A European moment

By Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to Britain and the ambassador to the US from 2001 to 2006 (THE GUARDIAN, 20/03/07):

In 1990, Charles Krauthammer published his famous essay on the “unipolar moment”, about America’s future power to shape the world at will: “The true geopolitical structure of the post-cold-war world … is a single pole of world power that consists of the United States at the apex of the industrial west.”In 2007, most will agree that the unipolar moment, if it ever existed, has passed. That is only underlined by the failure of the “unipolar experiment” – aka the invasion and occupation of Iraq – and the damage it inflicted on Washington’s international legitimacy and credibility. For traditional European Atlanticists, it does not make for pleasant viewing to see US leadership damaged and questioned. But expectations are low today regarding its ability to lead the international community. In the face of a US credibility crisis, some look to Europe to take the initiative and fill the vacuum. Can 2007 be a “European moment”?

Critics will contend that the EU is in no shape to lead, as it continues to grapple with its constitutional crisis, its inability to provide clear foreign policy guidance and its lack of military power. But on three critical global issues – nuclear non-proliferation, Middle East peace and climate change – it is better placed than anyone.

Opening nuclear negotiations with Tehran was a European idea in 2004, initially given a lukewarm reception by Washington. More recently, as the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) approach began to be seen as the only game in town, Washington has offered more active support, but so far always stopping short of speaking to Tehran directly on the nuclear issue. Bringing Russia and China on board was, again, a European initiative. If a solution emerges, it is likely to be European-brokered. There is much greater cohesion among Europeans on Iran than there was on Iraq five years ago: on Iran, the EU will not be split.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, barely any progress has been made over the past six years. The adoption of the “road map” and the creation of the quartet (EU, Russia, UN, US) were born of European ideas. They were formally endorsed by Washington, but never seriously pursued and later quasi-abandoned. This year, a major effort by the current EU presidency has led to the quartet’s revival, and more diplomatic activity. Many in the region doubt, however, whether Washington will have the determination necessary for a breakthrough in the peace process without even more active input from Europe. The European willingness to take more responsibility in the region, and to play a role in ending the Lebanon war in 2006, including the deployment of military forces to the country, was an eye-opener for many – in the region and beyond.

On climate change, the critical question is who can – and will – lead the international debate about a post-Kyoto regime. If a deal can be hammered out in 2007, and if it has any chance of endorsement in the US, China and India, it will most likely be the result of the EU’s ongoing efforts to move ahead with ambitious goals on CO2 emissions and energy saving.

But would a European moment in 2007 not be interpreted as a challenge to the global leadership role of the US?

Let’s not get carried away: without active American support, political and military, none of these major challenges can be resolved. Europeans should beware the hubris of challenging the US. But the European moment could actually enhance the transatlantic relationship by offering, at a crucial juncture, elements that America currently lacks: legitimacy and credibility. That is why our American friends should encourage European initiatives, embrace a European willingness to lead, and welcome the European moment.