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“General” Chris Patten Speaks

How does outgoing EU Commissioner Chris Patten view U.S.-EU relations?

September 17, 2004

How does outgoing EU Commissioner Chris Patten view U.S.-EU relations?

Britain’s Chris Patten has seen many battlefields. He has led Britain’s Conservative Party and served as Hong Kong’s High Commissioner during the handover to China. For the past five years, he served as the EU's Commissioner on External Relations. In this Globalist Document, we present his parting “shot” on the United States — drawn from his farewell speech before the European Parliament.

When just over two years ago, some of us expressed concerns that the United States was abandoning the sort of multilateralism which had characterized its foreign and security policy since the Second World War, we were strongly criticized.

America, we were assured, still wished to work with allies provided they shared Washington's view of how to cope with a dangerous world — and by and large kept any reservations to themselves.

Some allies did, indeed, accompany America to Baghdad, a venture not yet blessed with the easy and benign consequences that were famously predicted and promised.

Liberation rapidly turned into a brutally resisted occupation. Democracy failed to roll out like an oriental carpet across the thankless deserts of the Middle East. Above all, peace in Jerusalem and Palestine was not accomplished by victory in Baghdad.

So, partly because American neo-conservative unilateralism had clearly failed to establish an empire of peace, liberty and democracy, we have been more recently advised that allies and multilateralism were back in fashion in Washington.

Even the United Nations was deemed to have its uses. Vivat the State Department.

All done and dusted then? Sighs of relief all round?

Can we now look forward to the restoration of that old-fashioned notion that allies have to be led, not bossed and that multilateral institutions have their important uses even for the world's only superpower — that, pace Machiavelli, there is much to be said for being admired and not just feared?

The rhetoric of the present U.S. election campaign inevitably raises a few questions. I do not seek to take sides. America elects its president and Congress. The rest of the world looks on.

We in Europe should work as well as we can with whoever wins. We are not partisans in the process — whatever our private opinions.

Moreover, I am not so naïve as to confuse campaign rhetoric with a Platonic dialogue. But campaign rhetoric does reflect something — and what is reflected here is pretty unsettling.

If you want to get a cheap cheer from certain quarters in America, it seems that all you have to do is to bash the U.N., or the French — or the very idea that allies are entitled to have their own opinions.

Multilateralists, we are told, want to outsource American foreign and security policy to a bunch of garlic-chewing, cheese-eating wimps.

The opinions of mankind — which the Founding Fathers of the United States thought their country should note and respect — are to be treated with contempt unless, I suppose, they faithfully reflect the agenda of the American Enterprise Institute and Fox T.V.

What are we to make of all this? First, multilateralism is above all in the best interests of the United States, a point which previous administrations would not have questioned — and most political leaders would have subscribed to for the past 60 years.

Second, surely the national interest of the superpower is to put its traditional allies on the spot, not challenging their right to consultation, but probing what they have to say and how they intend to turn their rhetoric about co-operation into effective, not effete, multilateralism.

How, to take one obvious point, do we intend to go about not just draining the swamps in which terrorism breeds — but also shooting some of the crocodiles?

Further, how and when will we countenance the use of force to support the international rule of law? A question which we in Europe regularly duck.

If the political culture of American exceptionalism excludes the notion of working with and talking to foreigners, if unpopularity overseas is taken as a mark of distinction, a source of pride, too many Europeans will make the mirror-image mistake of thinking that sniping at America is the same as having a European foreign and security policy.

What I most worry about is that — on either side of the Atlantic — we will bring out the worst in our traditional partners. The world deserves better than testosterone on one side and superciliousness on the other. American and European citizens deserve better, too.

After all, they face the same dangers and the same challenges. I want a Europe which is a super-partner not a super-sniper — a super-partner of a respected global leader. Any alternative to that offers only the prospect of a more perilous and a more querulous future.

Excerpted from Mr. Patten's farewell speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg on September 15, 2004.