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Between Iraq and a Hard Place: Transatlantic Relations under Strain

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 16:30

By Mitchell Belfer, Head of Department, International Relations and European Studies at Metropolitan University Prague


The clouds of war are again gathering along the eastern Mediterranean littoral. The US is intent on punitive actions to ‘degrade’ Syria’s military capabilities while Russia is expending its diplomatic and military energies to deter such actions. No other country really matters. France may pledge its fidelity to the US, but its words weigh heavier than its deeds. The UK – degraded from a pillar of transatlantic relations – did not even manage to show rhetorical solidarity. Perhaps this is because the brewing conflict is not about Syria at all; it is about something far less tangible and yet far more important. The conflict over Syria is about projection and counter-projection, about geopolitical advances and retreats, about international leadership and bandwagoning.

This is hardly a novel characteristic for a region plagued by centuries of turbulence; however it is exposing two fundamental problems.

First, the EU and most of its members no longer support US leadership. This may be a reflection of so-called “Iraqitis” – a mixture of disappointment and fear over the Iraq debacle – or produced by growing EU foreign policy confidence. Irrespective of its sources, the internal EU swaggering is signalling to Washington that it remains uncommitted to upholding international standards by use of force. Instead, many US allies have preferred to appease al Assad and his Russian patrons. So, for the first time since assuming the Oval Office, Obama has a developed a realisable objective, and a strategy for achieving it, and yet is being forced into unilateralism. This will certainly have long-term repercussions for EU-US relations since the commitments that have bound them together for nearly a century are being eclipsed by transatlantic egoism and estrangement. It is, of course, not too late to revive the faltering alliance, however with some voices on Capitol Hill calling for the deconstruction of NATO (as an expensive set of shackles for US foreign policy) time is of the essence and European leadership is needed to meet the US halfway since any US disengagement from Europe will certainly undermine the stability this continent has come to take for granted over the past two decades.

A second problem is in regards to the decidedly peripheral role the EU has come to inhabit in international relations. Sure, French and British forces intervened in Libya and Mali. However, the EU is now 28 members strong and if it is to remain internationally relevant, it needs to utilise its full capabilities, it needs to stop buck-passing and freeriding and actually contribute to security in Europe through enhancing security around Europe. It would be wrong to suggest that the EU has not identified its neighbourhood, particularly its Southern Mediterranean neighbours, as intrinsically volatile and unstable. It has devoted many millions of Euros to the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and like-projects, which are essentially a one-way street; of EU funding to Middle Eastern and North African states for the purpose of building and maintaining civil society organisations so that democratic tendencies take root on the social level instead of dictated from above. Hindsight has revealed what a haemorrhaging of monies such projects have been. The EU did not empower civil society in Egypt, Tunisia or Syria. If anything, throwing money at endemic ethno-nationalist and sectarian problems only empowered those same groups now waging nascent wars. In Syria EU money has gone into al Assad’s pockets, in Egypt and Tunisia Islamists got significant chunks of European taxes, taxes which did not manage to purchase domestic stability or the creation of share-holder’s societies but have fuelled the opposite. In short, the EU has managed to use a lot of carrots, but these have come without strings, and certainly without sticks.

Since the 2008 economic crisis was joined by the Arab Spring (2010/11), coupled with Iranian and Russian intransigence in crisis areas (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen) the special relationship between EU countries and the US has been steadily eroded. This has only empowered the economic and political adversaries of both to redouble their efforts at delegitimising their international roles while continuing to pressure their relationship. After all, to paraphrase Napoleon, one should never stop his opponent from making a terrible mistake. But Napoleon, like every other dictator that sought to bring Europe under wraps, was eventually defeated by collective effort. In the 20th century, both Nazism and Communism were defeated by the power of ideas backed by the power of force. It would be a terrible shame if Europe and the US allowed their ensuing difference of opinion to undermine the collective efforts which have hoisted the transatlantic world to examples international citizenship where innovation in political, economic and social affairs is rewarded. It would be an even greater shame if the transatlantic world continued to bicker its way to the complete social destruction of Syria despite having a willing leadership in Obama and collective capabilities to make a lasting difference.