The Expectations Gap
Transatlantic relations, to put it mildly, have been strained under the Bush Administration and although the White House has been very conciliatory towards the European allies over the last couple years, there is no escaping the fact that most Europeans will be very grateful to see the exit of the Bush team come January 2009. Regardless of whether John McCain or Barack Obama wins the election in November, change is in the air. The problem is that although the Europeans are eagerly anticipating change in Washington, they have yet to look inwards at the changes required within Europe to move the transatlantic relationship forward.
The next administration is going to place a renewed emphasis on multilateralism and speeches by both candidates illustrate that NATO will play a central role in this return to basics. There is a significant danger that Europeans will be disappointed, given the exceedingly high expectations they have of the next US presidency and an anticipated return to normalcy. This problem will be exacerbated with an Obama win, as most Europeans view him extremely favourably, and in a bit of self-delusion expect that Obama will be a European president, rather than an American one. High expectations, however, cut both ways.
The next American president will most likely redouble US efforts in Afghanistan and as part of this ramping up of US effort; Washington is going to expect European allies to significantly moderate their policies on Afghanistan. Washington will want to see a lifting of national caveats on troop deployments (including the absurd non-caveats the German government denies are in place), an increase in military spending to improve capability and the addition of more European troops into the theatre, especially in difficult areas of Southern Afghanistan. With America putting the Afghan mission front and centre, and renewing their commitment to multilateralism it will be very difficult for Europe to back down from Washington’s request without serious implications for the future of NATO and US-European relations. There are already some within Washington that want a US surge in Southern Afghanistan that would effect quicker strategic change. Such thinking overlooks the fact that while more troops would be helpful, there still remains a lack in civilian capability to cement the benefits of a surge. The bigger problem is, however, that such a move would strain relations and put NATO on the back-burner. Not a good way to start off with a new US Administration.
The US is a global power with global interests. Washington rightly believes that Europe should also look at strategic challenges with global perspective and that a region of 450 million people, with productive economies and a high concentration of wealth should contribute significantly to maintaining international peace and security. Sometimes this will require the use of military force and the need to take political risks. If European leaders are not willing to accept this; transatlantic relations are bound to remain on a downward slide, even if the rhetoric is nicer with a new team in the White House.
Dr Michael Williams
Head, Transatlantic Programme
These views are the author's own and do not represent the corporate views of RUSI.