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Soft Balancing Between Friends: Transforming
Transatlantic Relations
Franz Oswald

To cite this Article: Franz Oswald , 'Soft Balancing Between Friends: Transforming
Transatlantic Relations', Debatte: Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern
Europe, 14:2, 145 - 160
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/09651560600841502


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© Taylor and Francis 2007

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Soft Balancing Between

Friends: Transforming
Transatlantic Relations

Franz Oswald

US experts either deny that soft balancing is taking place or claim that it arose
in response to US unilateralism since 2001. Yet, for several decades before
2001, European economic integration resulted in de facto soft balancing of US
primacy within the West, and the 1991 claim for a EU security role began to
counterbalance US leadership in European security. Soft balancing between
friends is tempered by economic interdependence and more difficult to detect
than counterbalancing by China or Russia. Yet, EU soft balancing is as real as US
counter-counterbalancing. Asymmetrical roles in the NATO alliance still reflect
the post-1945 transatlantic balance of power in spite of the EU’s growing
economic weight. In the post-1991 security environment, however, the EU can
pursue a symmetrical partnership. US security leadership in Europe is still
welcomed by European Atlanticists. However, the European Security and
Defence Policy of 1999 and the European Security Strategy of 2003, together
with the development of a European Defence Industrial and Technological
Base and first EU crisis management missions in the Balkans and Africa, have
given substance to the EU’s claimed security role. De facto soft balancing
by the EU is transforming the West and also advancing the transition to

Is the rest of the world getting engaged in ‘‘soft balancing’’ to counter US

supremacy? Four articles in the same issue of the journal International Security
asked whether the power and policy choices of the United States have resulted in
counterbalancing by other states. Two of these articles claimed that other great
powers were engaged in ‘‘soft balancing’’ against US supremacy, noticeably so in
response to the unilateralism of the Bush administration since 2001 (Pape; Paul).
The other two, however, claimed that there was neither hard nor soft balancing
in general, nor had any been provoked by recent US unilateralism in particular
(Brooks and Wohlforth; Lieber and Alexander). The present article differs from

ISSN 0965-156X print/1469-3712 online/06/020145-16 ß 2006 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/09651560600841502
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both sides of this argument and contends that there has indeed been soft
balancing which started well before 2001. The most successful soft balancer of
US supremacy, the European Union, has pursued economic integration for several
decades to form a unitary economic actor of global relevance, and it has, since
1991, claimed and acquired a security role. This process of soft balancing
is taking place between allies and friends, it is redefining roles within the
transatlantic relationship, and it is transforming the West, which used to be a
unitary strategic entity under US leadership during the Cold War. In the transition
to a multipolar world, this gradual transformation of the West into two friendly
but competing blocs is as important as the rise of China.
Since the implosion of the Soviet Union, analysts have been asking how the
behaviour of nation-states might change because of the new unipolar distribution
of power in the international system. While neoconservatives expected a longer
period of unchallenged US supremacy rather than just a transient unipolar
moment, structural realists suggested that unipolarity contained the seeds of its
own undoing because other powers would necessarily engage in counterbalancing
US primacy (for example, Waltz).
In the one and a half decades since the end of the Cold War, neither
‘‘external’’ hard balancing through the formation of alliances nor ‘‘internal’’
hard balancing through armament efforts of competitors1 has taken place, but
the debate has not ended because the realists’ prediction of counterbalancing
had not come with a deadline. And more recently the debate in the US has shifted
to the question whether, in the absence of hard balancing, great powers could be
engaged in soft balancing to counter US primacy. Most attention is usually paid
to the actions of Russia and China because, according to Stephen G. Brooks and
William C. Wohlforth, ‘‘in some respects, Russia’s strategic partnership with
India and especially China represent the strongest case of soft balancing’’ (83),
although France on its own and the EU as a bloc are also under consideration
as possible balancers.
From a European perspective, it is amazing that the most successful act of
balancing does not receive more attention, perhaps because the European bloc
is engaged in soft balancing among friends, inherently less conspicuous than
balancing between adversaries. It is the central claim of this paper that European
integration constitutes de facto soft balancing through decades of economic
integration and, more recently, through the post-Cold War claim for an
autonomous EU security role. The intention to develop a Common Foreign and
Security Policy (CFSP), beyond the customary economic role, was stated in 1991
and turned more serious in 1998/1999, after the Yugoslav crises had highlighted
EU weaknesses. The reallocation of responsibilities for European security, from
the US to the EU, began in 1991, was accelerated in 1998/99, and received
additional momentum by transatlantic differences over the Bush administration’s
post-2001 war on terrorism and the 2003 intervention in Iraq.

On ‘‘internal’’ and ‘‘external balancing’’, see Lieber and Alexander 119.
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Of course, it is hard to detect soft balancing by focusing on the military

chessboard while ignoring the chessboard of economic competition and its long-
term impact on geostrategic roles. It is also hard to detect soft balancing if it
is defined narrowly as state behaviour driven mainly by the intention of
counterbalancing United States primacy. Brooks and Wohlforth find ‘‘that other
states can take actions that end up constraining the United States’’; however,
they do not regard this as soft balancing because ‘‘these constraint actions . . . are
not an outgrowth of balance of power dynamics’’(106). Instead, ‘‘alternative
explanations’’ should be considered such as ‘‘economic interest, regional
security concerns, policy disputes, and domestic political incentives’’ (74).
Yet, the applicability of such alternative explanations does not exclude soft
balancing; it merely shows that is not taking place in a pure, unadulterated
form. Instead, de facto soft balancing is driven by a combination of economic
interests, security concerns, domestic motives, and, occasionally, the desire
to counterbalance.
The approach taken by the present study is to bring together evidence of
de facto soft balancing as result of European integration. Identifying behaviour
with balancing effects is more important than the restrictive search for
behaviour explicitly motivated by the intention to counterbalance unipolarity.
Even behaviour with the stated intention to support US influence and involve-
ment in Europe, the very opposite of intentional counterbalancing, can
have balancing effects. For example, the desire of European Atlanticists
to reinvigorate NATO by making NATO-Europe a more capable partner of the
United States has the unintended effect of facilitating European security
autonomy since it involves coordinating and strengthening European military
The evidence presented below will show that EU integration has already
counterbalanced the US on the economic chessboard, and this redistribution
of economic power has, since 1991, resulted in a gradual reallocation of secu-
rity responsibilities and geostrategic roles. Since the 1940s the United States
has been, through its leadership of the NATO alliance, the arbiter of security
in the western end of Eurasia, outside the Soviet sphere of influence. However,
since 1991, responsibility for security in Europe has been gradually returning
into European hands, not to a concert of competing nation states but to an
integrated EU.
This transformation of the West is not as obvious and dramatic as the implosion
and reconfiguration of the East, the other side in the Cold War. Yet, Christoph
Bertram had already in 1995 argued that, in spite of ‘‘the measured pace of
developments in Western Europe’’, the West ‘‘would be in for a massive redefi-
nition’’ (40). Economic rebalancing has been happening for decades, and the
reallocation of security roles since 1991 added new aspects to de facto soft
balancing between friends. The effects of this rebalancing are substantial enough
to warrant a renegotiation of the accustomed roles of half a century, from
asymmetrical roles to a more balanced relationship.
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US Debates About Soft Balancing

The US discussion about soft balancing explores the nature of the international
system after the Cold War but it also evaluates the international response to
the unilateralism of the Bush administration since 2001. The structural realists’
expectation of counterbalancing implied a warning against US hubris during
a passing unipolar moment. Liberal institutionalists and ‘‘balance-of-threat’’
realists queried a unilateralism likely to alienate allies and dilute US soft power.
G. John Ikenberry expected unrestrained reliance on military supremacy
to undermine the foundations of institutionalized US primacy established in
the 1940s. The ‘‘balance-of-threats’’ theory of Stephen M. Walt also suggested
restraint to ensure US hegemony was perceived as benign in order to ‘‘minimize
the opposition that the United States will face in the future’’. Yet, for neocon-
servatives such as Robert Kagan any restraint by international law or institutions
was to be avoided since appeals to rules were merely attempts by weak actors
like Europe to tie down strong actors like the United States (Ikenberry 273;
Walt 153; Kagan).
The discussion of soft balancing served to point out the hidden costs of
unilateralist policies. T. V. Paul, for example, argued that ‘‘second-tier major
powers . . . are concerned about the increasing unilateralism of the United
States’’ and, in response, have ‘‘begun to engage in ‘soft balancing’’’ (47).
On the other hand, Brooks and Wohlforth deny the existence of soft balancing
but suggest ‘‘there are many compelling reasons’’ for a US foreign policy
‘‘characterized by restraint’’ (108). Nevertheless, the nonexistence of counter-
balancing, be it the hard or the soft version, can also justify a lack of
self-restraint. If the extent of US supremacy was such that counterbalancing
was neither feasible nor rewarding for other great powers, and if the United
States could react effectively to any attempt at counterbalancing (Wohlforth),
then US primacy could not and would not be challenged. However, if other
great powers had the potential to impose relevant costs on the United States
and if there were real benefits in sustaining alliances, then unilateralism
would be unnecessarily costly and Europe had to be taken seriously as
indispensable ally.
Contrary to claims by neoconservatives that a supreme US can neglect a
weak Europe, experts from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings
Institution argued in favour of respecting the status of Europe as an indispensable
ally (Council on Foreign Relations; Daalder and Goldgeier). And a minority
of analysts even claimed that Europe was too powerful to be treated as
negligible quantity or as junior ally: ‘‘Europe will soon catch up with America not
because of a superior economy or technological base, but because it is coming
together, amassing impressive resources and intellectual capital possessed by
its constituent states’’ (Kupchan 119). In this case it would be time for the
United States to accept the transition to a multipolar world with Europe as
relevant actor.
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Economic Balancing Beyond the Second World War Effect

The military chessboard and the economic chessboard, to use Joseph S. Nye’s
metaphor (Paradox 39), show very contrasting distributions of power in the inter-
national system. US military supremacy coexists with multipolar competition
among economic great powers. Yet, these two chessboards are not completely
separated. Soft balancing on the economic chessboard has the potential to affect
the military balance over time. In the transatlantic relationship, the relative
economic weight is very even today compared to the 1940s, the moment of
Europe’s greatest weakness and unprecedented US supremacy. It is possible for
analysts to sidestep the relative decline of the US economy from the 1940s peak
by treating it as aberration. For example, Robert A. Pape used selected years to
demonstrate the unchallenged and virtually unchanging supremacy of the US
economy: ‘‘For the past century, the U.S. share of gross world product was often
double (or more) the share of any other state: 32 percent in 1913, 31 percent in
1938, 26 percent in 1980, and 27 percent in 2000’’ (18). However, the peak of the
mid-to-late 1940s, caused by the destructive impact of the Second World War on
all competitors of the United States, should not be left out of consideration.
It had been this temporary peak of comparative economic and military power
that enabled the US to shape global institutions and the alliance relations within
the West. The roles in the transatlantic relationship were institutionalized under
the impact of the Second World War effect.
The relevance of the 1940s peak of relative US power was noted, for example,
by Henry A. Kissinger and Joseph S. Nye. Kissinger acknowledged, in the 1960s,
that US supremacy had to decline somewhat since the ‘‘temporary loss of
Europe’s ability to play an effective international role’’ could not be expected to
last (6). Nye later argued that economic rebalancing within the West was rather
limited, implying that it would have only limited impact on the allocation of roles
in the transatlantic alliance. However, it is argued here that the shifts on the
economic chessboard have gone beyond what Kissinger could expect in the 1960s,
and what Nye was willing to acknowledge in the early 1990s. Nye observed that
Europe experienced higher growth rates than the US only for about a quarter of
a century and argued that ‘‘the World War II effect had largely worked its
way through the international system by the early 1970s’’ (Bound to Lead 21).
This implied that such limited economic rebalancing would hardly require any
renegotiation of roles in the transatlantic security relationship. Nye’s argument,
however, does not take into account that the relative weight of the EU as
economic actor increased further, even after the levelling off of growth rates,
because of EU expansion and deepening economic integration, from the
customs union initiated in 1957 to the euro currency adopted by most EU
members in 1999.
The combined economic potential of the EU had, by 2000, become equal to
the GDP of the US and twice as large as the Japanese GDP. Yet, for its first thirty
years economic integration had little impact on the allocation of geostrategic
roles in the transatlantic alliance. As long as the confrontation with the
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Soviet Union lasted, Western Europe remained a group of junior allies of the US,
irrespective of its increasing economic weight. It was only after the end of the
Cold War that the European economic giant could consider claiming a security
role. The consequent reallocation of roles in the transatlantic alliance has been
taking place only since 1991 when the absence of an existential security threat
allowed the European economic bloc to renegotiate security roles without
incurring any great risk.
The adoption of the common currency in 1999 was a successful act of
economic soft balancing. It was, according to David P. Calleo, ‘‘the single most
important event in European and transatlantic politics since the demise of the
Soviet Union’’ (5). Since its introduction the euro has grown into a second world
currency constituting over twenty per cent of the currency reserves held by
reserve banks. While this is still clearly less than the over sixty per cent held in
dollars, it signifies a relevant increase compared to the four per cent held in DM
before 1999. ‘‘A bipolar currency regime dominated by Europe and the United
States’’ was expected by U.S. financial expert Fred C. Bergsten to ‘‘replace the
dollar-centred system’’ (83). While the euro is far from replacing the US dollar as
world currency, its existence, its role in world trade, and its substantial share
of world reserve currency holdings achieved so far, already constitute a massive
shift in economic power and an example of de facto soft balancing.

The EU’s 1991 Claim for a Security Role

In 1991 the EU claimed a security role with its adoption of the CFSP at the
Maastricht conference, although this had only very limited impact from 1991 to
1998. A second avenue for a relatively autonomous European security role was
pursued through the WEU’s adoption of the so-called Petersberg Tasks in 1992.
The WEU’s role claims went no further than limited crisis management capabi-
lities leaving the larger task of territorial defence to NATO. Under President
Clinton, the United States conceded at NATO’s 1994 summit in Brussels that a
European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) could become operational through
the WEU acting as NATO-approved Combined Joint Task Forces. The CJTF concept
retained ultimate US/NATO responsibility for European security but it made US
involvement in European crises optional, in contrast to the obligatory involve-
ment during the Cold War. It indicated the intention to stay out of European crises
not affecting vital US interests.
The crises in Bosnia and Kosovo showed that European powers were not (yet)
capable of crisis prevention or coordinated military measures. US intervention
resulted in the Bosnian settlement of Dayton 1995 and the war against Serbia
in 1999. Atlanticists concluded that the United States leadership was still
indispensable but Europeanists noted the reluctance of US involvement and the
lack of consultation with allies during the interventions. Two conclusions were
possible. Atlanticists felt they had to make an effort to keep the United States
interested in Europe by upgrading the capabilities of NATO-Europe. Europeanists,
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on the other hand, intended to strengthen capabilities in order to enable

autonomous European crisis management. Two contrasting motives could lead
to the same practical conclusion.

The 1998/1999 Turning Point: From St. Malo to the ESDP

In its first decade, the EU’s quest for a security role established the political and
institutional prerequisites for the CFSP. However, developments accelerated
in 1998/99. In their St. Malo agreement of 1998, France and the UK asked their
fellow EU members to develop a European military capability to act autono-
mously, recommending the same policy for very different reasons. France
expected St. Malo to lead to EU security autonomy, whereas the UK hoped greater
capabilities would turn Europeans into better NATO partners strengthening the
alliance. Guided by this Anglo-French initiative, Atlanticists and Europeanists
in the EU could agree on the principle of an ESDP (Cologne 1999 summit). The
‘‘Headline Goal’’ to establish a 60,000 man rapid response force (ERRF) was
adopted by the Helsinki summit (1999) and declared achieved at the Laeken
summit of December 2001, although the ERRF remained an administrative
aggregate of earmarked national units.
A new stage was reached when the EU conducted its first military and police
missions in the Balkans and in Africa. In 2003, the European Union deployed
police and military personnel abroad for the first time. The European Union
Police Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, launched on 1 January 2003 to replace the
UN’s International Police Task Force, was the EU’s first civilian crisis manage-
ment operation under the ESDP. The first military operation of the EU was the
Concordia mission in Macedonia, launched on 31 March 2003, replacing NATO’s
Operation Allied Harmony. Concordia was followed by an EU police mission called
Proxima, launched on 15 December 2003 and involving 200 police officers. The
EU’s first military operation outside Europe was the Artemis mission under a UN
mandate (Security Council Resolution 1484, 30 May 2003). Launched on 12 June
2003 and ending on 1 September 2003, Artemis intended to stabilize security in
the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In spite of the small number
of personnel involved (circa 1000 in EUPM; circa 350 in Concordia; circa 1800
in Artemis), these missions demonstrated the will and capability to act as EU.
The EU could be called upon by the UN Security Council for interventions under
Chapter 7 of the UN charter, and it was capable of fulfilling most of the
Petersberg Tasks set out in 1992 (Lynch and Missiroli 1–4).
The EU also established non-military crisis management mechanisms. The EU
summit at Feira in June 2000 decided to develop ‘‘four aspects of civilian crisis
management: police, rule of law, civil administration and civil protection.’’
For this purpose, EU members would ‘‘provide up to 5,000 police officers
for international missions by 2003, with 1,000 available at 30 days’ notice’’
(Hagmann 25).
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The European Security Strategy (ESS; adopted in Saloniki, December 2003)

outlined the range of security tasks to be undertaken by EU forces. ‘‘By focusing
on global challenges’’, the ESS ‘‘transcends traditional geographic and conceptual
limitations of European strategic thinking.’’ It also moved away from the Cold War
preoccupation with territorial defence ‘‘by identifying terrorism, the prolifera-
tion of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), regional conflicts, state failure and
organized crime as key threats,’’ and extended ‘‘the zone of security in the EU’s
neighbourhood by supporting ‘a ring of well-governed countries’.’’ Here the EU
claimed a wider regional area of responsibility, including ‘‘the Balkans, Eastern
Europe, Southern Caucasus, Mediterranean, and Middle East’’ (Becher 350).
Global concerns, on the other hand, were to be addressed in transatlantic
cooperation since ‘‘acting together, the European Union and the United States
can be a formidable force for good in the world’’ (A Secure Europe, chap. III).
The decision to establish a dozen so-called battle groups of 1,500 soldiers
each, taken by EU defence ministers in April 2004, promised to be of more
practical relevance for the Petersberg Tasks of crisis management than the
adoption of the Headline Goal to form the 60,000-man ERRF. Besides battle
groups composed only of British or French troops, several multinational battle
groups were planned. Non-EU member Norway was to participate in a Nordic
battle group, together with EU members Denmark, Finland and Sweden
(Evans-Pritchard; Zecchini).
The EU’s array of civilian and military instruments of crisis manage-
ment remained rather modest compared to the military might of the US.
It was also small compared to the national military capabilities of larger EU
member states. Nevertheless, together with economic and diplomatic instru-
ments it enabled the EU to extend the European security community to the
Balkans and to contribute to UN crisis management in Africa.

EU Responsibilities for Balkan Stability

The involvement of US forces in the Bosnian and Kosovo crises in the 1990s
was taken by Atlanticists as proof that US military capabilities and its ‘‘role
as primus inter pares’’ were still indispensable for European stability, ‘‘for the
same reasons that required American engagement when NATO was founded half
a century ago’’ (Pond 204). This indispensability was underlined by the inability
and unwillingness of EU powers to take on responsibility for post-conflict stabili-
zation unless US troops also remained present on the ground. Bonn, London and
Paris insisted ‘‘that their troops will stay in Bosnia only as long as US forces
remain’’ (Daalder 9). However, this unwillingness to act without the US has since
been replaced by an almost complete shift of responsibilities, for example, when
the EU took on ‘‘its first big military mission on 2 December, replacing NATO in
charge of the 7,000-man Bosnia task force. Most of the troops will remain the
same, merely switching from NATO to EU insignia, but the politics could change
abruptly’’ (Evans-Pritchard). A decade after the Bosnian civil war ended in the
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Dayton agreement and half a decade after the Kosovo war, US presence has been
greatly reduced. Instead EU military and police missions were guaranteeing
stability while Stability and Association Agreements held out the prospect
of economic development and eventual EU membership for the countries of the
Western Balkans (Triantaphyllou).

Acceptance of ESDP by Old Atlanticists in Western Europe

The slow decline of Atlanticist orientations in European political culture was

another symptom of soft balancing. The willingness to accept a role as junior
ally and to welcome US leadership in European security was diminishing slowly,
and it was mirrored by the reduction of the US military presence in Europe
as well as the reorientation towards East Asia and the Middle East in the Bush
administration’s Quadrennial Defense Review of 2001. This did not imply the end
of Atlanticism but it signals a shift away from transatlantic security dependency
towards a more balanced partnership. Atlanticist orientations were strong in
several West European countries insisting on NATO’s role as cornerstone of
European security. Yet, these Atlanticists also began to accept EU responsibility
for European security, as long as the EU extended its role without any overt
anti-NATO or anti-US rhetoric.
The UK had accepted a security role for the EU in the Anglo-French agreement
of St. Malo in 1998. Subsequently the UK went along with a series of compromises
increasing the autonomy of the ESDP without taking from NATO the role as ulti-
mate guarantor of territorial defence. The Netherlands were another Atlanticist
member of NATO and EU softening the traditional reliance on NATO because of
realization that the United States was leaving Europe and because economic
imperatives made the common ESDP more attractive. Modern defence equipment
was becoming so expensive that even a wealthy middle power could not afford
all-round military forces. Therefore the Netherlands had to consider integrated
European defence policies and procurement, perhaps even specialization
of forces and reliance on neighbours to provide missing capabilities (de Wijk
Norway, not an EU member but with a security policy reliant on NATO
membership and US involvement in Europe, began to rethink its Atlanticist
orientation in the late 1990s. For the first post-Cold War decade, Norway had
understood its associate membership of the WEU as part of the European
contribution to NATO. However, when the WEU was discontinued in 1999 and
NATO started dealing directly with the EU, Norway felt left out, which triggered a
rethinking of Norwegian security policy started. ‘‘The special Nordic security
community, characterized by being different from Europe . . . is vanishing and
being replaced by an ongoing process of Europeanization’’ (Rieker 384).
In response to the EU’s 1999 decision to form the ERRF, Norway agreed ‘‘at the
capability conference in November 2000 . . . to make the entire newly established
task force of 3500 personnel available for the EU’s headline goal’’ (378).
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A further indicator of change was Norway’s willingness to participate in the EU’s

battle group program, as member of the combined Nordic battle group. So far
this amounted only to limited change in the Atlanticist orientation of the UK, the
Netherlands and Norway. Nevertheless, it indicated the direction of change.

Acceptance of ESDP by New Atlanticists in CEE

The new members of NATO and EU in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) adopted
strongly Atlanticists positions. Especially Poland expected much from joining
NATO in 1999 and regarded very close links with the United States as essential
guarantees of security and sovereignty. For Poland benign US hegemony was
an insurance against Russia and Germany whereas the EU could easily fall under
the hegemony of the ‘‘Franco-German monster’’ without the US acting as
balancer (Sedivy and Zaborowski 209, 206).
Furthermore, Atlanticism promised Poland a special role as regional leader
in CEE in a special relationship with the US. Poland saw itself ‘‘fast emerging
as the US’ key ally and its protégé in the east’’. It accepted ‘‘a $3.8 billion
loan from the U.S. Congress to purchase 48 F-16s from Lockheed Martin.’’
This ‘‘choice in defence procurement of U.S. rather than European systems is a
firm expression of Warsaw’s Atlanticist credentials’’ (Zaborowski and Longhurst
1011). However, disappointment was setting in: ‘‘In Iraq Polish Atlanticism
reached its apex and now needs to be rethought and adjusted. . . . The Atlanticism
of the CEE states may have begun to erode as a consequence of their costly and
largely unrewarded involvement in Iraq’’ although they ‘‘will certainly support
the continuation of the US’s involvement in European security’’ (Longhurst and
Zaborowski 385).
The changing nature of NATO also weakened Atlanticism in CEE. By the time
Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined in 1999, it was no longer the
alliance the new members imagined it to be. Poland ‘‘believed that the Atlantic
Alliance’s ultimate strength rested on its collective defense commitment’’ and
‘‘wanted to join a NATO in which the leading role of the US would never be
questioned’’ (Osica ‘‘Poland’’ 309). Thus Poland opposed French-German initia-
tives because ‘‘ESDP must not challenge the US presence and role on the
continent and must be kept within a NATO framework’’ (312). Yet, Polish fears
that NATO was becoming an ‘‘organization for collective security at the expense
of its central defense mission’’ were coming true in spite of efforts to prove
‘‘that it was a staunch ally of the US and its leadership role in the alliance’’ (311).
Doubts about Atlanticism grew as the Polish government realized that a
‘‘special relationship’’ with the United States was not a viable strategy.
‘‘Poland—and this is a sea-change in the attitude—clearly recognizes that in
the course of time, the EU will become the equal partner of NATO. Important is,
however, that it will be a natural process driven by a common-sense since any
political haste or institutional competition may result in undermining NATO as
well as the CESDP’’ (Osica ‘‘A Secure Poland’’ 14).
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Two factors will, in the long run, dampen the Atlanticist enthusiasm of CEE
states: the reduction of the US military presence in Europe and the long-term
effect of cooperation in the EU reducing historical fears between neighbours.
As European security was becoming less central to US strategy, it was becoming
‘‘not unlikely that those Europeans who continue to advocate strong trans-
atlantic bonds—the British and the CEE states—are in fact fighting a losing
battle. . . . In other words, whatever view prevails in the EU, transatlantic
relations may be weakening anyway’’ (Longhurst and Zaborowski 389).

Consolidation of European Defence Industries

But No ‘‘Fortress Europe’’

The consolidation of European defence industries in the 1990s also constituted

soft balancing by building a European Defence Industrial and Technological Base
(EDITB). In the United States, the Bush administration’s defence budget of over
$400 billion annually sustained a gigantic arms industry. The Clinton administra-
tion had encouraged mergers among prime contractors. Thus the biggest US
armament firms occupy the top three positions globally (Lockheed Martin,
Boeing, Raytheon) with another three in the top ten (Northrop Grumman fifth,
General Dynamics sixth, and Honeywell tenth). Yet, after some European
national and cross-national consolidation, BAe, EADS, Thales, and Finmeccanica
held fourth, seventh, eighth, and ninth position, respectively (Vlachos-Dengler
5). Compared to that of the United States, everyone else’s defence budget
looked small. Nevertheless, the aggregate sum of EU members’ defence spending
of about $200 billion in 2003 dwarfed the defence budgets of China ($56 billion),
Japan ($43 billion), and Russia ($65 billion). Even taken separately, defence
spending of the leading EU powers (UK $43 billion, France $46 billion, and
Germany $35 billion) was in a similar order of magnitude as that of China, Japan,
and Russia (compiled from: International Institute for Strategic Studies 353–54).
Thus, even without following US calls to increase arms spending, just by
coordinating and consolidating their defence planning and procurement, EU
members could create the material foundation of an autonomous security role.
EU efforts to consolidate a European Defence Industrial and Technological
Base (EDITB), to develop an integrated European Defence Equipment Market
(EDEM), and to coordinate planning through a European Defence Agency (EDA)
constituted de facto soft balancing, although the main objectives were economic
competitiveness, technological autonomy, and, to some extent, strategic auto-
nomy, rather than explicit and intentional counterbalancing of US primacy.
Keir A. Lieber and Gerard Alexander suggested that there was no significant
‘‘internal’’ hard balancing since ‘‘the United States’ nearest rivals are
not ramping up defense spending to counter U.S. power’’ (109). However, this
ignored that the EU’s effort to rationalize its aggregate defence spending of $200
billion, even without increasing budgets, could achieve some soft balancing
between transatlantic friends.
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The EDITB was also strengthened through projects such as the Airbus A400M
transporter and the Galileo global positioning system. The Airbus A400M was
intended to give Europeans strategic airlift capacity, and the Galileo satellite
system could end dependence on the GPS system which could be switched off or
switched to exclusive US military use any time. Both projects were enhancing
European security autonomy and contributing to soft balancing.

Transforming NATO: From Collective Defence to Security Community

The gradual transformation of the NATO alliance was another indicator of de

facto soft balancing. NATO and other post-Second World War alliances ‘‘in effect
acknowledge the status of Western Europe, Japan and South Korea as American
protectorates,’’ according to Zbigniew Brzezinski, US president Carter’s national
security advisor (Game Plan 24). The incomplete, but ongoing post-1991 trans-
formation of NATO, from a collective defence organization with an integrated
military structure into a loose security community, was bringing this military
protectorate to an end.
NATO survived the loss of its primary purpose and found new secondary
purposes after 1991, but each of these new tasks had side effects further
questioning the relevance of NATO. Expanding the alliance into CEE gave NATO
a regional stabilizing function but it also facilitated EU expansion which will, in
the long run, create multipurpose intra-European connections deeper and more
comprehensive than the military ties across the Atlantic. NATO found a tempo-
rary role in Bosnia and Kosovo only to be replaced by the EU as stabilizer in the
Balkans. Another secondary purpose of NATO could be out-of-area intervention,
a global role for NATO favoured by the United States. However, most Europeans
were quite reluctant to abandon the alliance’s focus on the territorial defence of
Europe and to follow the United States out of area. As a result, the diversity
of out-of-area crises was not giving NATO a new unifying purpose but a multitude
of opportunities to disagree. ‘‘The new threats are different: They are divisive,
not unifying . . . and they are coalition-breaking not coalition-forming,’’ as
Christoph Bertram had already pointed out in 1995 (19).
These problems with NATO’s external functions also weakened its internal
function, that is, to shape relations between alliance members. After 1945, the
United States stayed in Europe not only to contribute to collective defence but
also to exercise a leading role eventually institutionalized in NATO’s integrated
military command. Yet, this most significant channel of US influence is losing

Rebalancing the Relationship: From US Hegemony

in NATO to US–EU Dialogue

The structure of NATO favours asymmetrical communication between a super-

power and its junior allies. The more, however, relations take on the format of
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a US–EU dialogue, the more the asymmetrical transatlantic relationship will be

replaced by a balanced partnership. The centrality of NATO to transatlantic
relations will be reduced because the need for a collective military defence
of Europe against invasion has declined. Thus NATO will be relegated to an
honourable background role as the ultimate guarantor of security for the unlikely
case of a large-scale attack on Europe. In this context, any European shift
towards communication in a US–EU dialogue, rather than in NATO’s leader–
follower structure, amounts to soft balancing and redefines the roles in the
transatlantic relationship.

Counter-counterbalancing by the United States

The US government acknowledged the existence of European counterbalancing

by taking countermeasures. While the United States, under the first President
Bush, accepted moves towards a European Security and Defence Identity,
Secretary of State James Baker made it clear ‘‘that one of our key goals must be
to ensure that NATO remains the principal venue for our consultations and the
forum for agreements on all security and defense commitments of its members’’
(Friedman). Yet, in spite of many similar expressions of concern during the
Clinton administration, in 1999 the EU moved beyond the ESDI by adopting its
European Security and Defence Policy. US efforts at counter-counterbalancing
continued under President George W. Bush. When the leaders of France,
Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg, at their mini-summit on 29 April 2003,
suggested ‘‘the establishment of an EU operational planning staff in the Brussels
suburb of Tervuren’’ (Grant 2), this was strongly rejected by the United States
and the United Kingdom because this EU planning staff could have evolved into
military headquarters independent of NATO. Later France, Germany, and the
United Kingdom agreed on the compromise to set up a much smaller planning
cell for EU military missions. Although this planning cell ‘‘of perhaps a few dozen
people’’ was not much of a threat to NATO’s centrality, it still drew a negative
response from US Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and caused US officials
to ‘‘worry the move could lead to . . . competition with NATO, and open the
door to a further erosion of the alliance’s importance’’ (Graham).
The United States also expressed its misgivings about the EU’s Galileo global
positioning system without, however, being able to stop this step towards
technological and operational autonomy. One of the US countermeasures was
the inclusion of as many European governments and firms as possible in the
gigantic Joint Strike Fighter project. In order to prevent the formation of
a defence-industrial ‘‘Fortress Europe’’, the JSF project served as a ‘‘Trojan
Horse’’ (Kapstein 138). Last not least, when France, Germany, and Russia
undertook diplomatic counterbalancing of US intentions to use military force
against Iraq without prior UN approval, the United States mobilized Atlanticist
support among European governments in the ‘‘Letter of Eight’’ and the ‘‘Letter
of Ten’’ of early 2003. These Atlanticist loyalists were welcomed as ‘‘new
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Europe’’ by US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, in contrast to recalcitrant

‘‘old Europe’’. This incomplete list of examples of counter-counterbalancing
indicates that Washington was quite aware of European de facto balancing.

Conclusion: Soft Balancing Between Transatlantic Friends

Soft balancing within the West did not start just in response to the post-2001
unilateralism of the Bush administration but it included decades of European
economic integration and, since 1991, the development of a European CFSP.
Therefore an end of US unilateralism would not bring about the end of soft
balancing. Yet, a more multilateral style of US diplomacy could still have
the benefit of making the transition to a multipolar world less acrimonious.
Soft balancing will remain soft because transatlantic cooperation is still
indispensable. There is the simple but massive fact of economic interdepen-
dence: ‘‘Transatlantic commerce approaches $2.5 trillion per year and employs
directly or indirectly some twelve million workers in Europe and the United
States’’ (Council on Foreign Relations 16). However, security cooperation cannot
retain the format it had during the Cold War decades. The more the EU can
guarantee stability in Europe by its own methods, the less is there a need for US
leadership in Europe, and the easier will it be to transform NATO into a security
community guaranteeing peace among its members.
De facto balancing included economic balancing beyond the wearing off of the
Second World War effect and the levelling off of West European growth rates
in the 1970s. And with the end of the Cold War confrontation the European
economic bloc was no longer locked into security dependency, which made it
possible for the EU to develop a security role of gradually increasing autonomy.
Since 1998/99 the EU has acquired real crisis management capabilities, civilian
and military. Economic reasons were also driving towards a common ESDP
underpinned by an EDITB. The current reorientation of US strategy away from
Europe, towards East Asia and the Middle East, accompanied by the greatly
reduced US military presence in Europe, was also weakening US leadership
in European security. The main channel of US influence, the NATO alliance,
was undergoing transformation from a collective defence organization towards
a larger and looser security community. All these factors do not imply the
end of Atlanticist attitudes in Europe but they are contributing to a gradual
transformation of the West into two friendly and competing blocs.
The economic chessboard is very different from the peak of US supremacy in the
1940s. The reallocation of security roles within the West is now transforming the
pattern established in the late 1940s. While US defence spending is extending
the lead in military technology over friend and foe, there is nevertheless the fact
of a diminishing role of the US in Europe. The Europe described by Zbigniew
Brzezinski as ‘‘America’s essential geopolitical bridgehead on the Eurasian
continent’’ (Grand Chessboard 97) has become an economic competitor capable
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of looking after its own security as the EU consolidates its role as security
community by taking many small steps towards CFSP, ESDP, EDITB and EDEM.
The gradual Europeanization of European security is transforming the security
dependency of half a century into a rebalanced transatlantic partnership.
Disagreements over the war against Iraq were symptoms of an ongoing process,
and the redefinition of roles in the relationship will not be halted by the change-
over in late 2005 from Gerhard Schröder to the more Atlanticist rhetoric of
Angela Merkel, his successor as Germany’s Chancellor. Soft balancing between
friends takes place very discreetly because of the desire to retain overall good
relations but it is, nevertheless, very real. Acknowledging the extent of de facto
soft balancing could make the renegotiation of roles in the transatlantic
relationship much less acrimonious.


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