It's Europe Week in Washington. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been asked to speak to a joint session of the United States Congress on Tuesday as part of celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only about a hundred world leaders have ever addressed a joint session of Congress. The last German chancellor to be bestowed the honor was Konrad Adenauer, who spoke before the US legislature in 1957 during the Cold War.
Shortly after on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama will also greet top European Union leaders at the EU-US summit. A special strategy meeting is planned on energy issues.
Europe Finally Has A Phone Number -- But Is Anyone Calling?
One might almost believe that in this new Obama era, Europe's phone number -- that same telephone number that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger jokingly suggested years ago -- is now available in Washington's most influential little black books. But is anyone really dialing those digits? Experts at the European Council on Foreign Relations, an influential think tank that American billionaire philanthropist George Soros founded in 2007, are skeptical. The role of the think tank -- which describes itself as the first "pan-European think tank," and which has offices in Berlin, Paris, London, Madrid and Sofia -- is to "promote informed debate on the development of coherent, effective and values-based European foreign policy."
The council released a study on Monday called "Toward a Post-American Europe," based on wide-ranging interviews and research conducted in the 27 EU member states. In it, the authors make a clear appeal to European leaders: This "fetishization" of the trans-Atlantic relationship must stop, write Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney. It is high time that Europe declare a new, "post-American" age and do away with old myths about the trans-Atlantic relationship. Myths like the idea that the continent's security is dependent on American protection, is one example they cite. Or the one about American and European interests being the same at heart. Or the myth about European unity being damaging to the trans-Atlantic relationship because, as the authors put it, "ganging up on the US would be improper -- indeed counterproductive -- given the 'special relationship' that most European states believe they enjoy with Washington."
Washington Is Focussed On New Alliances, Europe Is Not
"Globalization is increasingly redistributing power to the South and the East," the authors of the paper write. "The United States has understood this, and is working to replace its briefly held global dominance with a network of partnerships that will ensure that it remains the indispensable nation."
Washington has left Cold War thinking -- a time when the support of the European nations was particularly important -- behind and is seeking pragmatic alliances with new partners such as China. As American President Barack Obama declared when opening the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue earlier this year, "the relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century." And that American attitude is the opposite of the Europeans, who still cling to strategies and philosophies evolved out of decades of American hegemony that have led to an exaggeratedly submissive attitude toward the US.
Because so many statesmen believe in keeping up a close and cozy relationship with the US, the Europeans in general have been able to come up with a unified stand in their dealings with the Americans. The sort of unified stand they are able to take in dealings with the Chinese or the Russians seems impossible here. In fact, in their desire to flatter and cajole the Americans, the Europeans have managed to get themselves enmeshed in undertakings that may not even serve the best interests of the EU -- undertakings like the conflict in Afghanistan.
European Behavior Toward US Seen As 'Infantile'
"Seen from Washington, there is something almost infantile about how European governments behave towards them -- a combination of attention seeking and responsibility shirking," Shapiro and Witney note. The result being that Europe is often ignored by the US, marginalized, or somehow worked around. And if none of that works then, the authors say that the Americans may take a "divide-and-rule" approach, where a lack of consensus among the Europeans is exploited to further American ends.
Some examples of this include:
- Afghanistan: Although Europe contributes almost exactly the same amount in terms of financial aid and provides almost 40 percent of all foreign troops there, it has "minimal influence on how development strategies in Afghanistan are determined or how the war is being fought, essentially following the American lead ."
- Middle East: In this region, the Europeans are also contributing a lot financially. But they shy away from taking any sort of leadership here and tolerate America's procrastination in the region.
- Russia: A unified EU approach is essential here. But a consensus is difficult because "Europe's compulsion to look over its shoulder at the US has repeatedly undermined its efforts to bring its differing national approaches closer together," the study says.
- Trans-Atlantic Economic Council: When the council -- established by former US President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to facilitate better economic cooperation -- met recently, the Europeans turned up with their top people; the delegation was led by European Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen of Germany. But the Americans merely sent department heads to the Trans-Atlantic Economic Council. Barely any advances were made. That would have been the same even if the negotiators had been more equal, grumbled one of the participants. Really, though, the EU should be more prudent than this -- they should turn up with negotiators not as obviously important. But they do not dare to do this. And no doubt next time they will turn up with similarly significant VIPs and leave angry once again.
German Chancellor Competes with EU for Limelight
Indeed, little more than a pretty picture is expected from this week's EU-USA summit. One of the most importants issue for the staff of Jose Manuel Barroso is finding out whether the European Commission President will be able to have lunch with Obama. Europe's high ranking diplomats are annoyed that the Merkel has managed to steal so much of the limelight in the US because of her planned appearance before Congress. Those close to Merkel, however, are overjoyed by the honor.
And this is the way it's been for months. Driven by the fact that so many of their countrymen and women heartily approve of the new American president -- some European nations have as much 92 percent of the populace expressing approval for Obama -- European politicians are busy competing to try to outdo each other in showering their love and dedication on the new US president.
When Obama merely gave Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown a boxed set of DVDs after his visit to the US, the British press was quick to see it as a sign of the end of the United Kingdom's "special relationship" with Washington. The French were equally distraught when, during a visit there, Obama preferred to dine with his family in Paris than with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife. And the Germans are fretting because, although Obama came to Berlin as a presidential candidate, he still hasn't made an official state visit as president.
White House Doesn't Care About Nostalgia
The White House has no time for this sort of sentimentality and fuss. At the last EU-US summit in Prague in April, Obama's advisors were annoyed that their boss was assailed by each of the 27 member states separately. The US president consistently denies requests from European journalists and he imparted news of the end of the US missile defense shield -- which was to be based in their countries -- to the Czechs and Poles by phone. The European reaction to these kinds of rejections is predictable. They simply try even harder to get into Obama's good graces.
The study by the European Council on Foreign Relations strongly advises against this. Instead of this favor-mongering, the Europeans should set clear goals for foreign policy amongst themselves and communicate these to the Americans consensually, and with the same cool headedness that already exists among those working in trade and economics. Going into combat single handedly or clinging to sentimental memories of past partnerships won't get anyone anywhere.
Working Toward A 'Post-American' Future
When German Chancellor Merkel traveled to Washington in June to receive the Warburg Prize for her services to trans-Atlantic relations -- an honor given out by the Atlantik Brücke (or Atlantic Bridge), an important trans-Atlantic organization -- barely any members of the US Congress attended the ceremony. A Hawaiian-themed bash that Obama was throwing at the White House was far more important to them. And when asked whether this meant that American interest in Europe was waning, the German chancellor replied that, "obviously, we must always ensure that we remain interesting partners."
When Merkel goes to speak in front of Congress on Tuesday, the scene should be an impressive one. And, for one day at least, Merkel gets to be the voice of Europe. But next week someone else may get to play that role: Sarkozy, Brown or Spain's President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Any number of Europeans could take on the role. What doesn't change though is the challenge of keeping Europe interesting -- and influential.