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US and Europe

May 26, 2018

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“IT is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that country is to be marked out as the eternal ally or perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Lord Palmerston said this to the House of Commons in March 1848 but his words were misunderstood and misquoted.

However, interests do not speak by themselves; they are perceived. Europe’s perception of its ally America was affected by its policies on Iraq. President Donald Trump’s cry of ‘America First’ shook its complacency. Now, his decision to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran has shattered it. His abrupt calling off of the summit with Kim Jong-un will add to the distrust. The first retort came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel last year, when she said in French President Emmanuel Macron’s presence, “It’s no longer the case that the United States will simply just protect us. Rather, Europe needs to take its fate in its own hands. That’s the task for the future.”

Macron asked Europe to unite and assert European sovereignty in the face of unilateral moves by the US on Iran and climate change. He urged Europe to defend the multilateral global order to ensure Europe’s sovereignty. The two are linked. Such language had never been heard before though foreign ministers Hubert Védrine of France and Joschka Fischer of Germany came close to it.

Europe’s perceptions of its interests have changed.

Now we have French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire asking Europeans not to act as ‘vassals’ of the US. He wants European companies to continue trade with Iran despite Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions. Le Maire made a far-reaching proposal: set up a European body with the same powers as the US Justice Department to punish foreign companies for their trade practices. European and US companies will lose billions in commercial deals stuck since the accord with Iran in 2015 and also lose access to a major new export market.

The most meaningful words were said by the European Council president, Donald Tusk, this month: “The EU should be grateful to Donald Trump for his latest decisions ... Thanks to him we got rid of all illusions. We realise that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.”

Things won’t be the same again; even if the differences are reconciled eventually. Despite those protests, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced, on May 21, the “strongest sanctions in history” against Iran. It is unlikely that Europe will back down. The consequences will be political and economic.

Europe’s perceptions of its interests have changed. The latest rift will add to its disillusion and yearning for change. The North Atlantic Treaty did not make sense even when it was signed in 1949. Then secretary of state Dean Acheson assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the treaty “does not mean that the US would automatically be at war if one of the other signatory nations were the victim of an armed attack”. A State Department paper said it was not a military alliance.

The worst-case scenario on which it was based was an illusion even in 1949. Having lost 27 million of its people, the Soviet Union was not in a condition to invade Western Europe. The British minister in Moscow, Sir John Balfour opined “as a shrewd realist, Stalin, so far as can be judged, has no wish to overreach the limits within which he can prudently exercise autocratic power”. Stalin’s concerns centred on Eastern Europe. Churchill conceded that to him at Moscow in October 1944. Roosevelt sabotaged it. He sought a Pax Americana. Charles de Gaulle warned against it. Churchill banked on a ‘special relationship’ with the US.

After 1945, the US liked “to give orders, and if they are not at once obeyed, they become huffy”, Anthony Eden remar­ked in 1954. Christopher Meyer, the UK’s ambassador to the US (1997-2003), forbade use of the words ‘special relationship’ inside the embassy. “Most Americans, whether Republicans or Democrats, sophisticate or redneck, believe that their country’s actions in the world are intrinsically virtuous.”

The collapse of the USSR led to the ‘rise of the Vulcans’ which James Mann describes in his book of this title. The mood was summed up in Charles Krauthammer’s famous article ‘The Unipolar Moment’. The New York Times published in March 1992 a report by Patrick E. Tyler titled ‘US Strategy Plan Calls for Ensuring No Rivals Develop’. It was based on official documents. Thanks to Trump, that order is disintegrating. A new world order is emerging with an assertive Europe, a determined Russia and a China on the rise. The Third World can play its part in this process; if only it ends its own squabbles. Western Europe will not be able to forge a viable order without the participation of Russia.

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2018