Europe and the post-Atlantic security order

by | Oct 4, 2011

It’s obvious that the Asia-Pacific will dominate American strategic thought for the foreseeable future.  Today an Obama administration official confirmed just that:

The Obama administration is “rebalancing” U.S. foreign policy by enacting a “turn to Asia,” a senior State Department official said Tuesday.  “As the long shadow of 9/11 recedes, we are witnessing the re-emergence of the Asia-Pacific as a key theater of global politics and economics,” Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of State, told a House panel.

What does this mean for America’s NATO allies?  This is a topic I addressed briefly in an op-ed for the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), which has launched an enjoyable online debate about transatlantic cooperation:

Since the Iraq war peaked, US strategic debate has increasingly shifted away from counter-insurgency and stabilisation operations to securing the Asia-Pacific. This has involved diplomatic outreach to India and South-East Asia and a military focus on China’s growing capabilities and its threat to US vessels in the western Pacific.

The European security debate is also evolving, but it is driven by financial concerns. While China’s rise will frame American security policy for years ahead – even in the event of a major terrorist attack – no comparable challenge shapes European worldviews. Russia’s uneven resurgence worries many EU and NATO members, but Moscow’s ambitions centre on energy deals and it does not present a true strategic game-changer. Instead, the need for austerity dominates European thinking.

Do European military forces  have any role to play in Asian-Pacific affairs?  In another contribution to the EUISS debate, Daniel Keohane argues that Europe won’t look far beyond its periphery, and he doesn’t find this surprising:

Put simply, the US is an Asian power, but the Europeans are not. This is not new. During the Cold war, France and Britain carried out a military operation in the Suez Canal, but they did not join the Americans in Vietnam.

Indeed, future historians may conclude that Afghanistan was the exception that proved this post-World War II rule. Most Europeans went to Afghanistan for the sake of their close relationship with the United States, not because it was an existential threat to their security. That unhappy experience makes it very unlikely that Europeans would follow Americans on future military operations beyond Europe’s neighbourhood.

Richard Gowan, therefore, is right about the emerging strategic divergence between Europeans and Americans. But for Europeans the issue is not so much that the Pentagon cares more about Asia; it is that Washington cares much less about Europe.

There are lots of other contributions to the EUISS debate, and they’re all worth a look.  But most of them don’t really address the problem of Europe’s (ir)relevance in the Pacific theater.  Quite a few contributors are still focused on the need for better Euro-American cooperation in the European theater instead, and  all (including Daniel and me) recognize that financial concerns will affect both European and American security policy very deeply.  Nonetheless, I wonder whether the European Security community – and U.S. commentators focused on Europe – have really grappled with the implications of a shift from an Atlantic-centered to a post-Atlantic security order…


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