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Open letter to Senators McCain and Obama - A personal contribution to the debate about EU-US

On the basis of your recent contacts with European leaders and of your visits here you can hardly be in any doubt as to the anticipation, at times amounting to feverish excitement, with which the US election in November and the arrival of one of you in the White House are awaited.  I have to say that this is partly a comment on the tenure and policies of your predecessor there who, despite some significant changes in tone and policy during his second term as President, never overcame the damage done by the unilateralist actions and policy errors of his first.

You will I am sure take all this adulation and media-hype with a pinch of salt. Just as no battle plan ever survives the first contact with the enemy, so the expectations currently being raised in Europe are excessive and are to be, at least in part, frustrated.  The honeymoon period will probably mainly fall this side rather than the far side of your inauguration.  Thereafter the need to grapple with the many challenges facing your administration will inevitably bring tensions with the Europeans, as well, we would hope as a renewed sense of common endeavour.

You will no doubt be told by some of your advisors and by much of the commentariat that you should not put too much weight on your relationship with Europe; they will say that Europe is in relative decline, challenged by demography and immigration; that we are obsessed with our internal institutional arrangements; inward looking and unwilling to back up words with deeds and hard decisions.  All these criticisms have some truth in them, but they are only part of the picture.  Moreover they have a tendency to be self-fulfilling; if you accept them as the whole reality, they could become it.  When you look at the international challenges which your administration faces, which of them will not be easier to handle in concert with the Europeans; with whom, outside Europe are your interests and values more closely aligned at the outset?

Obviously the most immediate policy challenges will involve the wider Middle East.  On Iraq it will be your call.  I fear that we Europeans will not be much help there; but at least we should not add to your problems.  Policy towards Iran, however, will involve the Europeans fully from the word go.  The Europeans will hope that you will be prepared to supplement the activity of the EU 3+3 with a direct dialogue with the Iranians, just as the US has already done in the case of North Korea.  They will probably be prepared for more turns of the sanctions screw, even ones which are not supported by the Russians and the Chinese in the Security Council, if the Iranian regime continues to progress towards the possession of fissile material and the capacity to make nuclear weapons.  Nothing will make them enthusiastic about a military option; and they will certainly hope that you will restrain any Israeli tendencies to upset the diplomatic apple-cart by taking unilateral action. 

Afghanistan is somewhere we will need to work together more effectively than in the past if we are not to fail or to remain bogged down indefinitely in the future; and that will require not only more military effort but, far more important in the long term, a better state and capacity-building performance than has been managed so far.  Some increase in European troop numbers and some whittling away of caveats should be achievable.  But why not challenge the Europeans to play to their “soft power” strengths and take the lead in the whole civilian side of the agenda?  (That was what George Bush senior did over Central and Eastern Europe when the Wall came down, and it worked).

One legacy you are likely to be bequeathed by your predecessor will be an ongoing Middle East Peace Process, albeit one which has so far cracked none of the really hard problems and which is handicapped by the weakness of the two main protagonists.  One of you has spoken of working on this problem “from the first day”; and that is certainly what we Europeans will be hoping for, having grown accustomed in the past to American presidents who wait until towards the end of their second term to address seriously a problem which most regard as at the heart of the battle for hearts and minds in the Islamic world.  Even if you may not be able to devote that much time yourself to the negotiations, it will be essential that someone acting with your full authority does so, not just your Secretary of State, fated to be let down when domestic opposition in the US demands it.  And this peace process must become a fully inclusive one on the Palestinian side if there is to be any hope of success, which will require your administration and the Europeans to talk to – but not in the first instance to negotiate with – Hamas.  A resumption of the Mecca agreement on a Palestinian unity government committed to a peaceful outcome and to negotiating with the Israelis in good faith may be the best route to take.

And there are the big global challenges we all face together, and not just Europeans and Americans, the challenges of climate change, of world trade policy and nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. 

On climate change it looks as if the interface between Europeans and Americans and the working out of commitments which each will undertake will not be the most challenging part of what will certainly prove to be an exceedingly difficult negotiation leading up to the Copenhagen Conference at the end of 2009.  Far more difficult will be judging and negotiating an acceptable degree of commitment by the main developing economies – China, India, Brazil, Mexico and others.  On both sides of the Atlantic siren voices can be heard arguing for the stick of protectionist measures being deployed if the developing countries remain recalcitrant.  It is to be hoped that you will avoid going down this road; the cure would be likely to be worse than the disease and, in any case, of doubtful effectiveness as a negotiating tool.

Whatever the state of the world trade negotiations when you take over, whether existing agreement on the framework for a deal requiring only the details to be thrashed out, or now far more likely continued deadlock in the Doha Round let us hope that, in office, you will give full support to concluding these multilateral negotiations successfully and will avoid the temptation of protectionism.  You will certainly remember that the Great Slump of the 1930’s was only turned from a financial crisis into a world economic collapse by the US’s Smoot-Hawley laws, imitated by the other main trading powers.  The same thing could happen again if due care is not taken as we travel through the current economic slowdown.  Of course Europe has its own protectionists who are pretty vocal; but always in the past, with the sole exception of the agricultural sector, the balance in Europe has been in favour of freer world trade and one could reasonably expect this to continue to be the case.

Europeans have so far barely noticed the support that both of you have now given to the programme drawn up for moving towards a nuclear weapons free world and for more effective non-proliferation policies by a bi-partisan group of US elder statesmen including George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn.  It is will be important that the Europeans, including, as will be essential, Britain and France – Europe’s two nuclear weapons states – are fully involved.  Pushing ahead with this agenda will require a lead from you and the Russians, who hold more than 95 per cent of the current stock of nuclear weapons; but it will also be likely to strengthen efforts to handle the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran and to ensure that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2010 is not another fiasco like the preceding one in 2005.

Neither Europe nor the outgoing US administration has yet found the right policy mix for handling a re-assertive Russia, buoyed up by high commodity prices and driven by post-imperial nostalgia.  Recent experience in Georgia has underlined that in spades.  So we will both need to address this issue at an early stage and to avoid the inevitable efforts by the Russians to drive wedges between us.  We will need to steer between the extremes of sliding back towards a new Cold War and of hand-to-mouth appeasement.  It will not prove easy to get the balance right, whether on missile defence, on Georgia and on it and Ukraine’s bid to join NATO and the EU or on Russia’s not very appealing ideas for international security architecture.

Well, that is quite a lot for a new US administration to be getting on with; and a huge range of issues on which Europeans and Americans are for better or for worse going to be heavily engaged.  The Europeans will need to be patient during the inevitable hiatus between US administrations but you will need to give a clear sense of direction at an early stage if events are not to run away with the agenda.  As to the institutions of global governance, I hope that you will not be drawn into supporting the flawed concept of a League of Democracies which, if pursued, would be likely to consume much time and effort to no great purpose.  Rather we need to work together to make existing institutions, the UN in particular, more effective.  It is surely high time too that the G8 was expanded to include as of right the main developing country economies such as India and China. 

This is an important moment for transatlantic relations which, if frittered away and wasted, will not soon recur.  European governments have not enjoyed the last eight years of getting at cross-purposes with the US; and they are worried by, but do not share, the anti-Americanism which has taken some root in their public opinions.  While the old, almost unquestioning, partnership of the Cold War era is not on offer, a new relationship which maximises points of agreement and carefully manages points of difference should, we believe, be attainable.  We have both, surely, learned over the last few years how capable each one is of frustrating and undermining the other’s objectives if we are at odds with each other. 

David Hannay, 24.09.08

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