European Arrogance and Weakness Dictate Coalitions of the Willing

Report Europe

European Arrogance and Weakness Dictate Coalitions of the Willing

February 10, 2003 19 min read
John Hulsman
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

As the fabulously successful 12-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous has conclusively demonstrated, one cannot tackle a crisis until acknowledging the reality of a genuine problem. Throughout the 1990s, mutual exchanges of pleasantries and vague rhetoric of a "Europe whole and free" obscured the fact that the transatlantic relationship was increasingly in crisis, with a significant portion of the European political elite viewing the United States as part of the problem in international politics, rather than as part of the solution to global problems.

Representative of this trend is the typical anodyne statement that "a stronger Europe is also more likely to be a reliable strategic partner with the U.S."1 Given the resurgence of a European-wide strain of Gaullism, the long-desired European effort to emerge as a global power balancing America, this platitude is increasingly open to question.

In the past several years, genuine policy differences between the U.S. and its European allies have emerged over trade issues such as the "banana war"; genetically modified foods; the American Federal Sales Corporation (FSC) tax; America's increase in steel tariffs; Europe's refusal to substantially reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the repercussions this holds for the Doha global free trade round; the moral justness of the death penalty; whether Cuba, Libya, and Iran should be engaged or isolated; Iraq; the Israeli-Palestinian crisis; the role international institutions should play in the global arena; when states ought to be allowed to use military force; ideological divisions between European Wilsonians and American realists and neoconservatives; the Kyoto Accord; the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC); National Missile Defense (NMD) and the U.S. abrogation of the ABM treaty; the military debate within NATO regarding burden-sharing and power-sharing; American unilateralism; Turkey's ultimate role in the West; widely varying global threat assessments; the doctrine of humanitarian intervention and the efficacy of nation-building; and how to organize an economy for the best societal effect, to name a few.

This incomplete list should make it crystal clear to the most complacent of analysts that drift in the transatlantic relationship is about far more than carping, black-leather-clad, ineffectual Europeans glowering about American dominance from the safety of a Parisian café. It is centered on fundamental philosophical and structural differences held by people with a very different view of how the world should be ordered from that of the average American; it should be evaluated far more seriously than has been the case in Washington.

Those Europeans pushing for the creation of a more centralized, federal, coherent European Union (EU) political construct do so by increasingly defining themselves through their differences from Americans. European Gaullists see the emergence of a European pole of power as an effective foil to overweening American global power. Such a reality makes a lie of American Wilsonian pretensions to advance universal values. Paradoxically, these universalist pretensions are all too often seen by Europeans of many political stripes as another, more subtle form of self-centered American unilateralism.2

The French position, predictably the most suspicious of American power, could not have been clearer during the Jospin premiership. A more united Europe was necessary to "build counterweights" to combat "the risk of hegemony." Any thought that classical balance-of-power thinking was no longer relevant in today's global environment ought to be put to rest by any vague scrutiny of the French government's rationale for a more coherent Europe. Across the continent, Gaullism was clearly on the rise at the end of the 1990s.


The reasons for this resurgence are structural and thus are likely to endure. With the end of the Cold War, it was to be expected that America and Europe would drift: Without the unifying growl of the Soviet bear to subsume the reality that America and various European states had quite distinct international interests, there were bound to be divergences. The U.S. has emerged as the sole superpower in the post-Cold War era, while the European states, with the partial exception of France and the UK, are at best regional powers. This structural difference, unlikely to change in even the medium to long term, does much to explain the practical policy differences increasingly emerging on both sides of the Atlantic.

Not only has America gone from strength to strength in the new era, but Europe also has conspicuously failed to emerge as a coherent power in its own right. This sense of a resurgent and increasingly unfettered America, coupled with an introverted, increasingly marginalized Europe, does much to explain not only the differences in policy between the two poles, but also the increased virulence many Europeans feel toward American policies with which they disagree.

A Question of Power
In the end, such differences are less about philosophy and more about power. It is not that European Gaullists feel American international policies are merely wrong; increasingly, they feel they have no power to affect them, even at the margins. This change in political psychology does much to explain the rise of an anti-American Gaullism in Europe, as well as the increasing drift in the transatlantic relationship.

The example of European military weakness is instructive. Given anemic European defense spending, it is little wonder that many politicians in Europe are implacably opposed to the military tool being used in international relations, that they don't want strength to matter in the international community, that they want to live in a world where international law and institutions predominate, that they want to forbid unilateral military action by powerful nations, and that they advocate all nations having equal rights that are equally protected by accepted international norms of behavior. The Europeans are merely making a philosophical virtue of a very practical necessity.3

While attempting to limit through diplomacy the glaring weakness in their own power portfolio, European Gaullists are attempting one thing more: to balance the United States in a non-traditional manner, to harness overwhelming American power in multilateral institutions in such a way as to have a significant say in how such power is used. This reality explains France's implacable demand that all action against Saddam Hussein proceed institutionally through the Security Council, where Paris has a veto. It is an effort by the Lilliputians to tie Gulliver up, and it is completely understandable given the present power discrepancy between Europe and the U.S.

It also structurally explains why relations are increasingly frayed between an American Gulliver that naturally wants to preserve its freedom of action and European Lilliputians that, given their strategic weakness, want to constrain the American behemoth in multilateral institutions. The rise of European Gaullism, the desire to create a countervailing pole defined by its very un-American nature, is a logical structural response to such a world.


Just as all is not well in the transatlantic relationship, rhetoric should not replace reality as to Europe's capabilities to emerge as a major power, even in the medium to long term. While the desire to compete successfully with America may be ensconced in many European chanceries, the ability to do so appears to be well beyond Europe's collective means.

Military Weakness
Militarily, despite a collective market that is slightly larger than that of the United States, Europe presently spends only two-thirds of what the U.S. does on defense (with American defense budget increases, even this paltry percentage will decrease) and produces less than one-quarter of America's deployable fighting strength.4 German defense spending has dropped from 1.5 percent to a laughable 1.1 percent. Likewise, except for the UK and France, all other European countries are presently incapable of mounting an expeditionary force of any size anywhere in the world without borrowing American lift capabilities.

Current U.S. defense increases are greater than the entire defense budgets of any of the individual European allies.5 As Richard Perle bluntly put it, Europe's armed forces have already "atrophied to the point of virtual irrelevance."6

Given the moribund state of the European economies and the proclivity of the European publics to eschew significant defense spending, absolutely no empirical evidence suggests that this trend of relative military decline will change in the long term. At best, the United States can expect a multi-tiered NATO where, beyond the British and the French, individual European member states will fill niche roles in the overall American strategic conception. American decision-makers used to positive spins on the Alliance must acknowledge that not all the allies are equal--that real differences exist among European capitals over how often to side militarily with the U.S. and how much capability individual countries can bring to bear.

Economic Stagnation
Economically, the latter part of the 1990s has not led Europe into the "promised land" so confidently predicted by many. Rather, massive and largely ignored structural problems--labor rigidities, a demographic-pensions time bomb, a safety net that precludes significant cuts in unemployment, too large a state role in the economy stifling growth--have led Europe into a cul-de-sac. Staggeringly, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the number of private-sector jobs in the euro zone has not increased since 1970.7

Germany is emblematic of this Western European problem. Germany's five wise men--the government's independent economic advisers--now forecast growth of only 0.2 percent in 2002 and 1 percent in 2003. Germany's public deficit is expected to run at a rate of 3.7 percent this year and perhaps next year as well, overshooting EU Stability Pact strictures. Efforts to lower unemployment remain stalled, with over 4 million Germans remaining out of work.

This economic snapshot is also representative of Germany's recent economic performance. After an initial post-reunification surge, German GDP increased over the past 10 years by a mere 1.5 percent per year on average.8 The reasons for this are as simple as they are politically intractable--Germany's non-wage labor costs are among the highest in the world, well over 42 percent of gross wages.9

This factor, combined with excessive labor rigidities, a virtually unfunded pensions system, and a looming demographic crisis, as well as a crucial lack of political will in either the SPD or the CDU to implement the unpopular yet necessary measures to tackle these massive problems--only the Free Democrats discussed radical economic reform during the recent campaign and received a measly 7.4 percent of the vote--means that the motor of Europe will continue to sputter. Structural economic problems common to Italy, France, and Germany, as well as the accompanying lack of political will to deal with them, signify that the only question facing Europe is whether it continues to limp along or falls into a Japan-style torpor.

In some ways, the euro has made this difficult economic situation even worse. Its one-size-fits-all macroeconomic policy has led interest rates to be set far too high for a sputtering German economy while threatening a booming Ireland with long-term inflation. The euro zone is far from an optimal currency area. It remains to be seen whether the economies of Europe are sufficiently in sync to make the project flourish in the medium term.

Dangerous Economic Rigidity
The Stability Pact is emblematic of Europe's overly rigid macroeconomic approach. Ironically enacted to quell German fears about the long-term economic soundness of countries such as Greece, Italy, and Portugal, it is hamstringing Berlin itself (as well as Lisbon) with its strictures, limiting budget deficits to 3 percent per year. Already in recession and faced with certain warnings from the EU and the possibility of massive fines amounting to 0.5 percent of the GDP if it fails to correct its budget imbalance, Germany has been forced to enact austerity measures at a time of economic decline--the worst short-term fiscal policy imaginable.

Such a rigid economic approach seems politically doomed in the long term; already, critics ranging from EU Commission President Prodi to the French and German governments are signaling the need to fundamentally reform the process. In the short run, the Stability Pact has proved to be just another unnecessary constraint on a German economy already caught in the doldrums. There is little sign that either Germany or Europe as a whole is likely to gain economically on the U.S. in the medium to long term. Rather, the challenge is to avoid permanent economic stagnation of the continent.

As with military matters, the overall view must be qualified. Over the past five to eight years, the British, Spanish, Dutch, and Irish economies have grown at very respectable rates. Given their more open pensions systems, neither Dublin nor London face the same demographic crisis currently looming in Italy, France, and Germany. Great Britain remains the largest direct investor in the United States, as America does in the UK.

Moving geographically around the traditional motor of EU integration--France, Germany, and Italy--economic liberalism is found flourishing on the European periphery. It is hard to characterize a common European economic state of being, as the differences outweigh the economic commonalities.

Political Disunity
This is even truer in the political realm. Contrary to any number of soothing and misleading commission communiqués, the Europeans are light years away from developing a common foreign and security policy (CFSP). One has only to look at the seminal issue of war and peace today--what to do about Saddam Hussein's Iraq--to see a complete lack of coordination at the European level.

Presently, the UK stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S.; Germany's militant pacifists are against any type of military involvement, be it sanctioned by the UN or not; and France holds a wary middle position, stressing that any use of military force must emanate from UN Security Council deliberations. It is hard to imagine starker and more disparate foreign policy positions being staked out by the three major powers of Europe.

Even on issues relating to trade, there are vast differences within the EU. The recent spat between President Chirac of France and British Prime Minister Blair was about far more than atmospherics. It was about whether Northern European countries, such as the UK, would continue to countenance Southern EU countries' (such as France) dogged desire to protect the wasteful Common Agricultural Policy even though it may well prove to be a deal-breaker at the Doha global free trade round.

On missile defense, relations with Turkey, and, critically, the future course of the EU--with Germany advocating adding more members and greater centralization to the EU, the UK in favor of broader membership but little additional centralization, and France stressing greater centralization--one finds a cacophony of European voices rather than everyone singing from the same hymnal.

Military weakness, economic stagnation, and political disunity--this is the reality that confronts American decision-makers today when looking at Europe. Despite positive spins and European hopes, Europe is not likely (though it remains possible) to challenge American primacy in the long run. This is not due to any general, continental love of Washington or its policies. Rather, it is the result of European political, military, and economic weakness.


In separating rhetoric from reality, there is a comforting final conclusion that needs to be drawn by American policymakers: The very lack of European unity that hamstrings European Gaullist efforts to challenge the United States presents America with a unique opportunity. If Europe is more about diversity than uniformity, if the concept of a unified "Europe" has yet to really exist, then a general American transatlantic foreign policy based on cherry-picking--engaging coalitions of willing European allies on a case-by-case basis--becomes entirely possible. Such a stance is palpably in America's interests, as it provides a method of managing transatlantic drift while remaining engaged with a continent that will rarely be wholly for, or wholly against, specific American foreign policy initiatives.

For such an approach to work, it is essential to view Europe as less than a monolithic entity. The different approaches the Bush Administration took with the Kyoto global warming treaty and missile defense are instructive. By condemning out of hand the Kyoto agreement and offering no positive policy alternatives, the Bush Administration found itself in a public relations disaster in its early days. By failing to engage the Europeans, the White House unwittingly succeeded in uniting them.

Enlisting Support for Missile Defense
Embracing the learning curve in the wake of Kyoto and refusing to believe reports that "Europe" was implacably opposed to American desires to abrogate the ABM treaty and begin constructing a missile defense system, the White House sent its representatives to the capitals of Europe, where they found the "European" stance on missile defense far more fragmented than it had appeared at first glance. Intensive diplomatic efforts led Spain, Italy, the UK, Poland, Hungary, and ultimately Russia to embrace the Administration's initiative to one degree or another. By searching out potential European allies at the national level, Washington engaged in successful cherry-picking and avoided the kind of diplomatic and public relations disaster that had occurred in the wake of Kyoto.

Ironically, this realist policy actually calls for more diplomatic and political engagement with Europe at a national level, even if Brussels is generally taken less seriously. As the Kyoto episode made abundantly clear, in order for cherry-picking to work, the U.S. must find divisions in "European" opinion based on differing conceptions of national interest.

America has to constantly note differences within Europe in order to exploit them to form a coalition of the willing on any given policy initiative. Europe, such as it presently exists, suits general American interests--its member states are capable of assisting the U.S. when their interests coincide with America's; yet it is too feeble to easily block America over fundamental issues of national security. Cherry-picking as a general strategy ensures the endurance of this favorable status quo.

Coalitions of the Willing and NATO
Militarily, such an approach explains present efforts at NATO reform. Beyond the sacrosanct Article V commitment, the future of NATO consists of coalitions of the willing acting out-of-area. Here, a realist cherry-picking strategy confounds the impulses of both unilateralist neoconservatives and strictly multilateralist Wilsonians.

Disregarding neoconservative attitudes towards coalitions as often not worth the bother, cherry-pickers call for full NATO consultation on almost every significant military issue of the day. As is the case with Iraq, if full NATO support is not forthcoming, realist cherry-pickers would doggedly continue the diplomatic dance rather than seeing such a rebuff as the end of the process as many Wilsonians would counsel.

A Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), a subset of the Alliance where a coalition of the willing is formed to carry out a specific mission using common NATO resources, would be a cherry-picker's second preference. If this too proved impossible due to a general veto of such an initiative, a coalition of the willing outside of NATO--composed of states around the globe committed to a specific initiative based on shared immediate interests--would be the third best option. Only if the third option failed and fundamental national interests were at stake should America then act alone.

While agreeing with neoconservatives (and disagreeing with Wilsonians) that full, unqualified approval of specific missions may prove difficult to achieve diplomatically with NATO, cherry-pickers disagree with them about continuing to engage others at the broadest level. For, as the missile defense example illustrates, there are almost always some allies who will go along with any specific American policy initiative--that is, if they are genuinely asked. By championing initiatives such as the CJTF and the new NATO rapid deployment force, the Bush Administration is fashioning NATO as a toolbox that can further American interests around the globe by constructing ad hoc coalitions of the willing that can bolster U.S. efforts in specific cases.

Coalitions of the Willing and Free Trade
Less developed than the NATO process, free trade coalitions of the willing hold out intriguing possibilities for a future that may well see the breakdown of the Doha free trade process. As with NATO, there is no doubt that a comprehensive, all-inclusive liberalizing deal built around the Doha process (involving agricultural, services, and manufacturing liberalization) would best suit both the world and the United States.

However, given the great disparities in world opinion over the efficacy and even the definition of free trade, the United States must be prepared to enact free-trading coalitions of the willing if the Doha round stalls over European failures to respond to the developing world's demand for significant agricultural liberalization. Certainly, the "free trade by any means" mantra emanating from United States Trade Representative Bob Zoellick's office is an indication that the Bush Administration is moving in this direction.

Needed: A Global Free Trade Association
Beyond efforts to make the regional Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and bilateral deals with countries such as Singapore, Chile, and Australia viable, the Bush Administration needs to embrace the idea of a Global Free Trade Association--a coalition of the willing determined to maximize trade liberalization throughout its member states.10 States around the globe that meet certain, predetermined, numerical criteria relating to trade policy, capital flows and foreign investment, property rights, and regulation would automatically qualify for the grouping. Members would, thus, select themselves based on their genuine commitment to a liberal trading order.

Given the politico-economic commonalities such a grouping would share, the GFTA would hopefully allow for the freer movement of capital within the grouping, establish common accounting standards, set very low rates of subsidies across the board, and diminish overt and hidden tariffs. If the Doha round stalls, the U.S. must not take its ball and go home; again a coalition of the willing, this time in trade, is the way forward.

Given these specific criteria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom could join the U.S. and five non-European countries in a GFTA in 2003. To do so, a lessening of the ties that bind these states to the EU is necessary, given that the EU functions as a customs union. Countries in the EU, such as the UK and Ireland, would have to legally recalibrate their trading regimes with Brussels--something that, given the protectionist nature of the EU, they should do anyway. They would have to relax EU-harmonized rules in the case of goods and services when required to do so by the GFTA.11

Being able to derogate from EU rules in the case of internally traded goods and services imported from non-EU countries would be similar to obtaining an opt-out. Such a policy would strengthen efforts to transform the future architecture of the continent to resemble a Europe à la carte where individual countries would be far freer to pick and choose what elements of the European experiment they wish to join.

The point is that the United States, in the guise of this new cherry-picking initiative, will not wait for Godot any longer: The fact that Europe as a whole is not ready for further trade liberalization must not stop individual states (both within and without Europe) from continuing to press toward a freer trading world.


Politically, America must stop giving generally sympathetic countries like the UK and Poland such bad geopolitical advice. By pushing the UK into "Europe," the U.S. hoped to make the project more pro-American, more pro-free market, and pro-transatlantic alliance. After 50 years, it is time to look the results squarely in the eye: The EU is simply no more pro-American, pro-free market, or pro-transatlantic alliance than it was at the time of its inception.

Only a Europe that widens, rather than deepens, a Europe à la carte where efforts at increased centralization and homogenization are kept to a minimum, suits both American national interests and the interests of individual citizens on the continent. Any hint of further significant centralization--the UK joining the euro, CFSP becoming a reality, the closer harmonization of tax or fiscal policy across the continent--must be seen by America for what it is: a Gaullist effort to construct a pole in opposition to the United States. That will be the point at which the transatlantic tie genuinely begins to break.

Such an outcome is, however, entirely avoidable. A strategy of creating coalitions of the willing will preserve a status quo where the transatlantic relationship, despite fraying a bit at the edges, continues to provide common goods to both sides of the Atlantic. Such an overall policy acknowledges an awkward current truth of the transatlantic relationship: The United States wants Europe neither to be too successful nor to fail. As such, the Europe of today suits America's long-term strategic interests.

Cherry-picking will allow the U.S. to make the appearance of a Gaullist, centralized European rival far less likely while distributing enough shared benefits that the overall transatlantic relationship will continue to provide Europeans, as well as Americans, with more benefits than problems. Such an accurate assessment, fitting the realities of the world we now live in--where the United States behaves multilaterally where possible and unilaterally where necessary--is likely to endure.

John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow for European Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered at a conference on "NATO and the EU: The Institutional and Policy Challenges for Euro-Atlantic Organizations and Northeastern and Southeastern Europe" organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., December 19, 2002

1. Ivo Daalder, "A US View of European Security and Defense Policy," lecture given at USAREUR Senior Leadership Forum, Grafenwohr, Germany, March 7-9, 2001, p. 3.

2. Peter Rodman, Drifting Apart? Trends In US-European Relations (Washington: The Nixon Center, June 1999), p. 7.

3. Robert Kagan, "Power and Weakness," Policy Review, No. 113 (June/July 2002), p. 6., at

4. John Hulsman, "A Grand Bargain With Europe," The Georgetown Public Policy Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Fall 2000), p. 73.

5. Gerard Baker, "NATO's Welcome Imbalance in Military Might," Financial Times, February 7, 2002.

6. "Transformation Postponed," The Economist, February 16, 2002.

7. "New Studies Highlight Higher Taxation and Unemployment in Eurozone," Business for Sterling Bulletin, Vol. 49, June 29, 2000.

8. "Room to Improve," The Economist, March 16, 2002.

9. "Gerhard Schroeder's Rocky New Start," The Economist, November 16, 2002.

10. John C. Hulsman and Sudabeh Koochekzadeh, "A Global Free Trade Association to Preserve and Expand the US-UK Special Relationship," Orbis, Summer 2002.

11. See Martin Howe, "Could the United Kingdom Join a Global Free Trade Association?" in The World Turned Rightside Up: A New Trading Agenda for the Age of Globalisation (London: Institute for Economic Affairs, 2001).


John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow

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