On September 14, 2015, the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ (GMF) Brussels office hosted Pierangelo Isernia (University of Siena) and Philip Everts (Leiden University), for a discussion on their recent book Public Opinion, Transatlantic Relations, and the Use of Force largely based on findings from GMF’s Transatlantic Trends surveys. The discussion also featured panelists Marietje Schaake, member of the European Parliament, and Jamie Shea, NATO deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges. The panel was moderated by Ian Lesser, executive director of GMF Brussels.
Everts began the conversation by highlighting two main questions the book addresses. The first one focuses on whether there is a gap between the U.S. and EU in viewing international issues and on the use of force in particular. The second addressed the issue of what determines the willingness or unwillingness of people to use military force. Everts noted that historically we have seen periods of little transatlantic cooperation followed by more intense cooperation, thus a cyclical history and pattern of rise and fall in transatlantic relations. He added that Americans and Europeans share similar images of friends and enemies and when it comes to the use of force there are differences on the approach, Europeans being more reserved than their transatlantic partner.
According to Schaake, “we are about to witness a very significant shift in transatlantic relations because the relations […] that we know are pretty much built after the Second World War and Cold War era, and when more and more people born in the baby boom generation move into positions of leadership, the transatlantic relation can shift rapidly”. She continued by emphasizing the fact that for the moment at least, the U.S. is less engaged on the world stage and this vacuum is not being filled by Europe.
Shea suggested that the U.S. is more likely to engage in a conflict because they have a stronger sense of what their capabilities are, while Europeans have a more modest view on the use of force, focusing more on managing conflict, two out of three European missions are civilian. He continued by pointing out the main elements that will change the way we perceive the use of force: First of all there is more transparency through social media which makes it harder for a government to claim that they have the right strategy if “people can see the reality in their living rooms”. Secondly, the issue of legality and culpability of whether "this is a just war" is gaining more ground and the rules are gradually tightening around the use of force. Thirdly, there is the issue of consensus. He explained that at the moment “we are trying to avoid a direct conflict by delegating the tasks to others”, but we will have to construct a new narrative on intervention and the use of force if circumstances change, for example if ISIS acquires WMD.
Questions from the audience focused on a multitude of issues including how public perceptions influence a non-interventionist approach to the Syrian crisis and how this is shaping the use of force. Schaake noted that “it’s one of the biggest mistakes we have made, to let it escalate.” The speakers also discussed how the use of drones as “under the radar means” is changing the way we perceive the use of force. Shea suggested that the “public is more permissive for those actions below the radar.” The future of the transatlantic partnership relies on the public perception on the use of force, but when analyzing the Transatlantic Trends data from the past years, we can see that the U.S. and Europe share a path forward despite their differences on the use of force.