban antipersonnel land mines, for instance, began despite the united opposition of the five major powers (an obstacle that only a few years earlier would have guaranteed a diplomatic impasse). Taken together, these developments?globalization, the growing influence of nonstate actors, the emergence of the EU, and the decline of global U.S. leadership that came with the end of the Cold War?have rewritten the rules of international relations. The resulting cleavages among nations that remain close allies are not surprising.

The United States faces a relationship with the EU that is utterly different from either its relations with individual European countries or with U.S.-dominated NATO. Economically, the EU is no longer a junior partner. It has a larger population than the United States, a larger percentage of world trade, and approximately equal gross domestic product (GDP). It pays a larger percentage of the U.N.'s core budget (37 percent versus the United States' 22 percent) and a much larger percentage of the U.N.'s funds and special program costs (50 percent versus the United States' 17 percent). On either a per capita or per-GDP basis, every one of its member countries contributes more to development assistance than does the United States.

For Washington, accustomed to receiving?or, if necessary, demanding?obeisance to its views from its European allies, this change has proved very hard to accommodate. Adjusting is all the harder because on the political and security fronts, the EU remains weak, often muddled, and very much a work in progress.

Greener on the other side

Among the many differences that have arisen, two have particularly far-reaching consequences. Partly, though not solely, due to climate change, the environment is becoming a central, perhaps defining, issue. In the last decade, Europe has become steadily greener, with German and Dutch attitudes spreading to the rest of the EU. Nongovernmental organizations have become increasingly influential, more so in EU bodies, especially the European Parliament, than in any national context. At the same time, a seemingly endless succession of health scares has undermined public confidence in governments and increased demands for greater precaution in the use of new technology (notably, GM foods). It is impossible to overstate the impact of mad cow disease, which one British scholar has revealingly, if not accurately, called "the biggest failure in U.K. public policy since the 1956 Suez crisis." As Berkeley professor David Vogel has perceptively noted, the 1990s in Europe were very much like the 1970s in the United States, when widespread concerns over everything from polluted air to the safety of nuclear power plants prompted public distress that political leaders could not ignore.

Even before the Bush administration's outright rejection of the Kyoto agreement, climate change had aroused furious disagreement across the Atlantic. The United States' high per capita energy consumption?6.2 tons of oil equivalent per year, compared to the EU's average of 3.1 tons?was so objectionable in European eyes that it led the EU to vehemently oppose U.S. proposals for international emissions trading and other mechanisms that would allow maximum reduction of greenhouse gases at the least cost. These proposals made good sense, but the Europeans resented any mechanism that might enable the United States to meet its Kyoto commitments without sufficient sacrifices and changes in its profligate lifestyle.

Ironically, the European-brokered agreement reached following the U.S. withdrawal included all of these objectionable elements. The outcome is equally strange for the United States: Because the United States did not sign the agreement, U.S. utilities and corporations have no clarity about how to make investments that will affect emissions. U.S. businesses cannot even participate in the economically efficient mechanisms (such as international emissions trading) for which the United States fought so hard. Strangest of all, while criticism of the U.S. position on climate control has become an automatic applause line for European politicians, the inability of any European country to meet its emissions reduction commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol has been completely obscured behind a cloud of anti-U.S. rhetoric.

The view is nonetheless widespread in Europe that the U.S. decision on Kyoto could become a turning point in trans-Atlantic relations. This dispute feeds into the conflict over how to treat gm foods and has further widened the gap between the U.S. and EU positions on how the environment should be treated in the WTO?a disagreement that may indefinitely delay a new global trade round.

Another U.S.-European dispute with global implications is the debate over the International Criminal Court. Washington's reason for opposing the ICC?that U.S. military personnel might be arbitrarily prosecuted for war crimes?was never persuasive to European countries that also regularly send troops abroad on peacekeeping missions. What rankles those nations most, however, is that the United States remains unwilling to accept the ICC's limited jurisdiction even as it simultaneously asserts highly questionable authority in other settings. For example, unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran, Libya, and Cuba all exert extraterritorial jurisdiction. The gap between how the United States demands to be treated and how it sometimes treats others does not go unnoticed. It seems, remarked a former EU trade negotiator, that the United States is a country that "will enforce its rights but will not necessarily respect its obligations."

As these and other global issues create a need for new rules that nibble away at the edges of national sovereignty, the United States, always most protective of its rights, finds it hardest (with the possible exception of China) to adapt. The resulting dichotomy between rhetoric and practice has often made it seem that what makes the United States exceptional is not its uniquely beneficent role, but the expectation that it can pick and choose within the body of international law those commitments it wishes to apply to itself. A senior official in the Bush administration has called this "à la carte multilateralism." It is not an approach that goes down easily. Nor will the discrepancies disappear in the post-September 11 world. Indeed, as the United States demands more cooperation in the fight against terrorism, others may look for greater U.S. consistency on their own priorities.

Coming to Terms

For the United States, the first step in repairing its relationship with Europe is to recognize that NATO will no longer be what matters most. Relations will be determined more by the ever growing list of transnational issues that inevitably stem from globalization. America's European experts, who are NATOists rather than Europeanists, will have to be replaced with a generation that no longer sees Europe through that narrow lens.

At the same time, America will have to undergo the difficult psychological adjustment of recognizing that Europe is no longer the junior partner whose acquiescence to U.S. views can be taken for granted. That is already obvious in the economic realm, and as the years go by, Europe is likely to become more able and willing to accept heavier international political and security responsibilities as well. That will come, however, at an automatic cost in "followership": The United States cannot expect Europe to undertake heavier burdens solely at the United States' behest.

In fact, recent unilateral U.S. behavior on matters that command wide international support may be pushing the EU into political coherence faster than the union could otherwise achieve it. The unprecedented European mission to North Korea when Washington was openly skeptical of continued diplomatic engagement, the European-brokered deal on climate change following America's unilateral rejection of Kyoto, and even the European leadership role at the Durban conference on racism after the United States walked out, are all cases in point.

How should the United States behave when disagreements do arise, as they inevitably will? Based on experience, it should drop its expectation that it can block agreements favored by a united Europe. When the great majority of the world's nations agree, the United States should expect to be among their number?not always, but more often than not. America's interests, not to mention its legitimacy and capability as a world leader, are better served by being a state party that can participate in shaping rules and procedures rather than in sulking outside the tent. Though Europe cannot challenge U.S. political or military supremacy, the world's single superpower must acknowledge that its power no longer translates, as it did during the Cold War, into a community of Western democracies and Third World dependents ready to fall into line behind U.S. leadership. Recognizing this reality will force the United States to carry a heavier diplomatic burden, but it will reduce the number of outcomes from which the United States is forced, in good judgment, to walk away. "My way or no way" is no longer a tenable negotiating stance?even on military matters.

An immediate priority is to develop a constructive modus vivendi with existing regimes to which the United States does not now belong?notably the ICC and the Kyoto agreement?and to devise an effective verification mechanism for the biological-weapons control treaty. Addressing climate change is especially urgent: The longer the delay, the higher will be the eventual cost. And there is public and congressional support for finding a way back into a sensible international framework.

For its part, Europe needs to outgrow its knee-jerk criticism of the United States for either doing too much or too little, its too-often hypocritical international behavior, and its addiction to feel-good international agreements without regard to their content or actual ability to solve problems. Not even loving parents, let alone a national government, for example, could raise children without violating the International Convention on the Rights of the Child?a U.N. treaty the United States has been widely excoriated for failing to endorse and that European democracies have unanimously embraced.

Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic will have to adapt if they hope to close the widening gap that not only threatens the United States' ability to achieve its international aims but also greatly reduces the likelihood that global challenges can be met. Americans overwhelmingly support multilateral burden sharing and a U.S. leadership role considerably broader than its military one. At the same time, they have come to expect dominance. Congress especially has little patience for playing on international teams of which the United States is not the captain. It won't be easy to change this mind-set, but the long-term costs of allowing the present trend to continue will exact a price Americans won't want to pay.