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Power, purpose, practice

Thomas RisseOctober 18, 2012

The EU and the US seem to have lost their way in terms of using their power capabilities in a globalized world. Regardless of who wins the US election, they need to work on improving their ties, writes Thomas Risse.

Fertige Flaggen (EU, USA) in der Fahnenfabrik Dommer in Stuttgart, Foto: Jürgen Effner +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

What do President Obama and the European Union have in common? They have both been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. However, the EU received the prize in recognition of its 60 years securing peace and prosperity and in spite of its current crisis. In contrast, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just one year into his presidency as an encouragement for the future and in spite of a hitherto non-existing foreign policy record. Today, it remains unclear whether Obama actually deserved the prize in light of the past three years, while it is equally unclear whether the EU will be worthy of the prize in the years to come.

Nevertheless, the two Nobel Peace Prizes symbolize the hopes of the international community in the US and its president as well as in the EU and its members. But are these hopes justified? The US and the EU face similar challenges in the coming years and irrespective of who wins the American presidential elections. These challenges have in common that they all concern the alignment of the three Ps that it takes to influence international affairs in a globalized world - power, purpose, and practice.

The three Ps

The first challenge concerns the very base of being a force in world politics to be reckoned with - power. The challenge is domestic and concerns maintaining economic growth and prosperity while controlling budget deficits and public debt levels which have spiraled out of control. For the EU, this is a matter of sheer survival as a community, since the entire project of European integration is at stake. This means, however, that the chances are pretty good that the EU will be able to meet the challenge. If financial markets bet against the ability of the EU to overcome its current crisis, they will lose a lot of money.

As to the US, the chances are less clear and again irrespective of who wins the presidential elections. Getting the US debt levels under control requires bipartisanship in Congress. The fate of the Bowles-Simpson report of 2010 (Presidential commission set up to improve fiscal sustainability - the ed.), however, does not bode well for the US ability to deal with the challenge, since it fell victim to partisan bickering in Washington.

The second challenge relates to the ability of the US and the EU to use its power for purpose and practice, the other two Ps. If the US and the EU meet the first challenge and manage to overcome their current domestic problems (big "ifs"), they will retain sufficient - hard and "soft" - power capabilities that are necessary to play significant roles in a globalized world. But they have to translate power into purpose, that is, into strategic visions of how the world should look like and where one wants to be in the future.

The US used to have a liberal internationalist vision, but this vision is increasingly blurred by growing isolationist as well as unilateral tendencies, both among Republicans and among Democrats. The EU has developed a vision during the past ten years of "effective multilateralism" or "multilateralism with (military) teeth" promoting peace, human rights, and democracy. Yet, neither the US nor the EU have been very eager and successful in translating their power capabilities and their purpose into practice over the past 10 years.

As to the US, it must get used to the fact that the rise of China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and other "emerging powers" will change world politics in fundamental ways and that its formidable military power cannot be translated into political influence without a purpose that is considered legitimate by the international community. Moreover, the presidential election campaigns document that American purpose and practice are increasingly contested between unilateral tendencies (exemplified by some forces in Mitt Romney's foreign policy team), continued liberal internationalism (the majority in Obama's camp), and growing isolationism among both Republicans and Democrats (increasingly supported by a war-weary electorate). So, at the moment, the US projects more confusion than consistency with regard to purpose and practice.

Thomas Risse, Professor für internationale Politik an der FU Berlin Copyright: Thomas Risse via Robert Mudge, DW Englisch
Thomas RisseImage: Thomas Risse

As to the EU, it has a fantastic track record in maintaining peace and prosperity among its members and in bringing in new members in the community. But the EU has yet to learn that in a globalized world, one must "either hang together or assuredly will hang separately," to quote Benjamin Franklin. The EU's foreign policy has not yet managed to turn purpose into practice which means first and foremost to speak with one voice in world politics.

Testing transatlantic ties

If the US and the EU get their acts together and meet the second challenge of putting power and purpose into practice, they still face a third challenge, that is, managing their own transatlantic relationship. This relationship has suffered over the past 12 years, and not much has changed since President Obama entered office, unfortunately. NATO, the transatlantic security community, is still trying to find a purpose in a globalized post-Cold War world. It has not come to grips with its future mission, whether it wants to assume a global role or whether it should remain a primarily regional alliance.

With regard to economic issues, the US and the EU have not been able to get their act together and to agree proposals for world economic governance in the aftermath of the 2008 economic and financial crisis. The public diplomacy between President Obama and the Europeans during the euro crisis demonstrates significant differences in macro-economic policies. So, the transatlantic relationship is somehow "hanging in there," but its purpose and its practice are increasingly blurred.

In sum, the US and the EU face similar challenges in the coming years. While they maintain formidable economic and military power capabilities, their purpose and their practice are not aligned at the moment. Yet, their future influence in a globalized world depends on both a common vision and the ability to put this purpose into action.

Thomas Risse is professor of international politics at the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.