Lisbon Essay (21): Europeans cannot opt out of globalisation and its problems…

Richard Gowan notes that with the changing of the guard at the US Whitehouse President Obama is not likely to constrain himself to old alliances to deal with the problems of a much larger and more complex (not to mention more dangerous) world than most of us knew growing up… Richard notes that already huge amounts of time are being chewed up in 27 sets of bilaterals on different sets of policy initiatives … And he argues that since the focus of the US’s new global agenda dictates our building new relations with the rising economies of the developing world, like China, India and Brasil, Europe can no longer afford the luxury of speaking with separate voices on every single issue...

By Richard Gowan

Most American policy-makers don’t understand all the internal workings of the European Union. But the Obama administration knows that it wants an EU that can speak with a single voice on global issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation and the recession.

And the U.S. wants the EU to stabilize its neighborhood. When Vice President Joe Biden visited the Balkans in May, he took EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana with him.

Since coming into office, Mr. Obama’s officials have been frustrated to find their European partners disunited on many issues. This has been a particularly big problem in international institutions such as the UN and the G20, which the administration sees as essential to forging stable working relationships with rising powers like China and India.

But American officials find that much of their time is chewed up in bilateral talks with the EU’s 27 members. They’d like to see the Europeans rationalize their diplomacy so that the U.S. and EU alike can concentrate on reaching out to Asian and African states.

So the new administration welcomes the opportunities provided by the Lisbon Treaty to streamline European foreign policy-making. The Americans don’t imagine the Treaty will turn the EU into a superpower or transform Europe’s military capabilities. But they hope that it will turn the EU into a more effective advocate for international cooperation.

An effective EU wouldn’t always be at one with America. That has become clear in the climate change debate, in which European leaders have been critical of U.S. positions.

The Obama administration may not enjoy that sort of criticism. But, unlike the Bush team, it understands that diplomacy isn’t as simple as “you are with us or you against us”.

What the President and his colleagues do grasp is that – as Senator Deirde de Burca wrote on this blog (LE17) in the week – “collective action is not a choice, it is a necessity.”

That was Obama’s message at the UN last week: “no longer do we have the luxury of indulging our differences to the exclusion of the work that we must do together.”

Put more bluntly, the new administration has gone from the rhetoric of “you are with us or you are against us” to the logic of “we stand together or we hang alone” in facing global threats. The speed of this strategic shift has caught many in Europe off-guard.

Some skeptics argue that the transformation is only temporary. Mr. Obama’s domestic struggles on healthcare reform this summer certainly distracted him from global concerns. The Republican Party is not as moribund as it seemed in late 2008 – and its right wing will pick up on, and try to block, examples of the President’s internationalism.

But the anti-internationalists’ case will be strengthened if a feckless EU fails to get its act together on foreign policy. If U.S. diplomacy becomes entangled in constant efforts to keep bickering European leaders together, Republicans will accuse Obama of weakness.

The Lisbon Treaty won’t resolve any of these issues overnight – its initial impact on US-EU cooperation in the UN or G20 may be slight. But if the Treaty fails – whether thanks to Ireland, the Czech Republic or British Conservatives – the Obama administration will look elsewhere for allies. Europeans can’t opt out of globalization and all its problems. They shouldn’t detach themselves from U.S. efforts to define a new global diplomacy.

Richard Gowan lives in New York. He is Associate Director for Multilateral Diplomacy at the NYU Center on International Cooperation ( and UN Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty