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Changing Priorities: The US and the EU in the 21st Century

by Vox

A major superpower in world politics must always contend with those who would, for one reason or another, attempt to check its policies in international affairs. The nature of foreign relations in the modern world is as it has always been: based on elements of scarcity of resources and competition, where as an extreme measure violence is the only viable recourse. The United States, by virtue of reasons such as its geographic location, ample natural resources, effective early leadership and a certain American exceptionalism, is the undisputed giant of world politics. Because of various social, economic, and political similarities, notably in the areas of liberal democratic government, rule of law, and market capitalism, the US and the European Union will always have a vested interest in maintaining the so-called marriage between them. This does not mean they will not have disagreements from time to time, merely that these disagreements most likely will not come to blows. This relationship is subject to trends of alienation, however. There are some distinct differences between the US and the EU, and a nearly globally shared consciousness in the EU of America’s historically unprecedented military, economic, and cultural hegemony. The United States and the EU, despite their similarities, will necessarily begin to disagree as their priorities adapt to the changes since the collapse of the Cold War, to fit the framework of a modernized world.

The United States and the European Union are similar in their societal, political, and economic conditions. They share many traditions and ideals, and a historical relationship over the past one hundred years that has been sharply defining, for both. There is, however, a definite distinction in the interests of the US and those of the EU, and when these interests scrape, they cause some noise. The EU and the US are different in enough ways that this can and must happen, especially in light of continental European aspirations for economic growth and military self-sufficiency. While the EU has enough reason to cooperate with the US, it will do so, and the United States will act in whatever way it deems the most beneficial to itself.

This trend can be found in the current obsolescence of NATO, a collective security arrangement created to check an enemy that no longer exists. As a military organism, NATO is a fiction in its current state, as the US in its military dominance and domestic resolve has espoused a realist, proactive, and unilateralist approach to conducting foreign relations since the election of a conservative President in America and his and his staff’s appropriate reaction to the threat represented in the attacks of 11 September 2001. The EU and the US share the burden of equipping and funding NATO, but it is shared lopsidedly by the US in order that the US may protect its interests in Europe more easily. European NATO free riders will come to grips first with the fact that organizations dependent on a particular member are subject to that member’s desires. When the divergent interests of the two powers are combined with their historical differences, the resultant drifting apart becomes not a bad thing but a testament to a long, beneficial, and ultimately successful cooperation.


The US and the EU share much in the way of economic practices and standards. Industrialization occurred in America around the same time as in Western Europe and so the fruits of advanced technology and modernization have been enjoyed almost in unison. Advances in computers and telecommunications in the two powers have evolved at nearly the same pace, and cooperation in innovation is frequent between the two. Shared liberal traditions give the US and the EU much to agree upon in their daily business.

The advanced industrial economies of the EU and the US established the current system of world trade and finance regimes at the close of World War Two, in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire in the summer of 1944. The system governance established in the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on the side of finance, and the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (later known as the World Trade Organization) on the side of trade, was one mainly inspired by the post-war powers of the US and Great Britain. This supranational, automatic, and essentially cooperative system, though weighted in favor of the overwhelmingly superior US, still was the beginning of a tradition of cooperation between Europe and the US, and difference to the other’s inclinations. This pattern of agreement was reinforced during the Cold War by the presence of the Soviet Union and the nations of the Warsaw Pact, which embodied the elements of closed and command economies that went counter to the liberal capitalism and open borders of the West. Given this incentive, the US and Europe were all too happy to cooperate, but since the collapse of the USSR and the expansion of world trade, the relationship has begun to show some strain in those areas where the US and the EU are not so similar. The liberal trends of laissez-faire and deregulation (liberal in a sense of international political economy, not domestic American politics) have not grown in Europe to the extent they have in the US. A much larger welfare state exists in European nations, with social expenditures and subsidies from EU governments providing citizens with financial commitments in education, nutrition, housing, medical care, and income support. Despite the welfare state’s extensive presence in Europe economic growth has been slow if positive at all for the last twenty-five years and unemployment runs high. Compared to the US, where unemployment rates have fluctuated around 5%, in countries such as France and Italy the unemployment rates are sometimes three times as high. This state involvement is more accepted in Europe than in the libertarian US, where small government is clearly the popular tendency, and a strong central government is often regarded as suspect. Four reasons given in lecture for the close relationship in Europe between the population and the state are both related to the condition of continental politics before the modern era of nation-states post-Westphalia. First, national identity was not as firmly implanted in the minds of Europeans, who did not share the experience of unity that American colonists did after their emigration from the continent. This identity was often forged through violence and large state involvement. Second, the conditions of industrialization in continental Europe were shaped by a history of feudalism, leaving the population lacking in the area of capitalist development. Whereas the US was founded on principles of expansion and economic growth, leading to the almost spontaneous establishment of banks and other institutions of financial development, European governments often substituted for the missing elements through subsidies and national banks. Third, the geography of Europe has ensured that conflict has come on land, and states have needed to pay for large standing armies and defense budgets. Finally, the extreme ideologies of Europe, from fascism on the right to communism on the left, are pervasive and encourage large state involvement. The massive difference in pure economic power between the US and the EU is also obvious. The large difference in GDP between the two is underscored by the uneven trends of growth between the US and the EU. GDP per capita rates favor the US, at $37,000 compared to the EU average of $23,000. The huge GDP of the United States (estimated in 2000 at $9.96 trillion by the CIA World Factbook) is remarkable in that only 33% of it is spent by government, both at the Federal and state levels. In Europe, on the other hand, a growing welfare state and slowing growth strain the 45-50% government spending rates. This difference in scale translates into an imbalance in power that the United States can and does use to its advantage, and the EU can only resent.


In the EU, traditional class relationships are changing, and the aristocratic and peasant classes are declining. The combination of general affluence and more widespread education is making for a shift in the social consciousness towards a more conservative stance. Resembling the US more and more socially, the EU is beginning to move away from the agriculture and industry branches of employment and toward services and technology-oriented jobs, according the EU’s Eurostat website. The decline of class as a distinction in society, as well as the shrinking income and status gap between the middle classes and the working classes, is causing a shift away from progressive attitudes and votes and bringing the EU closer to the American center. Social conditions in American cities are beginning to resemble their European counterparts, as well, with an influx of immigrants of different ethnic makeups diluting the traditional ethnocentrism of the EU nations. Immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent are changing the demography of European populaces. The strains of this ingress of immigrants can be seen in rising crime rates, large minority populations sometimes reaching 7% or more in Western Europe, and the resulting backlash in domestic politics that attracts xenophobic elements and anti-immigrant feeling. This changing domestic composition is blurring the once-sharp ethnocentric lines that once influenced US-EU relations. There is growing multiculturalism in both states, spurred by immigration, intermarriage, and assimilation. In addition, the replacement in government elites of those policymakers with strong memories of World War Two and the Cold War with a generation of younger, more diverse elites. In America, they will not, as Stephen Walt puts it, “grant Europe pride of place.” The European leadership likewise does not have first-hand memories of occupation and liberation, and will not be as eager to follow lock-in-step with the US on every policy objective. Many European elites, perhaps because of their lack of immediate goodwill toward Americans, have negative opinions of their “culturally inferior” or “colonial” ally. Citing the invasive nature of American commercial, technological, political and social culture, they not only excuse their own anti-Americanism but that of much of the world as well, as if Americans are at fault because people of the world choose to eat at McDonald’s or wear Levi’s blue jeans. Many of those same Europeans that lament the presence of a Pizza Hut on their street corner in Brussels will nonetheless eat there from time to time—an interesting conflict inside many Europeans that they have trouble reconciling. The nature of the modernizing world is such that because of improvements in communications, transportation, and trade, American goods and services will expand to the ends of the earth (as would any other goods and services offered by a megapower such as the US). Rejection of these as “Americanization” is as senseless as a Parisian throwing eggs on a parked Ford because automobiles represent decadent American trends of laziness in travel, and then feeling justified going out and getting behind the wheel of a 1979 Citroën 2cv. Globalization in its modern form is an unstoppable force, and whether or not someone wants to watch an American movie is up to the individual, not the movie studio.

In terms of stark differences between the two powers, one need only look at the fact that although they share much in the way of liberal institutions, history, and market capitalism, there is still the issue of national unity. The US is a single entity, with a population that sees itself as united, speaks the same language, and despite domestic disputes shares a common opinion of American supremacy in world affairs. As for the EU, however, the likelihood of such an amalgamation is unlikely. Even EU leaders themselves are quick to point out that the Union will not become a “United States of Europe.” This political difference has an enormous effect on the choosing and implementing of foreign policies.


The United States and the EU, despite their similarities and agreements, are still two separate and competing powers, which will and do obey the rules of the international game. The manner in which they choose to look at the international arena is where the two powers differ. This is to be expected given the differences in hard and soft power between them, the contrast in domestic makeup, and the distinction between one unified central state and a conglomerate of states. The political similarities end after one acknowledges the current of democracy that runs through all the nations involved, in some degree or another. In nearly all other areas, however, the US and most of the EU are in discord, with the notable exception of Great Britain. The vastly superior military might of the United States makes it a lethal force to contend with, and lends an overwhelming weight to any policy the US government chooses to implement. The fact that the US defense budget is a reported $379 billion, whereas the entire EU budget less than $140 billion, makes it clear which of the two powers will have the final say on any matter of international significance. Having achieved supremacy in both the economic and the military branches, the US is an easy target for complaints and accusations of “unilateralism.” The fact is that unilateralism is the most efficient and effective manner to conduct business. By benefit of its unity and power, the US is not constrained to compromise domestically or abroad before embarking on a course of action. In today’s world of clear and present dangers to the security of the US, American politicians are in no mood to accommodate the liberal, institution-loving principles of the multi-state EU, and neither are their constituencies. After a lull in global affairs brought on by the collapse of the USSR and the decade of prosperity that accompanied it, US foreign policy is returning to the realism and interventionism that marked the years of the Cold War. The difference now is that the EU and the US have no common enemy on their doorstep to overshadow their disagreements, and therefore the relationship is open to conflict. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created, as most collective security arrangements are, to counterbalance a looming threat. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations were that threat, and NATO has kept the peace in Europe since 1949, well past the dissolution of its initial enemy. Many analysts now doubt whether the organization is still necessary or even beneficial. Stephen Walt sees NATO as an arrangement gone beyond its usefulness. As he sees it, “the high-water mark of transatlantic security cooperation is past.” Walt cites three reasons for US-Europe cooperation, all of which he says are now either defunct or eroded. With the Soviet Union gone, the major reason the US was willing to dedicate blood and treasure to the defense of Europe is evaporated. The bipolarity of the Cold War, which bound the European nations to either the USSR or the US by necessity, has changed, and both the US and EU now have different priorities. As the most essential reason for EU-US cohesion, the Soviet Union’s departure from the world scene puts an immediate damper on transatlantic cooperation. The economic importance of Europe to US growth is the second reason, and the trend in both the US and the EU is away from one another and more regional, says Walt. Citing as examples the EU’s economic integration and monetary unity on one hand and the creation of NAFTA and increasing American investment in Asian markets on the other, Walt paints a picture not of cooperation between the two but of competition. In the area of domestic support for internationalist policies that involve Europe, Walt’s analysis is a bit dated. He makes the statement that support in America for military spending and intervention, in light of the changing of the old-guard cold warriors to the younger generation as well as probable recession, will decrease. Leaving himself an out with the caveat “Barring the rise of a major and direct threat to US security…” he makes room for an active American foreign policy, and 11 September has given Americans the “major and direct threat” needed to resume military expansion and intervention. Analysis of NATO’s role and by extension US-EU relations must take into account the specter of international terrorism and the inevitable American response to being assaulted in such a way as the Manhattan and Washington, DC attacks.


The trend toward unilateralism in US foreign policy was accelerated by the September 11th hijackings, to the dismay of European allies. The presence in Western Europe of so many immigrants of Middle Eastern descent has somehow not taken as high a toll on them as on the United States, partly due to their more lenient attitude toward Middle Eastern states and partly due to the overwhelming presence of US cultural and political influence all over the world. The globalization of American values, commercialism, and civilization is rejected in many continental circles. Much of the American political agenda, concentrating as it does on security, unilaterally achieved if necessary, goes contrary to the European ideals of multilateral institutions to promote environmental, health, and humanitarian issues. As Ivo Daalder notes, America simply has other things to think about than Europe, militarily and economically; namely, the growth of Chinese power and the threat of international terrorism. At the same time, Europe cares little for anything besides Europe, especially since the US foots the bill for everything else. The military gap between the US and the EU means that unless an effort is made on the part of the EU to increase defense spending, which seems unlikely due to domestic sentiment and the attraction of free-riding on American coattails, the US will cooperate with the EU when its interests are best served by it, and will act unilaterally when that is the best course of action. In terms of combating global terror, the United States can better serve its interests by acting outside the cumbersome bureaucracy of NATO and without consulting the squabbling European elites. By relying on the stalwart support of its Anglo-Saxon allies in Great Britain, Australia, and others, who are invariably the first to come to our side and the last to leave it, and avoiding the quagmire of EU entanglements and UN multilateralism, the US can act swiftly and decisively, as shown in Afghanistan. When the stakes are nothing short of vital national security, there is no option for compromise.

When the Eiffel Tower is reduced to rubble by a hijacked airplane or the Bundestag destroyed by a suicide bomber, then the Europeans can comment knowledgeably on national security and the appropriate measures to fight terrorism. Until then, cooperation across the Atlantic Ocean will continue while it is mutually beneficial and no longer. Separation in this instance is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as expectations do not extend past reality. Relations can still be good and ties still binding, but priority in decision-making will be given to national interests. While this may make cooperation slightly less easy, and both parties will be less likely to accede to the other, it will allow for quicker and simpler resolution of the dangerous conflicts confronting the United States today.

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