Monday, May 20, 2013

Diplomatic Fallout: A More Hawkish Europe Gives U.S. Second Thoughts

Photo: Irish soldiers deployed in the EUFOR Chad mission at the handover to U.N. peacekeeping forces, Abeche, Chad, March 2009 (photo by Ray Frenk, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License).

Does the U.S. genuinely want its European allies to police their geopolitical backyard? When it comes to the Syrian crisis, the answer seems to be no. Last week, the Obama administration signaled that it intends to set the diplomatic pace over Syria as the U.S. and Russia announced joint plans for a peace conference. This was not only an accommodating gesture to the Russians—who, as I argued in this column last week, have made immense political capital out of the conflict—but also a setback for Britain and France, which have agitated for a more hawkish Western line, including arming the Syrian rebels.

British and French diplomats have little choice but to go along with the Russo-American proposal. If the conference is a failure, they may argue that it reinforces the case for a more aggressive approach. But regardless of the outcome, they may also reflect on the paradox that while the Obama administration has frequently called for Europe to take more responsibility for its own security, Washington is often nervous about the results.

Throughout President Barack Obama’s first term, senior American officials emphasized the need for Europe to increase its diplomatic and military capabilities. Playing the good cop, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made considerable efforts to boost the European Union’s nascent External Action Service and its oft-criticized foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Clinton's first counterpart at the Department of Defense, Robert Gates, was the bad cop, making a series of forthright criticisms about Europe’s lack of military clout as he neared retirement in 2011. 

More practically, in 2012, the U.S. announced a reduction of its remaining forces in Europe. European officials frequently grumble about Washington’s pivot to Asia, but they accept it as a fact. This was underlined by a major French defense white paper published at the end of April, which warned that the U.S. is becoming more “selective” in its commitments. As the Economist noted, senior French officials “worry that this could touch not just the Sahel and North Africa, but even Egypt and the Middle East.”

Britain, traditionally obsessive about the Atlantic alliance, has responded to the messages coming from the U.S. by deepening defense cooperation with France. Paris and London have also worked in tandem on both Libya and Syria, and the U.K. hastened to assist the French intervention in Mali. This cross-channel diplomacy is peripheral to the great debates inside the EU about austerity and the eurozone and, as I have previously noted, it has sometimes alienated Germany. But it looks very much like the first steps toward the development of the self-sufficient European security agenda the Americans say they want.

There are only two problems with this. First, however effectively they cooperate, European powers are still trapped in a cycle of defense cuts. Their limitations as military crisis managers are likely to increase rather than diminish in the years ahead. Second, the Obama administration seems to think that European diplomatic decision-making in recent crises has been at best erratic and at worst feckless.

As a recent article on Obama and interventionism by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker underlines, the White House was unimpressed by the initial Franco-British response to the war in Libya. U.S. officials felt that Paris and London were too eager to get into the fight, and take the U.S. with them, on the basis of a flawed plan for a no-fly zone that was unlikely to make much difference to the ground battle. When the U.S. eventually decided to support action, it insisted on a far broader campaign.

The U.S. was also uneasy with French proposals to manage the crisis in Mali last year. After early efforts to find a political solution to the rebellion that split the country in half in March 2012, France began to push plans to retrain government forces for new offensive operations and reinforce them with West African troops. American diplomats were deeply skeptical about these plans for multiple reasons, ranging from the reliability of the Malian military to regional political dynamics, and stalled them for months.

When France intervened directly in Mali in January, the U.S. was initially wary—there were reports that Washington had even tried to charge Paris for the cost of deploying American transport planes—although it soon ramped up its efforts. French officers emphasize that American logistical and intelligence assistance played a critical role in the campaign, just as U.S. assets and supplies were essential to the Libyan intervention.

Nonetheless, the Libyan and Malian crises exposed a trans-Atlantic rift over crisis management, especially along Europe’s southern flank in North Africa and the Middle East. Whereas the U.S. is committed to strategic caution, London and Paris are willing to experiment with tactical risk-taking. A similar pattern has emerged over Syria, as Britain and France have argued for military aid to the rebels while the U.S. has focused on the dangers of weaponry falling into the wrong hands. In all these crises, the U.S. priority has often appeared to be to impose some discipline on, or even constrain, its European allies.

This pattern is likely to continue in future crises due to the basic imbalance in power between the U.S. and its frustrated European friends. For Britain and France, tactical risk-taking is now a way of life. The two erstwhile superpowers lack the military, political and diplomatic resources to undertake the sort of comprehensive effort necessary to stabilize a crisis zone like Syria, and Afghanistan has taught them to be suspicious about such projects anyway. They have to try to shape crises with targeted interventions such as limited, rapid military operations and forging alliances with more-or-less reliable rebel groups.

The U.S. has faced, and will continue the face, the dilemma of whether it can back up these European adventures without overcommitting its much greater, but increasingly constrained strategic resources. In a manageable case like Mali, France may be able to conclude a short, sharp war with limited U.S. support. In Syria, by contrast, the British and French may be able to stir up trouble, but would need America to intervene more substantially. With friends like these, perhaps it’s no surprise that the U.S. is still trying to cooperate with Russia over Syria.

Richard Gowan is the associate director for Crisis Management and Peace Operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.

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