Letter from America: Leaving Brussels two years ago after seven years for a new assignment as correspondent in Washington, the Boston v Berlin debate was ringing in my ears, writes Paddy Smyth.
The argument was about more than Ireland's future, as many commentators were beginning to see in the transatlantic relationship between Europe and the US a growing rift that reflected emerging fundamental differences of interest and modus operandi, which were manifested in increasingly polemical exchanges. Yet what intrigued me about the new post was not the differences between the two cities and the polities they represented, but their similarities. DC, like Brussels, is essentially an artificial, political city of sparring legislators and administrators, lobbyists, diplomats and journalists. In the uneasy relationship of the states to the capital, mediated here much more by an activist Supreme Court than by politicians, I had, I thought, a mirror of Brussels's younger experiment in its own novel form of federalism. The language of "states' rights" and "subsidiarity" may differ, but the underlying problems and arguments about reconciling the centre and periphery and arrangements to pool sovereignty are essentially the same. Within the ranks of protagonists on both sides of the Atlantic are camps which bear striking, yet unacknowledged, kinship - of which more anon. As I depart prematurely to Dublin from DC, one of the many collateral victims of the economic backwash of September 11th - in my case on the finances of this paper - I find myself disappointed at the extent to which that war of words is pulling us further apart. This is in no small measure because of a president who may talk of the importance of allies as partners but demands their unconditional support. In this he has largely the unwavering support of the DC punditry. That, and increasingly politicians of both persuasions on the Hill, take it in turn to lash out at the "weakness of the EU", seen as a fair-weather friend unwilling to stand by the US at its time of need. Particular bile is reserved for the French who are seen as leading the pack - a senior aide to the Republican House Speaker Denis Hastert told me recently that the door remained open to visitors such as the president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, only because he is Irish. "We hate the French," he said, "because they hate us." Right-wing supporters of Israel now regularly remind TV audiences that Europe "stood by" while the Germans sent Jews to the gas chambers. In refusing to support the US and Israel uncritically today, Europeans are merely reverting to type - or so the argument goes, usually unanswered. Perturbed by the ferocity of recent similar criticisms of French "tolerance of anti-semitism", their ambassador recently wrote an eloquent response to the Washington Post. Of course such crude manifestations of anti-European sentiment are not necessarily any more deeply rooted than the anti-Americanism which we see from similar quarters on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet I discern a level of mutual popular suspicion that I do not recall since the days of Ronald Reagan. In one of the few statements he made on foreign policy during his election campaign, George Bush promised humility: "Our nation stands alone right now in terms of power. And that's why we've got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom . . . If we are an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we are a humble nation, they'll respect us." Humility is scarcely a word that would describe the administration. The disconnection between the president's expressed aspiration - expressed more elaborately by Richard Haass in his doctrine of the US as the world's "reluctant sheriff" - and Bush's actions have led many to question whether the man who once described himself as "misunderestimated" really is capable of joined-up thinking. Knave or rogue? He may be both, but such ambiguities and flat contradictions should be understood for what they really are, manifestations of a real dilemma at the heart of the administration and the US policy elite about the direction in which to take the world's only hyper-power. The dilemma reflects what academic and former administration official Joseph Nye, has called "the paradox of American power", its ability to dominate the globe but not to determine events decisively, and is the fascinating dynamic which powers the Powell/ Cheney and Rumsfeld axes. That argument, at its core, aligns protagonists in a way that is strikingly similar to our own debate about Nice and European construction. Essentially it is a dispute about how a state maximises its sovereignty either within a federal entity or on the global stage. American unilateralists and opponents of Nice share a definition of sovereignty which stresses the legal limits of a state's authority. In this traditional view, what matters most is the scope of the state's remit, its "last say" or veto, over matters pertaining to the welfare of citizens - hence US reluctance to get involved in international tribunals and its insistence on its right to repudiate international agreements. It is a simple, comforting notion which accords with what many people see as their contract with the state. The multilateralist view, and that shared by supporters of European integration, is more about influence than vetos and insists that what matters in sovereignty is not its "legal realist" definition, but a broader sense of a state's "ability to shape the course of events in the world around it". Real sovereignty, they argue, is not inevitably lost by ceding legal authority to a federal or multinational polity, but may be enhanced because, by acting as part of a group, a state may well be able to effect changes that would otherwise be impossible. Such a definition of sovereignty emphasises not only the idea of creating alliances but rests on the broader definition of "soft security", an encompassing of the diplomatic, economic, cultural dimensions of the latter. It is a holistic view that a military hardware-obsessed US finds difficult to take on board, but which a less homogenous EU must of necessity embrace. Yet it seems paradoxical that a state whose history consists precisely in the pooling of sovereignty between fiercely independent states should find itself on this side of the argument. Expressing such fundamental differences, the terms "soft sovereignty" and "hard sovereignty" may better reflect the widely diverging philosophies. But as I leave DC for Dublin I am struck again by the truth of the old adage that we are two continents divided by a common language. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (c) The Irish Times
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