Despite Rhetoric Trans-Atlantic Alliance is Alive and Well

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week delivered a speech urging reconciliation among allies ostensibly torn asunder by the US invasion of Iraq. According to international affairs scholar Mohammed Ayoob, however, the US-EU alliance was never in danger. Whatever differences might arise over specific foreign policy issues, Ayoob maintains, the overriding objective of the Concert is to retain their economic and military preeminence. Member states' roles in multinational financial institutions and strategic alliance with the United States allow them to maintain this position. The result is a world revolving not around a solitary superpower, but rather around a select group of northern industrialized democracies with a common grand strategy. "In the eyes of the alliance," Ayoob concludes, "the Concert's absolute gains trump gains or complaints of individual member states." Certainly, the complaints of Iraq – or any other non-member – pale even further in comparison. – YaleGlobal

Despite Rhetoric Trans-Atlantic Alliance is Alive and Well

Behind the jabs over Iraq, the United States and Europe share remarkably common goals
Mohammed Ayoob
Monday, February 14, 2005
Winning smile: Condoleezza Rice won plaudits in Europe but the health of the Trans-Atlantic alliance was never in doubt

EAST LANSING, Michigan: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent trip to Europe aimed above all at mending fences with two leading European allies that opposed the invasion of Iraq. US-France relations seemed to have particularly soured on this issue, as exemplified by Rice's previous statement that Russia should be forgiven and Germany ignored for their opposition, while France deserved to be punished. However, her major foreign policy speech in Paris on February 8 marked a remarkable reversal of rhetoric: "History will surely judge us not by our old disagreements, but by our new achievements." A closer look, however, shows that behind the waxing and waning of rhetoric, the health of the Atlantic Alliance was never in doubt.

Rice's visit and the increasingly conciliatory noises emanating from both sides of the Atlantic indicate that the differences over Iraq were an aberration unlikely to affect the long term stability of the alliance. Alarmist analyses about the health of the trans-Atlantic alliance – so popular in the wake of the Iraq War – underestimated the alliance's endurance. Emphasizing selected dimensions of the US-European relationship, these analyses neglected the larger picture. Observers underestimated the ties that bind the affluent, industrialized, and powerful countries of the global North. They undervalued its resilience, as they failed to recognize – or deliberately ignored – the common grand design that underpins the North Atlantic Concert, the major industrialized democracies of Western Europe and North America.

The major objective of this Concert is to retain its member states' privileged position in economic and security arenas by concentrating wealth in the global North, controlling access to strategic resources, and retaining a decisive global military advantage. Even during the heyday of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Concert was as much concerned with preserving its economic, technological, and military stature as it was with countering the Soviet threat. With that threat now dissipated, this dimension of their common agenda has become increasingly salient.

The Concert controls the international economic regime through its preponderance in multilateral financial institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank, and through the G-7 – the apex body that in many ways governs the international economic system. Through these institutions, Concert states use the mantra of globalization to force open vulnerable economies. They meanwhile protect their own developed economies through tariff and non-tariff barriers from floods of cheap products from the global South – products that could harm the interests of influential lobbies in the West. Similarly, the intellectual property rights regimes protect industrialized states' interests, despite the harm to crucial sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, in poorer nations. While advocates of globalization call for the free mobility of capital, which benefits the North, few ever speak of the free mobility of labor, which would aid the South.

A similar trend is visible in the military sphere, where technology has facilitated the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The United States sits in lonely glory at the top of the technological-military pyramid. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States accounted for nearly half of the world's total military expenditure in 2003, with the high-income countries together accounting for three-quarters of the total. Other estimates denote that Washington spent two and one-half times the EU members' defense expenditures in 2003. The gap in resources devoted to military R&D is even greater among the developed countries; the US federal budget for fiscal year 2005 allocated US$70 billion for this purpose, more than any other country or group of countries. More importantly, US military R&D is at the cutting edge of high-tech weapons research – possibly a generation ahead of research elsewhere in the industrialized world.

The group of major industrialized European countries plus Japan and Israel are clustered probably two-thirds of the way up the RMA pyramid, primarily because, as US allies, they share in technological advances. The rest of the states form the base of the pyramid, except for a few, such as China and maybe India, who are steadily clawing their way up. For those toward the bottom of the pyramidal structure, the extreme gap in technological prowess inspires feelings ranging from discomfort to fear of unwanted intervention, as in Yugoslavia and Iraq.

All members of the dominant Concert are committed to maintaining this stratification in the economic and security spheres. This is the glue that binds them, despite occasional policy differences. Any existing differences are tactical; the objective of maintaining the Concert's dominance is never in question. Sometimes, as with Iraq, the United States may rush ahead of its allies because of its unrivaled power or the influence of domestic lobbies. Though allies may express discomfort, they quickly maneuver to bridge the gap between the United States and those most uneasy with American unilateralism. Post-Iraq War actions, both within and outside the UN, have demonstrated the eagerness on both sides not to let tactical differences permanently damage the cohesion of their Concert.

Periodic demonstrations of such tactical differences often help advance collective objectives. In the case of Iran, for instance, the Europeans and the Americans have engaged in what could be seen as a delicately crafted "good cop, bad cop" routine. This dynamic has given the Europeans extra clout with Tehran by implying that if Iran failed to reach an agreement on the nuclear issue, the Europeans may not be able to curb US interventionist proclivities. The prospect of US unilateralism is a good ploy with which to scare recalcitrant states.

The current Concert is, however, unique in the history of alliances because one member has a tremendous advantage over the others in terms of military capabilities. The United States has greater leverage because it acts as the Concert's security guarantor against threats, whether from terrorist groups or "rogue" states, likely to emanate from outside the global North. While this may make for a division of labor, it does not fundamentally diminish the unity of the Concert. Given the congruence of interests among the industrialized states of the global North, America's unrivaled clout underwrites the Concert's overall deterrence and compellence capabilities.

Due to the unprecedented military predominance of the United States, the world may appear unipolar. However, this asymmetry does not detract from the unity of purpose demonstrated by the North Atlantic Concert not merely during the post-Cold War period, but from the 1950s onward. The Iraq War will cause no lasting rifts among members: In the eyes of the alliance, the Concert's absolute gains trump gains or complaints of individual member states.

The same cannot be said of the Concert's relationship with the rest of the international community, as seen in relationships with countries such as Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Libya. Also demonstrative is the implicit threat against other states, including China and Russia, who may be obdurate enough to defy the vital interests of the Concert. We still live in a basically realist world.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations, Michigan State University. This commentary previews the central argument of a much longer and far more comprehensive article coauthored with Matthew Zierler that is scheduled to appear in the Spring 2005 issue of World Policy Journal.

© 2005 The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.