Assertive Supremacy: The U.S. & ‘Unity of Europe’

December 15, 2009

On December 15, 2009, AGI hosted a lecture by DAAD/AGI fellow Dr. Klaus Larres on “Assertive Supremacy: The United States and the ‘Unity of Europe.'” In the discussion, Dr. Larres focused on the first two chapters of his forthcoming book, which analyzes the impact of America’s dominant international position on the political, strategic, economic, and cultural transformation processes within Europe. As his major thesis, Dr. Larres pointed out that the United States at times pursued policies which appeared to be generous toward Europe, for example, establishing the European Recovery Plan in the aftermath of World War II to rebuild Europe’s economy; however, the U.S. consistently behaved in the traditional manner of a great power, calculating acceptable short-term costs and expecting long-term gains.

Dr. Larres focused his lecture on “major turning points” in European-American relations, after which the nature of transatlantic relations in general as well as America’s politics toward the unity of Europe fundamentally and irreversibly changed. The cumulative result of these changes, Dr. Larres argued, was the emergence of a “values gap” in transatlantic relations during the post-Cold War era on issues such as unilateralism vs. multilateralism; nationalism vs. patriotism; militarism vs. pacifism; and the perception of leadership.

From 1945-2009, Dr. Larres argued, U.S. foreign policy appeared to be ambivalent in terms of alternately promoting greater European unity and integration and then by turns dominating it or attempting to sideline it. Put differently, at times the United States wanted Europe to be a partner but at other times viewed it suspiciously as a rival and a competitor, which would counter U.S. interests. He cited cases in which the U.S. seemed to have ulterior motives for contributing generously to European interests; for example, to make Western Europe a bulwark against Soviet communism by strengthening it economically and militarily, including the establishment of NATO. The United States of course had an interest in a peaceful and democratic Europe. Borrowing a term from Alexis de Tocqueville, Dr. Larres described U.S. policy toward Europe as the pursuit of “enlightened self-interest.”

Dr. Larres argued that during periods of economic hardship in the United States, the U.S. tended to demand more input and cooperation from its European partners to contribute to U.S. global aims. When Europe appeared to be increasingly independent and at the same time more assertive and less subservient, the U.S. also tended to increase bi-lateral arrangements rather than strengthen a more forcefully independent Europe. During periods of economic fortune in the United States, the U.S. tended to pursue its agenda more aggressively in Europe.

Dr. Larres cited the Bretton Woods conference, creating flexible currency exchange rates, the OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s, and the Vietnam War as several critical factors in altering transatlantic relations. Periods during which the U.S. dollar weakened relative to European currencies, particularly the German Deutsch Mark, increased the relative soft-power of Europe at the same time, which sometimes frustrated American foreign policy interests. During the Vietnam War and the détente policy toward the Soviet Union, the United States was preoccupied with geopolitical centers other than Europe, and Europe realized that it would increasingly need to look after its own interests.

The collapse of communism from 1989-91 was a critical moment in history during which transatlantic relations took a positive turn, which was the result of deft and insightful leadership, particularly on the part of U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had a good professional relationship. During the “2 +4” negotiations, the United States, and East and West Germany were initially the only supporters of German unification among the Allied Powers, and ultimately prevailed. The eastern part of Germany joined NATO, and the future of both EU and NATO expansion began, although at the time further expansion was not foreseen or discussed.

Nevertheless, it would soon be clear that Europe would have to be organized by Europeans. The Balkan conflict revealed, however, the discrepancy between conception and capability, and perhaps it also demonstrated the continued necessity for the transatlantic partnership, even as it changed and adapted to modern historical circumstances. The Europeans were unable at the time to prevent the genocide in the former Yugoslavia, and the United States slowly and hesitantly became directly involved.

Europe is now more independent from the United States than it was during the Cold War. The euro has become a powerful common currency, and Europe is becoming more integrated as the Lisbon Treaty comes into effect. Even so, there are many global challenges that the U.S. and Europe must face together. The trade relationship between the U.S. and the EU is the largest in the world, and economic ties and common cultural interests are likely to determine the future of the transatlantic relationship.