Choices that weaken the sagging transatlantic alliance
In Washington, the selection of Herman van Rumpuy as the European Union's president and Catherine Ashton as the EU's High Representative has, in private, evoked outright laughter and disbelief among American foreign policy experts and elected U.S. officials. The general consensus in an informal, inside-the-Beltway pulse taking has been: "Why should we take the European Union seriously when it obviously fails to take itself seriously?" Van Rumpuy and Ashton are both able politicians who may well prove their skeptics wrong. They and the European Union will ultimately be judged by what they accomplish, not by their earlier careers.
But to counter these profoundly negative first impressions in Washington, both new leaders need to pursue bold transatlantic initiatives in the realm of economics, security and foreign policy to demonstrate their ability to mobilize Europe to work more closely with the United States. The selection of two internationally unknown and largely globally untested officials reinforced the long-standing American perception that Europeans are hopelessly inward looking and perpetually preoccupied with the never-ending process of European integration, to the exclusion of broader global interests. The anti-climactic appointments, coming as they did after a prolonged EU constitutional reform effort that many of Europe's friends in the United States think fell far short of what was needed to make Brussels an effective partner for Washington, only confirmed Americans' growing disillusionment with the European Union. Unfortunately, the choice of Van Rumpuy and Ashton could not have come at a worse time. The Obama administration is looking to Europe for help on Afghanistan, climate change, financial sector reform and global economic recovery. But some of the American officials directly involved with those issues, after not yet a year on the job, are already frustrated by their interactions with their European counterparts. And American foreign policy elites see Europe as less and less important for America's future. Moreover, Europe's self-preoccupied choices come at a time of growing support for unilateralism and isolationism in the United States.
Such shared, inward looking sentiment could prove a volatile brew if not counterbalanced by strong leadership on both sides of the Atlantic. Van Rumpuy's appointment is seen in Washington as confirmation that Berlin and Paris do not want a forceful figure in Brussels. And many Americans doubt whether any national European leader can provide that direction. David Cameron, the presumptive next prime minister of the United Kingdom, will be constrained by his Euroskeptic base and will never be trusted by governments on the continent. French president Nicolas Sarkozy, performed well as the rotating president of the European Council, but does not get along with president Obama. Recently reelected German chancellor Angela Merkel could be the first among equals. An early test will be the degree of German support for the U.S. surge in Afghanistan. Yet immediately after Merkel's reelection her close advisers privately disavowed any plans of reviving her 2007 effort to broaden and deepen the transatlantic market. So it is unclear if she has a new vision for the alliance. The transatlantic relationship has survived weak leadership in Brussels before and can do so again.
Moreover, Van Rumpuy's reputed conciliatory political skills may actually help knit together a fractious EU membership. For her part, Ashton won over her foreign counterparts during her brief tenure as EU trade commissioner. And, as head of a new EU foreign service with several thousand diplomats and a large budget, she could help Europe speak and act with one voice. But that could also be wishful thinking. Until proven otherwise, Europe's choices have undermined the case for the revival of the transatlantic partnership at a time when a renewed alliance is desperately needed.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.