Those who wait with baited breath for a stinging European response to America's withdrawal from the multi-lateral Iran nuclear deal should prepare to be marginally disappointed. The response may come but it will be subtle. Europe is not likely to launch high-velocity verbal volleys. But that does not mean it will meekly submit to capricious American unilateralism either.
The issue is not whether Europe should fall in with US highhandedness or fall out with its transatlantic ally. As former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt recently put it: “European economies can certainly survive without trade with Iran but European sovereignty in foreign affairs can hardly survive passive compliance with the new dictats from the White House.”
But how to assert sovereignty in an unequal world? The European Union has two options, which could be mixed to taste.
It has a GDP roughly equal to that of the US and so has power it has yet to properly use. That could mean, for instance, threatening to slap European penalties on American multinational corporations in retaliation for US secondary sanctions on EU companies. This is not as radical as it sounds. The EU stared down the US in 1996 over threatened penalties for trading with Cuba.
Europe could work with China to circumvent US sanctions. The day after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, Beijing said it was opposed to “the so-called long-arm jurisdiction by any country in accordance with its domestic laws”. In practice, collaborating with China would mean using the yuan or euro rather than the dollar to trade with Iran. New funds and banks that bypass the US financial network would also be needed.
Is any of this likely? There are some clues to what is being contemplated. The French finance minister has said it is “not acceptable” any longer for the US to play “economic policeman of the planet”. Leaders of the European three, France, Germany and Britain – who worked together on Iran – politely but firmly reminded the Trump administration the agreement “remains the binding international legal framework”.
Mark Leonard, director of the well-networked European Council on Foreign Relations, suggested: “We’re going to have to treat the US as a hostile power”. Former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana fulminated “the country that is breaking its promises has decided to punish those that have kept theirs”. Defending multilateralism, he added, is as much a priority as transatlantic relations.
We have been here before, in fact quite recently. In January, the EU declared it would be a “predictable and solid” partner to Cuba, even as Mr Trump abruptly reversed the opening executed by his predecessor.
Back in June 2008, the EU defied the US on Cuba again, scrapping five-year-old sanctions despite the Bush administration’s hard line on any government led by the Castros. The foreign minister of Spain, which led the push to drop sanctions, spelt out European resolve as follows: "The United States has its policy on Cuba. We don't share it. In the end, we have our interests and our autonomy in foreign policy."
The 2003 invasion of Iraq also led to a transatlantic rupture that additionally split Europeans into pro and anti-US camps. Germany abandoned its position of automatic loyalty to the US and France actively lobbied against it at the United Nations. Former president George Bush’s secretary of state darkly threatened Paris with "consequences" and awkward acts of faux hostility were undertaken. Notably and somewhat absurdly, US Congressional cafeterias stopped serving French fries and French toast and re-christened them freedom food.
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Fifteen years later, American menus and Franco-American relations betray little trace of that spat. But there is a new one and if it feels different, the reasons are obvious.
First, it is the EU as a whole that will have to challenge the US because the bloc was one of the seven parties to the Iran deal. Second, the Trump administration's attitude to Iran is more dangerously overloaded than to Cuba. Third, there are signs the tectonic plates of the rules-based international order are shifting. The US is fashioning a self-serving new one that would rest on raw power and dollar dominance rather than the so-called free world's shared values.
There is no guarantee Europe will fight the good fight and certainly, nothing to say it would win. But history offers interesting lessons. When Athens, the Aegean superpower of the fourth century BC, threatened to destroy the small, peaceful and neutral island of Melos unless it supported war against Sparta, Melos pleaded for the Athenians to do what was right. Athens’ envoys responded, according to contemporary historian Thucydides: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. Melos was massacred but 12 years later, Athens too was defeated by Sparta.
That line is taught in all the best US international relations schools as a reminder of the limits of hubris.