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The coming transatlantic crisis—A Commentary by Bruce Ackerman ’67

The following commentary was published in The UK Guardian on Sept. 2, 2008.

The coming transatlantic crisis
By Bruce Ackerman ’67

A fundamental conflict is emerging between America and Europe. Europe's supreme strategic interest will increasingly become the definition and stabilisation of its border with Russia. This will also be an important matter for the United States, but it will not be all-important. As a consequence, Americans will be willing to trade off Europe's supreme interest against US objectives in other parts of the world.

This is a new problem. During the cold war, Americans and (western) Europeans shared an overriding interest in the integrity of the border dividing Germany in two. And after 1989, American power was so overwhelming that any potential conflict of interest was practically irrelevant. Russia was in no position to challenge the new eastern frontier, and that was that.

But with Georgia, this moment has come to an end. A resurgent Russia, however, does not pose the same sort of problem to America as the old Soviet Union. Russia isn't inclined to lead a worldwide struggle for ideological hegemony. Vladimir Putin is a great-power nationalist of a familiar sort. While his push for local hegemony threatens Europe's frontier, it poses only one of many problems facing the US. Hence the potential for Euro-American conflict.

Tension will be exacerbated by the overall decline in American power. The Bush administration's disastrous policies have brought a decisive end to America's overwhelming military, economic and moral ascendancy. The US is a declining hegemon, and this will create two kinds of tension.

The first stems from the disproportion between America's worldwide responsibilities and its capacities to fulfil them. As a declining hegemon, America will be sorely tempted to siphon European resources to meet other pressing objectives in other parts of the world - pressing Nato, for example, to send European troops to places like Afghanistan while Europeans might prefer to keep them in a strategic reserve as a safeguard of their eastern border. Overtime, this sort of pressure will cause real frictions to emerge.

A second pathology is also likely. Hegemons notoriously have trouble acknowledging their decline. They tend episodically to engage in provocative acts that no longer make sense if they were realistic about the new limits on their freedom of action - think of Suez in the 1950s. It is easy to dream up scenarios where the US provokes Russia and Russia responds with some counter-provocation on its western frontier, to the serious disadvantage of Europe.

The next American administration might respond to the Bush fiasco with extraordinary diplomatic tact. But it would be foolish for the Europeans to count on it, especially since they can take institutional steps to minimise the risks. For starters, the ratification of the Lisbon treaty would enhance the capacity of the European president, and the new foreign minister, to define the EU's distinctive interests in establishing a sensible relationship with Russia. If the EU presidency took more of a leadership role, America would be less inclined to sacrifice European interests as it responded to the many other problems it confronts throughout the world. Similarly, the serious development of a coordinated European force within Nato would give it much greater weight in troop deployment decisions.

Easier said than done. The emergency summit of the EU leadership may well reveal more cacophony than clarity in response to Russia's Georgian adventure. Nevertheless, we are only at the beginning of a decade-long adjustment to new strategic realities. On the European side, the operational question is whether Russian adventurism along the eastern frontier will create new pressures on Europe to find a package of incentives that will persuade the Irish to change their minds on the Lisbon treaty. On the US side, it is whether the new administration will encourage the Europeans to take more of a leadership role in dealing with Russia, and thereby lessen the burden of America's worldwide responsibilities, or whether it will perceive European leadership as a threat to its hegemonic pretensions.

In principle, this story can have a happy ending. After a period of strategic recalibration, the western alliance might well emerge as a more effective actor on Europe's eastern frontier and in the world at large. But this can't happen unless both America and Europe recognise that their strategic interests need realigning, and that the institutional status quo isn't enough.