European policymakers resent the insinuation that they are less committed to Middle East democratization than their U.S. counterparts. European officials take a more cautious approach both because of philosophical qualms about top-down democratization and also real concerns about the side-effects of democratization—instability and migration—in their region. While some European officials argue—rightly—that the U.S. government could learn from Europe's more cautious approach, juxtaposition with U.S. policies also highlights areas in which European policy could improve.

The White House response to the 9-11 attacks was three-pronged: first, it struck known terrorist cells and infrastructure based in Afghanistan; second, it put countries such as Iran and Syria on notice that collusion with terrorist networks would no longer be tolerated; and third, it launched a campaign of democracy promotion that many in both the West and the region interpreted as sugarcoated efforts at regime change. All three elements assumed that fighting the global war on terror overseas would best protect the United States from further attacks on its soil.

Trans-Atlantic quarrels over democratization continue to characterize U.S-European relations. At their roots are disagreements over both security and threat assessment. In the aftermath of 9-11, the Bush administration drew an explicit linkage between lack of democratic governance in the Middle East and the friendly environment and safe-haven that terrorists enjoy there. While Washington craved stability during the Cold War, since 9-11, the Bush administration turned traditional Realpolitik on its head.

European policymakers, though, were taken aback by the swift change in U.S. policy. The Bush administration had entered office promising a "humble" foreign policy.[1] Brussels worried about the challenge Washington's proactive approach posed to Western diplomatic practice and its interpretation of international law. As important a factor in the trans-Atlantic tension over Middle East democratization was geographic dissonance. The EU regards the region as part of its immediate neighborhood. EU enlargement has led its strategic neighborhood to grow. Instability in the east and south, whether exhibited in missile proliferation or increased migration through the Balkans or across the Mediterranean, threatens Europe much more directly than it does the United States. However compelling Washington may feel its need to protect Israel, safeguard sea lanes for military and energy considerations, and defend the prestige of U.S. security commitments worldwide, Brussels believes that the United States faces a strategic choice while Europe faces a strategic reality.

The concept of fighting the enemy abroad may be a rational forward strategy for the United States, but from the European standpoint, it is simply not applicable to the Middle East. Many Europeans believe the repercussions of any significant military engagement cannot be contained to a single country. The spillover is much more likely to affect Europe than the United States.

Evolving European Union Policy

History and geography are key to understanding Europe's difficulties in dealing with the Middle East. The EU as a collective institution has never had the luxury of forging special relations with friendly governments as does Washington with Jerusalem. Impeding such special EU-wide relationships are the numerous bilateral links and related priorities that each EU member has inherited in the Middle East. France, Great Britain, and Italy, for example, each have links with their former colonies and mandates. Likewise, both because of the Middle East's geographic proximity and the delicate compromises among EU countries, the option of cutting any Middle Eastern regime off from any interaction is almost impossible. Even under the United Nation's tight sanctions on Libya, for example, Italy continued to engage Qadhafi's regime. Interdiction operations and border controls are ineffective on a large scale unless countries of origin for both legal and illegal migrants into Europe cooperate at various levels. For objective reasons, the Europeans may have a greater stake in cultivating a working relationship with some key Middle Eastern regimes such as Egypt or Algeria.

The European Union's common foreign and security policy lacks the standing and resources to provide consistent direction. Individual EU members' policies translate into EU-wide inconsistency, even in the application of its own foreign aid and trade policies. Consensus often equates with the lowest common denominator. It is no accident that the widest and most ambitious framework developed by the EU is called the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Limiting the partnership to the Mediterranean with its long heritage of exchanges with Europe bypasses the difficulties inherent in expanding policy consensus to Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, which lie outside the Mediterranean basin.

The Euro-Med process calls for "a comprehensive partnership … through strengthened political dialogue on a regular basis, the development of economic and financial cooperation, and greater emphasis on the social, cultural, and human dimension." It took an evolutionary approach that may look weak-wristed to a U.S. audience. The 1995 Barcelona declaration made not a single reference to reform but mentioned cooperation more than sixty times. The Barcelona process did, however, call for the Arab countries involved to "develop the rule of law and democracy in their political systems, while recognizing in this framework the right of each of them to choose and freely develop its own political, sociocultural, economic and judicial system." [2]

Since 1995, the political basket has shrunk from the high expectations of the Barcelona declaration due in part to a lack of European consensus about the nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute.[3] Many European governments accept Arab arguments that reform will be difficult until the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ends. Partly for this reason, the Euro-Med initiative has downplayed democratization and evolved to mirror the social cohesion strategy upon which the EU's own political and economic integration is based. Social cohesion prioritizes attainment of a better quality of life based on respect of human dignity, access to health and education, active support of ethnic and cultural diversity, and development cooperation.[4] Such a framework is linked to an overall vision of interstate politics and security. In the EU's own experience, only when threat perceptions change is a cooperative system viable.

The European Union's emphasis on wide-ranging and open-ended dialogue aims to nudge other states in the direction of cooperative security. A crucial feature of this European version of transformational diplomacy is rejection of the use of force. This can create a dilemma. On one hand, the use of force contradicts the goal of a peaceful and intertwined international system while, on the other hand, refusal to intervene in certain cases can undermine EU credibility.[5] Nothing has highlighted this dilemma more clearly than the humanitarian crises of the 1990s. In Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, there was heated debate on the right and duty of interference in the face of ethnic cleansing. Still, no consensus emerged on the broader issue of imposing political change upon recalcitrant regimes as an underlying strategy. Some EU members—particularly Great Britain and France—have a more interventionist tradition while Germany on the opposite end of the spectrum tends to disagree with all but post-conflict peacekeeping.

But consensus is made even more difficult by different political assessments in each case. In the absence of the willingness to use force, the European Union seeks to offer the carrot of economic growth and job creation in order to bring change. Underlying this strategy is the assumption that economic development leads to social modernization and, by extension, even democratization. Often referred to as the "China model" because of the experience in China where economic liberalization preceded political reform, the belief that trade can lead to political reform underlines European engagement with Iran. European officials believe their outreach will cultivate, not alienate, Iran's civil society regardless of the nature of the current regime. Once the desire for economic freedom and prosperity is unleashed, the reasoning goes, it is crucial for the EU to be positioned to take advantage of new business and political opportunities. However, pressure has been mounting to produce tangible results, partly as a response to the re-orientation of U.S. declaratory policy.

The European strategy has produced mixed results at best. EuroMeSCo—a Lisbon-based multinational research group supported by the EU Commission—found that "an overview of the last ten years shows that reality lags far behind the aims, and that the causal and sequential link between economic reform and political liberalization has failed to materialize."[6] As the EU expanded eastward—adding ten new members in 2003—Brussels redefined its goals for future partnerships in the southern Mediterranean and former Soviet Union. Instead of explicit democratization, the EU sought to offer "closer economic integration" and "a stake in the EU's Internal Market" to those states that "demonstrat[ed] shared values and effective implementation of political, economic, and institutional reforms." [7] EU emphasis on the prevention of "the emergence of new dividing lines" underlined its social cohesion policy. While still engaging the southern Mediterranean, the launching of the EU's neighborhood policy in 2004, emphasized bilateral programs between Arab countries and individual EU member states.[8] This was a tacit recognition of the drawbacks of a multilateral approach, especially in the absence of any established sense of regional community among the Mediterranean Arab states.

At the same time, the EU sought to model its Arab reform efforts upon its success with the integration of eastern European states. The Copenhagen criteria linked political reform to EU membership. Similarly, EU "Action Plans," the operational agreements between the EU and individual partner countries, identify human rights reform as a prerequisite to closer partnership.[9]

The Iraq war debate exposed the lack of any coherent EU security posture or policy. The 15-page European Security Strategy sought to fill the gap. The strategy identified five major threats, all relevant to the broader Middle East: terrorism, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, regional conflicts, state failure, and organized crime. Its conclusions mirrored the 2002 national security strategy of the United States, as well as several official statements from the Bush administration. "Taking these different elements together—terrorism committed to maximum violence, the availability of weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, the weakening of the state system, and the privatization of force," the European Security Strategy said, "we could be confronted with a very radical threat indeed." The document called for "well-governed" borders and for the European Union to affect the behavior of neighborhood states by making assistance and trade more conditional. Those states that "place themselves outside the bounds of international society … should understand that there is a price to be paid, including in their relationship with the European Union," the document declared.[10]

Striking a balance between stability and support for democratic reforms is a permanent conundrum for liberal states. Brussels and Washington have simply made their compromises at different points along the scale. The dynamics set in motion by the Bush strategy are more openly recognized by governments with closer ties to Washington: Italian foreign minister Gianfranco Fini wrote about "the extraordinary new phase of transformation that has begun in the Middle East" and declared that the EU "will have to do more than issue noble proclamations if it wishes to make progress toward the parallel but closely related goal of establishing peace and democracy in the Middle East."[11] The European tendency toward stability is based not only on its belief in open dialogue with other governments but also on the sizable Muslim—mostly Arab—minority in many major European cities. While U.S. initiatives have placed political reform squarely on the international agenda, the Iraq war generated great hostility toward democratic interventionism.[12]

European opposition to the more forceful Bush administration democratization strategy is characterized by several fears. What if opposition movements resort to violence against repressive regimes—perhaps on the basis of illiberal ideologies—or simply set in motion uncontrollable destabilization? What if existing state structures need to be destroyed before more representative forms of governance can emerge? While the Barcelona process addresses a desire for reform, there is no comparable clarity on short-term policies designed to manage risks and opportunities when and where they arise. The EU has not been able to overcome the "Algerian syndrome," the belief that premature elections can lead to Islamist victory and civil war, as they did in Algeria in 1992, or push forward a detailed plan to address the chaotic situation that might follow regime collapse in Syria.

The European Security Strategy did acknowledge security risks and threats emanating from the Middle East as well as the explicit assumption of EU security responsibilities. The linkage between good governance and international security signals a recognition that postponed reform in the name of containing fundamentalism can generate even more extremism and authoritarianism. Countries once deemed success stories—Morocco, Tunisia—as well as countries further a field such as Uzbekistan—appear to be victims of this cycle. European officials will acknowledge that status quo policies seem less rational with the spread of Al-Qaeda-type terrorism. Despite harsh public criticism of the Bush administration's approach, the European Security Strategy considered the possibility of proactive intervention:

With the new threats, the first line of defense will often be abroad. The new threats are dynamic … This implies that we should be ready to act before a crisis occurs. Conflict prevention and threat prevention cannot start too early.[13]

With this leap, however, and the willingness of certain member nations, such as France, to intervene unilaterally in countries such as the Ivory Coast and to consider sanctioning robust action against such Middle Eastern countries as Syria and Iran, the EU may lose some of its traditional comparative advantage: being perceived as a benign civilian power. Shifting regional attitudes toward Europe's increasingly proactive role are reflected in North African suspicions about the evolution of the European Security and Defense Policy, a program whose supporters in Europe view as a modest pooling of existing national capabilities.

The Bush Revolution?

George W. Bush's second term inaugural speech highlighted the new U.S. emphasis on democracy promotion, perhaps even supplanting the narrower global war on terror. The speech was not an anomaly. Speaking at the American University in Cairo, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemned traditional U.S. stability-first policy, declaring, "For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."[14]

Some in Europe interpreted the White House emphasis on democracy to signal a partial shift of U.S. counterterrorism strategy from military methods to a willingness to address root causes. They considered that the Bush approach drew the U.S. nearer to the European concept of comprehensive security.[15] Washington's shift from staunch supporter of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to prime critic of their democracy deficit is a sort of turbocharged replica of the EU process: first, a recognition of the interplay of politics from social ills to economic stagnation and from regional conflicts to terrorism; and then, an understanding of the practical difficulty of neatly separating civil societies and regimes as well as moderates and radicals in the context of political Islam; finally, the adoption of more modest goals overall. We may be watching the same painful learning process, just much faster and perhaps more erratic in the case of the Bush administration. This European attitude that Bush is merely setting U.S. policy down a path already tread by the EU, perhaps combined with some mirror-imaging analysis, has bred cynicism and mistrust.[16] Domestic sentiment against U.S. involvement in Iraq has led many European governments to further disassociate themselves from Bush foreign policy. This knee-jerk reaction to any U.S. initiative is a direct result of poor management of U.S.-European diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic in the run-up to the Iraq war. Nevertheless, European reservations about U.S. democratization efforts fall into three main camps.

First, there is general cynicism that Washington's democracy promotion policy has less than lofty motives, especially as an effort to divert attention from policy failures, faulty intelligence, and questionable planning in Iraq.[17] Many also raise past and present U.S. inconsistency. While Bush spoke of democracy, his ambassador to Cairo, Francis J. Ricciardone, praised Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak for elections that had been flawed at best.[18] Many European commentators repeat charges of U.S. pundits about the Bush family's close ties to the dictatorial Saudi royal family.

Second, there are many questions as to the feasibility and sustainability of the pro-democracy drive. Many skeptics question budget constraints, Congressional will prior to the 2006 elections, and Bush's shaky domestic mandate.[19] Questions about whether Bush foreign policy is driven by a domestic U.S. political timeline also breed skepticism. Third, many Europeans question the methods of the Bush freedom policy. Europeans shy away from the coercive means the Bush administration appears to favor.

There is also a more practical matter of how to coordinate and share the burdens of decision-making. European policymakers fear being presented with a fait accompli and subsequent demands to foot part of the bill. Many European politicians consider Bush administration willingness to listen to their objections, doubts, and suggestions as a precondition for more active European support. Criticism of U.S. unilateralism has become a unifying factor in Europe. Europeans understand the merits of the holistic approach but question the inconsistent and indiscriminate character of Washington's strategy.[20]

Possible Convergence

Despite the problems that crystallized over the Iraq campaign, there are signs of more effective U.S. and European cooperation in the promotion of democracy. While the EU has shifted from defense of the status quo to an acknowledgment that change in the Middle East is needed, realism increasingly permeates the Bush administration's revolutionary approach to democracy. This enables the EU and U.S. to meet halfway. The EU-U.S. joint statements of June 20, 2005, contain no explicit reference to regime change as a key goal, but neither do they emphasize stability.[21] The language is that of reforms, process, and transition. Optimism should be tempered, however. There has been no breakthrough, nor would a joint communiqué be the place to find historical perspective or bold scenarios for the future.

Similarly, the declaration of June 9, 2005, by the major industrial democracies of the G8 commits the signatories to "genuine cooperation with the region's governments, as well as business and civil society representatives to strengthen freedom, democracy, and prosperity for all." In enunciating the eight principles guiding the "Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa," however, a signal is sent by stating that "regional conflicts must not be an obstacle for reforms. Indeed, reforms may make a significant contribution toward resolving them"[22]—in other words, rejecting the authoritarian argument whereby political repression is needed to contain extremism.

A second form of convergence stems from a common problem: serious democratization must be designed and pursued for the long haul. A lasting commitment to reforms must tackle the problem of token gestures, undertaken by semi- or fully authoritarian governments to placate criticism from the West and multilateral organizations. It is often hard to evaluate the substance of concessions that are skillfully presented as first steps in a process and to reward real efforts while keeping the pressure on. Two recent instances are the rather cosmetic openings in Egypt, which led to Mubarak's contested reelection to a fifth term, and municipal elections in Saudi Arabia.

A third area of common concern should be finding ways to best apply a holistic method. Most of the key problems identified in the famous 2002 Arab Human Development Report, drafted largely by Arab experts in the U.N. framework,[23] require holistic remedies. To cooperate, U.S. and European approaches need not be identical but rather complementary. This can be the silver lining to the European temptation to distance itself from U.S. policies.

The overlap between homeland security, intelligence, judicial-police work, and foreign policy, for instance, in tracking down funding and other support for potential terrorists demonstrates that a large and solid coalition can garner the strength and resolve to pressure and cajole recalcitrant governments while cultivating civil societies that often show an anti-Western bias. Otherwise, it will always be easy for local actors including terrorists to play Europe and the United States against each other or at least exploit their differences to gain time and political space. The 2004 Madrid bombings are a case in point.

Europeans may argue that the U.S. approach is to speak loudly and carry a big stick while Americans may characterize EU policy as speaking softly and carrying a big carrot. But, sometimes the right mix of sticks and carrots can be effective. This is the logic behind U.S.-European cooperation on Iran where there is a limit to the leverage that even the powerful U.S. military can exercise on a hard-line regime.

A fourth issue is the Islamist risk. Electoral competition and popular movements can obviously pave the way for nondemocratic and anti-Western forces (either one or even both). There is no easy way to circumvent the Algerian syndrome, but fortunately Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) is not the only precedent, and there are encouraging or at least mixed cases to learn from: ongoing political developments in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority (to the extent that even extensive and systematic violence does not prevent the gradual evolution of a pseudo-democratic process of political representation), and in different ways, Egypt or Saudi Arabia (to the extent that there may be degrees of resistance to reforms). In this perspective, we must strive for a balancing act, nicely summarized by a senior expert on the Euro-Med track: "the challenge is to combine support for reform processes ‘from above' with backing for political movements pressing for democratic change ‘from below,' such that liberalizing authoritarianism becomes not an end in itself but a stepping stone toward full democratization."[24] This is easier said than done as mobilized civil society takes center stage on a background of weak state institutions and limited experience with democratic practices. However, these are not the Arab masses at once evoked and feared since the early days of pan-Arab nationalism but rather media-aware, often young people who can influence each other much more easily then in the past. How we deal with them may become one of the keys to the evolution of the region for a generation. On each of these counts, trans-Atlantic cooperation remains crucial to success. Most of all, a constant Euro-U.S. dialogue is the best way to fine-tune diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military instruments.

Ultimately, the Bush foreign policy has been driven by a proactive Realpolitik colored by a sense of vulnerability and disorientation caused by 9-11. This in turn created space for the neoconservatives' particular blend of assertive unilateralism and idealism. In this context, the contours of the forward strategy of freedom cannot be defined once and for all but require constant adaptation. European foreign policy has been driven by cautious, reactive Realpolitik, tempered by a strong dose of heartfelt mistrust for military coercion and the objective difficulty of organizing a truly common response to external threats that potentially involves the use of force. Having walked such different paths, convergence is not only possible but also sensible for the Western countries, given the respective weaknesses of their approaches.

What really unites the two sides of the Atlantic at this stage is the need to seize every single opportunity that might arise to sustain positive local developments. Virtually all observers agree that democracy does not happen overnight, but there is no reason to deny the emergence of wide cracks in the regional status quo, partly caused by the fall of Saddam Hussein and partly by endogenous dynamics. This new environment requires quick adaptation on the part of the United States and the EU alike. As they continue to pursue their incremental policies, they need to brace for sudden and acute crises that carry opportunities as well as immediate dangers. Such acute episodes have become much more likely and should not find the Atlantic allies unprepared.

Each case of popular mobilization and participation is deeply rooted in local contexts and histories. However, it is undeniable that the increasingly widespread access to regional and international news media and the Internet allows local populations to draw ideas and inspiration from events in other countries with sometimes instant reactions and feedbacks. Wherever and whenever these processes are set in motion, the political priority for outside actors can no longer be either to produce regime change or to foster stability. It must be to channel instability in a constructive direction while keeping at bay the forces that will systematically attempt to create chaos. This is a truly new agenda.

In so doing, both sides will be well advised to bear in mind that there is no assured path to instant liberal (or even illiberal) democracy. Scores of historical cases, both successful and failed, confirm this rather simple observation. In fact, the Atlantic allies share an ongoing commitment to the country that has received the most democracy assistance per capita ever: Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is no accident that most of the peoples of that scarred portion of Europe still view the country as largely a U.S.-European creation and that the undeniable achievements there must be tempered by a significant dose of modesty.

Roberto Menotti is a research fellow in the International Programs at the Aspen Institute Italia.

[1] Bush-Gore presidential debate, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., Oct. 11, 2000.
[2] "Barcelona Declaration," adopted at the Euro-Mediterranean Conference, Nov. 27-28, 1995.
[3] See Rosa Balfour, "Rethinking the Euro-Mediterranean Political and Security Dialogue," EU Institute for Security Studies, Occasional Papers, no. 52, May 2004, EU Institute for Security Studies, Paris.
[4] "Economic and Social Cohesion," "Treaty Establishing the European Community," Official Journal C 325 of 24 December 2002, Title XVII.
[5] Sonia Lucarelli and Roberto Menotti, "The Use of Force as Coercive Intervention: The Conflicting Values of the European Union's External Action," in Sonia Lucarelli and Ian Manners, eds., Values and Principles in European Union Foreign Policy (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 147-63.
[6] Barcelona Plus: Towards a Euro-Mediterranean Community of Democratic States (Lisbon: EuroMeSCo Secretariat, Apr. 2005), p. 7.
[7] "Wider Europe—Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with the Eastern and Southern Neighbours," COM (2003) 104 final, Commission of European Communities, Brussels, Nov. 3, 2003.
[8] Ibid.
[9] "The Policy: What Is the European Neighbourhood Policy?" European Commission, European Neighbourhood Policy website, accessed Feb. 14, 2006.
[10] A Secure Europe in a Better World: European Security Strategy (Brussels: European Union, Dec. 12, 2003).
[11] Gianfranco Fini, "Fighting Totalitarianism," The Wall Street Journal Europe, Nov. 18-20, 2005.
[12] Barcelona Plus, p. 8-9.
[13] Ibid., p. 7.
[14] Condoleezza Rice, remarks at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, June 20, 2005.
[15] Sven Biscop, The European Security Strategy. A Global Agenda for Positive Power (London: Ashgate, 2005), p. 51.
[16] See, for example, Quentin Peel, "Europe's Muddled Message to Its Neighbours," Financial Times, Dec. 1, 2005; Transatlantic Trends 2005 (Washington, D.C.: German Marshall Fund of the United States and Compagnia di San Paolo, 2005), pp. 5-7.
[17] Peel, "Europe's Muddled Message to Its Neighbours"; Transatlantic Trends 2005, pp. 5-7.
[18] Egypt State Information Service, press release, July 31, 2005.
[19] Transatlantic Trends 2005, p. 11.
[20] Federico Romero, "The Transatlantic Gap in Values," pp.153-8, and Paul Hollander, "Anti-Americanism: To Each His Own," Aspenia 25/26, Dec. 2004, pp. 159-165.
[21] "Working Together to Promote Democracy and Support Freedom, the Rule of Law and Human Rights Worldwide," and "Working Together to Promote Peace, Prosperity and Progress in the Middle East," joint statements, European Union and the United States, Europa, accessed Jan. 4, 2006.
[22] "Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Broader Middle East and Africa Region," Group of Eight, Gleneagles, Perthshire, Scotland, June 8, 2005.
[23] Arab Human Development Report 2002. Creating Opportunities for Future Generations, (New York: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Publications, 2002); see How the Arabs Compare: Arab Human Development Report 2002, Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 59-67.
[24] Alvaro Vasconcelos, "Besides Economics, the EU Must Help Arab Democracy," The Daily Star (Beirut), Sept. 5, 2005. It is important to note that Vasconcelos calls for establishing relations with "moderate Islamic groups," among others. For the argument in favor of slow-pace reforms from above, see Dov Zakheim, "Blending Democracy," The National Interest, Fall 2005.