Elephants in the Room
U.S.-EU Obligations Should Cut Both Ways in 2018
The United States should be able to count on Europe’s help in isolating Iran.
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, was doing little to disguise her mood. Standing next to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a press conference in Brussels earlier this month, she spoke, lips pursed, in clipped phrases that underscored her opposition to possible changes in U.S. policy. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “must absolutely be avoided,” she argued, just as the Iran nuclear deal must be preserved as “a key strategic priority.”
For observers of Europe, Mogherini’s performance was unsurprising. Of all the major European officials, her criticisms of the Trump administration have been the most strident, bordering on gratuitous. This style reflects a new strategic confidence Mogherini telegraphed as early as the presidential transition. “European decisions are not linked to political decisions in Washington,” she said in Dec. 2016. “Case by case, you will find issues where I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Europeans and the Russians on the same side — Iran deal, Middle East peace process, possibly the role of the U.N.” In 2018, the task of the Trump administration in Europe will be to work against this downgrading of the transatlantic alliance.
At base, Mogherini’s approach exploits the institutional difference between the NATO and the EU. NATO is a military alliance focused on deterrence that leans overwhelmingly on American power. To guard its flanks, European leaders need and expect American reassurances that collective defense under Article V of NATO’s foundational treaty remains sacrosanct. By contrast, the EU has very limited hard power levers but the mandate to stake out, at least rhetorically, foreign policy positions on select issues. EU officials like Mogherini have seized on this opening to support and oppose, praise and harangue the U.S. on an issue-by-issue basis at the EU, all while insisting that the United States remains Europe’s great power protector through NATO. In effect, Europeans in Brussels are having their cake and eating it too.
This matters less on issues outside of the security sector, like disagreements over the Paris climate agreement. In fact, it is entirely possible to pursue parallel or separate strategies on some hot-button topics. When such differences arise amongst allies, however, they should be expressed forcibly in private and respectfully in public. To do otherwise risks exacerbating a worrying collapse in western European support for the United States and a growing American apathy toward Brussels. In outright conflict situations, however, it is essential that the West adopt a unified position in support of American power. Nowhere is this more obvious and immediate than with U.S. policy toward Iran.
Since January 2016, when the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), went into effect, Iran has gained access to $100 billion of frozen funds parked in escrow accounts around the world. At the same time, Iran has drastically expanded its trading volume abroad, including with the EU by billions of euros a year. Taken together, these funds have powered an ongoing Iranian breakout across the Middle East aimed at destroying the American-led regional order.
In a major address in October, President Donald Trump announced his intention to confront Iran’s malign activities across the Middle East. Any effective sanctions regime against Iran, however, requires the participation of Europe, which, in turn, means forging a common vision of the Iranian threat. The JCPOA grants Iran sweeping sanctions relief in return for temporary limitations on its nuclear program. If it were up to the Trump administration alone, it would push back on Iran’s regional breakout through the imposition of wide-ranging sanctions that truly deprive Iran of resources — actions that Tehran argues would impinge on the nuclear accord. Crucially, for the Europeans, launching such a major sanctions campaign to roll back Iran is unacceptable if it risks the nuclear accord. This puts the United States in the weakened position of confronting Iran on the one hand while U.S. allies enrich it on the other.
In the short run, this may be unavoidable. However, our European allies have also signaled a willingness to take steps to counter Iran in narrower, specific ways. Most prominently, French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a new diplomatic process to tackle Iran’s continued testing of ballistic missiles. The United States should seize on such opportunities and press aggressively for closer coordination on key fronts we deem outside of the JCPOA, such as against Hezbollah.
If it were up to Mogherini, Europe would chart its own course in the Middle East. In November, she dismissed any effort to work with the Americans on Iran, including Macron’s proposal. In a similar vein, the German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, delivered a major address earlier this month in which he called on Europeans to pursue their interests jointly “rather than to submit to domination by U.S. policies.” This vision of a multilateral order with an independent European pole carries hidden risks, however. If today’s transatlantic alliance rests on uneven ground, the foundation of a common European policy is outright quicksand.
European unity is a chimera maintained by Brussels. For all of Mogherini’s bluster, several eastern European states refused earlier this month to vote in the U.N. against the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Now, the European Commission is in the midst of a major dispute with Warsaw over Polish judicial reforms. Meanwhile, in western Europe, Great Britain’s departure from the EU hints at the high-level of popular unease with the EU among major members (France and Germany) as well as smaller states (Austria and the Netherlands). Even between European regions, the continent is divided between east and west, north and south on questions of migration, energy, and fiscal policy.
Under these conditions, it would be an especially grave mistake for Europe to separate from the United States. Only the United States has the power and trust among countries on the continent to unite Europe and lead major initiatives, like repairing relations with Turkey and deterring Russian aggression. For Europeans like Mogherini, it is important to remember that such obligations cut both ways: So long as the United States serves as Europe’s guarantor, it should be able to count on Brussels in the arduous process of isolating Iran.