Regaining European Foreign Policy Visibility and the London Conference on Afghanistan
January 26, 2010
Q1: What were the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, and the new EU high representative for foreign policy, Lady Catherine Ashton, doing in Washington last week?
A1: Unfortunately, the understandable and extensive media coverage last week of both the Haitian earthquake and the political earthquake that struck the state of Massachusetts largely overshadowed the Washington visits of two senior European officials. The purpose of the visit by British foreign secretary Miliband was to consult with senior U.S. officials and testify before Congress prior to the London Conference on Afghanistan on January 28. The London Conference, conceived by British prime minister Gordon Brown, French president Nicholas Sarkozy, and German chancellor Angela Merkel last fall, is seen as a significant opportunity for European leaders to showcase their civilian and foreign aid contributions to Afghanistan while convincing a highly skeptical public that European Afghanistan policy isn’t simply about troop contributions. The London Conference can also be viewed as the beginning of a transition period as Europeans move away from greater military involvement and shift their support more toward development assistance to Afghans and their local institutions.
Although Afghanistan is one of the most politically sensitive subjects for most European leaders, interestingly the second visitor to Washington, the European Union’s new high representative, had the more difficult visit of the two. Thanks to a myriad of European (read largely French) criticisms leveled at her regarding her (read the European Union’s) lack of on-the-ground visibility during the earliest days of the Haitian earthquake relief effort, Lady Ashton’s visit with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a welcome respite from her critics. However, her introductory visit largely failed to generate much interest and media exposure in Europe let alone here in Washington. The overall failure by these two high-ranking officials to make “news” on issues of importance to Washington speaks loudly about the diminishing state of visibility of European foreign policy.
Q2: What should we look for by way of greater European contributions announced at the London Conference?
A2: The German government announced today a significant boost in its contributions to Afghanistan as Afghan president Hamid Karzai visits Berlin en route to the London Conference. By doubling its development assistance, providing $70 million to a newly created Taliban reintegration initiative, plus pledging an additional 850 troops, Germany has stepped forward to provide substantial aid despite a continuing domestic controversy over the September 4 Kunduz airstrike and recent comments by General Stanley McChrystal that German troops currently in Afghanistan are “essentially irrelevant” if they are only allowed to leave their camps in armored vehicles. While the German pledge falls well short of the 2,500 troops Washington originally sought from Berlin, the Obama administration will certainly welcome this new German effort, although it entails significantly greater risk to German soldiers. Now, the focus turns to a potential French contribution. Thus far, Paris has given no indication that it has seriously considered increasing its 4,000-strong contingent stationed in the Kapisa Province north of Kabul.
A boost in both German and French troops would provide additional momentum and lend increased international legitimacy to the new U.S. strategy announced by President Obama at West Point on December 1. Since Obama’s announcement of the Afghanistan surge, nearly 7,000 additional non-U.S. troops will come from European countries despite widespread unpopularity. Having said this, even if the conference generates new funding commitments and establishes a clear roadmap for coordinating civilian assistance, fairly or unfairly the ultimate success or failure of the conference is likely to be judged by how many additional foreign troops are pledged to the NATO security effort.
Q3: How is Afghanistan affecting transatlantic relations? Is Europe becoming marginalized in Washington’s view?
A3: Europe finds itself in a post-Copenhagen Conference and post-Lisbon Treaty despondency over its perceived diplomatic failings at the very moment when the European Union believed it had finally achieved greater policy unity and cohesion. European political elites are growingly increasingly frustrated that their policy arguments and leadership are not winning the day despite providing significant monetary and political investments—be that in Haiti, Afghanistan, or on climate change policy. In Copenhagen, Europeans were relegated to the sidelines when leading and emerging powers made critical decisions on an issue that Europe cares most about. If the London Conference continues to reinforce the perception that Europe is incapable of speaking with one voice and unable to “deliver” on the most pressing global challenges, U.S. foreign policy may continue its gradual shift from the Eurocentric world order it has held for so long and increasingly gravitate toward emerging powers in Asia and elsewhere. The London Conference itself is not going to make or break the transatlantic relationship by any means, but it is hoped that it will have the effect of snapping Europe out of its current funk so it can begin to deploy its substantial “smart power” in full collaboration with the United States. If not, Europe may continue to find itself watching significant geopolitical events from the global sidelines. Today’s decision by the German government is an encouraging start as the United States and the Atlantic Alliance need Europe to get back in the game—right now.
Heather A. Conley is senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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