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The EU: A Middle Eastern Power?

Will Europe let the United States control diplomatic relations in the Middle East?

September 24, 2003

Will Europe let the United States control diplomatic relations in the Middle East?

In March 2003, the Iraq debate among the EU members and between the Europeans and the Americans was continuing. At the same time, EU peacekeeping troops — led by a French general — finally took over from NATO the responsibility for keeping peace in Macedonia.

That independent EU troops — instead of military forces dominated by the United States — were playing a direct role in a region that is vital to European security could be seen as an intriguing precedent for future military roles. This is especially true for the Middle East, which certainly affects European interests.

One could envision, for example, an EU peacekeeping force between the Israelis and the Palestinians as part of an overall peace settlement. Another possibility would be EU troops protecting the borders between Northern Iraq and Turkey. They could even be deployed to other parts of Iraq, when U.S. troops withdraw from that country.

Any one of those hypothetical scenarios would be conducted within the context of the protection of vital European security interests.

Indeed, the time has come for Washington to consider a long-term policy of "constructive disengagement" from the Middle East. Such a policy would mean encouraging the Europeans to take upon themselves the responsibility of securing their interests in the region.

After all, the main rationale for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East during the Cold War was the need to help secure the strategic and economic interests of Western Europe (and Japan) as part of a strategy to contain the global threat of the Soviet Union.

America's expanding presence in the Middle East came in response to the inability of the Europeans, with their eroding economic base and military power in the aftermath of World War II, to protect their interests in the region.

Washington assumed the diplomatic, military and financial burden in the Middle East almost entirely on its own because European and Japanese interests were deemed compatible with, if not identical to, U.S. interests.

That U.S. policy permitted the Europeans to extract the strategic benefits of "free riders": America protected Western interests in the region — and assumed the costs of doing so.

Even during the 1980s, when Europe was emerging as an economic competitor to the United States, the Europeans did not have to devote many economic and military resources to protecting their interests in the region — and instead spent more money on their growing social welfare system.

At the same time, this strategic deal also created resentment among Europeans, who felt that the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East, including America's alliance with Israel, was hurting their interests.

The price that America paid for maintaining its leading position in the Middle East during the Cold War went beyond military and economic costs: It extended to the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets during the 1973 Middle East War and the Arab oil embargo. Anti-American terrorism was another very tangible cost of the United States' highly interventionist posture in the Middle East.

But we are now in an era more than 10 years after the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat. A time when Europe has become an economic superpower. There is no reason why the Europeans should not return to play a more active role in defending their interests in the Middle East.

This is not a call for a revival of European imperialism in the region. Rather, it is a recognition that Europe has an interest in a stable and peaceful Middle East — not unlike America's approach toward Central and Latin America. And there is no reason why the United States should continue paying the lion's share of the costs of maintaining order in that region on behalf of the Europeans.

Neoconservative analysts in the United States, such as Robert Kagan, supported the deployment of EU troops to Macedonia and Kosovo. But they have opposed such a plan in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In the neoconservative view, only Israel — or a large American military presence — can contain threats in the Middle East.

Indeed, from the perspective of policymakers in the Bush Administration, the long-term U.S. objective is to make the Middle East a different place, and one safer for American interests.

The strategy starts with Iraq — and aims to bring about an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that will come more on the terms of America's staunch ally in Israel.

In such a grand scheme, the Europeans could play only a supporting role by backing the United States and its policies. They will never be permitted to occupy the driver's seat. But such a scenario would obviously not be acceptable to either Old or New Europeans in the long run.

Moreover, a policy of trying to prevent the Europeans from protecting their interests in the Middle East runs contrary to the long-term U.S. interest of lowering its diplomatic and military profile in the region.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, U.S. policies in the Middle East have seemed to be running on autopilot. Despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat, U.S. presidents from George Bush the elder to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush have operated on one assumption: That the United States should continue to maintain its hegemonic position in the Middle East — while simultaneously minimizing the role of the Europeans.

During the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the costs of maintaining a dominant U.S. role seemed to be relatively low and were framed mainly in realpolitik and multilateral terms.

But under George W. Bush, the high costs of such a U.S. hegemonic role have become evident: A large military presence in the region, rising animosity toward the United States — and occasional acts of violence against Americans. Worse, they have been framed as part of an ambitious and never-ending imperial democratic project.

Following 9/11, Washington could have adopted different policies based on strategic cooperation between the United States and the EU (as well as Russia) in the war on terrorism. Such cooperation might have extended to dealing with sources of instability in the Middle East and the entire Crescent of Instability, stretching from the Balkans to the borders of China.

In that context, Iraq's alleged acquisition of WMD could have been dealt with through the mechanism of a strategic oligopoly, a kind of Congress of Vienna system involving several great powers, instead of by an American monopoly.

It should not be surprising, therefore, if the Europeans react to America's Middle East policies by providing an alternative agenda. This agenda may even exploit the growing anti-American sentiments in the region to Europe’s political and economic advantage.

It is difficult to predict whether the Americans and the Europeans will be able to prevent a Suez-in-reverse from taking place in the future. Great powers have rarely been able to adjust to changing power relations.

But the Congress of Vienna system, which helped to manage the complex relationship between the great powers of Europe in the 19th century, provides a model for the United States and Europe to follow in working together on their strategic interests in the Middle East.

If one assumes that the current Euro-American rift reflects a clash of interests — and not a clash of cultures — it is possible to envision a process whereby Europe and America could manage their respective relationships in the Middle East to mutually beneficial ends.

In the short run, the Europeans continue to move toward political and economic unification. They still lack diplomatic and military muscle — and they will not be able to advance an ambitious strategy aimed at challenging U.S. preeminence in the Middle East.

But the Europeans will probably also not wait for the American hegemon to throw them a few diplomatic and economic crumbs in the form of oil deals in Iraq — or a marginal role in drawing the "road map" to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Instead, the Europeans could try pursuing another more activist and constructive path — by using their "soft power" in dealing with the Middle East. More specifically, Europe could use its growing economic influence to maintain a relationship with the Middle East that is similar to the one between the United States and Mexico.