In discussions between American and European scholars about Western policies towards the Middle East — an issue of increasing importance for trans-Atlantic relations — Europeans are often asked to explain why their policymakers and pundits criticize US Middle East policies instead of accepting a form of burden sharing that would allow the European Union to pursue its economic interests in the Middle East and the Mediterranean while leaving political leadership to the US. After all, did the US not defend overall Western interests in the Middle East, particularly the free flow of oil? Was not the US the only power capable of brokering peace between Israel and the Arabs? [1]

Although Europe and the US compete commercially and economically in the Middle East, their vital interests in the region, as defined by US and EU policymakers, do not conflict. Rather, divergent priorities and different perceptions of threats distinguish policy making on either side of the Atlantic. US policymakers give priority to the security and wellbeing of Israel, the free flow of oil, the security of friendly states and regimes and (more recently) the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Europeans focus on regional stability — a concept central to European thinking but conspicuously absent from the US list of priorities in the Middle East. This key difference stems from geography and interdependence in economic and security spheres. While the EU is a close neighbor to the Middle East, or even part of a more broadly-defined European-Mediterranean economic and political space, [2] the US is an outside actor viewing the region from a global perspective. European states simply cannot afford to base Middle East policies on strategic alliances with one or two regional states. Nor can they support the security and wellbeing of one state at the expense of others. Whether they like the regimes and policies of their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern neighbors or not, Europeans have to live with all of them.

The EU is also the most important trading partner of nearly every state in the region. Algeria and Libya, two of the more problematic states, are among Europe’s main energy suppliers. Furthermore, European states feel immediately threatened by any disturbances, domestic or inter-state, in their wider Mediterranean environment. European governments fear uncontrolled migration as well as the export to Europe (through migrant communities or terrorist groups) of violent conflicts between regional actors.

Against these slightly different backgrounds, both Europe and the US desire a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Europe considers the Mediterranean subject to the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU and it considers the realization of Middle East peace essential to the achievement of common security in the Euro-Mediterranean space. While Europeans tend to focus on security and peace for all countries in the region and the Palestinian right to self-determination, they support the US-sponsored Madrid process and wish the Americans would lead it toward a solution acceptable to all parties. Americans and Europeans also agree, on the formal level at least, that Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, based on the land-for-peace principle, constitute the legal framework of any solution.

Strong trans-Atlantic differences of opinion are more evident regarding the Gulf than the Arab-Israeli conflict and the peace process. The EU has no common policy on Iraq; Great Britain, under Labor as well as Tory rule, tends to follow the US course. France, under conservative rule as much as under a cohabitation government, has been among the main proponents of opening up to Iraq. The EU has, however, developed a fairly consistent common policy toward Iran, which has been a key point of disagreement between the US and the EU. Even after officially halting the EU’s “critical dialogue” with Tehran, European leaders deemed it necessary to maintain some form of dialogue or constructive engagement with Iran. European states disagree with the logic of dual containment and consider the extraterritorial legislation underlying the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act illegal. [3] Domestic developments in Iran and the increasing debate in US policy making circles over the wisdom of dual containment may eventually lessen US-European differences over Iran.

Europeans neither deny a strong American role in the Middle East nor question the US role as the main broker of the peace process. Contrary to Arab hopes, the EU and the majority of European policymakers have no intention of counterbalancing US policies in the Middle East. Rather, they criticize the lack of resolve on the part of the current US administration concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict and the peace process in particular. According to the Deputy Director of Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, “Netanyahu…with his Likud and conservative allies, has systematically undermined the Oslo process and has been tacitly supported in his efforts by the pusillanimous attitude of the United States.” [4] More generally, while acknowledging US interests and power, Europeans feel that America’s Middle East policies suffer from deficiencies and pose risks. The European critique can be summarized in six points:

First, US Middle East policy pays scant attention to regional links and dynamics, often disregarding the legitimate interests of regional actors. European policymakers and policy-oriented scholars do not make this criticism from a normative position; they simply claim that the narrowness of the US vision is not helpful. Europeans consider it unwise, for example, to pressure some Gulf Arab countries to establish relations with Israel before their societies are ready for it. Nor do they find it difficult to understand why countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose friendships with and reliance upon the West are beyond doubt, refused to attend the Doha conference while the peace process was stalemated.

Second, US policy ostracizes and demonizes certain actors in the Middle East, thereby dividing the region into allies and enemies. US policymakers depict regional actors as either good or bad, most notably through the rogue state doctrine. Conversely, Europeans tend to regard all regional actors, including some of the West’s friends, as problematic states.

Third, the dearth of regional knowledge among American Middle East policymakers and their concentration on Israel evokes European fears that the US administration might accept a less than just and comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The US might endorse an outcome that disregards basic Syrian or Palestinian interests if negotiations do not, by themselves, lead to a solution acceptable to all parties. From the European perspective, such a settlement would not be sustainable.

Fourth, concerning the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the US is more interested in the process than its outcome. Europeans, in contrast, are quite outspoken concerning the goals of negotiations; they frequently speak of a Palestinian state and denounce Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as illegal and provocative. Europeans believe that the sponsor of a peace process should lead the conflicting parties to a defined goal, not simply keep the process going — particularly when power is so unequally distributed, as in this case. Lacking guidance and goals, the process can only perpetuate an explosive and intolerable status quo.

Fifth, the current US administration is not steering the peace process in an even-handed manner. While the Bush administration pressured Arabs and Israelis alike to join the Madrid conference in 1991, the Clinton team has yet to prove that it can prevent the Israeli government from dragging its feet over the implementation of the Oslo agreements. Both the US and most EU states tend to view Israel more favorably than the Arab states. Such biases need not impede mediation; even a biased sponsor or broker can be acceptable to the conflicting parties. What Europeans find disturbing, however, is the extent to which US resolve in the peace process seems to be linked to domestic issues such as Vice President Al Gore’s campaign for the presidency.

Sixth, US policy assumes that only one external player — the US itself — can fulfill a political role in the Middle East peace process. Europeans question this assumption. Most Arab policymakers, and quite a number of Israelis, do not actually trust the US. They may rely on US aid and US power, but they do not necessarily trust their protector. Reliance and trust are not coterminous. The claim that the US alone has sufficient leverage must be questioned; if this were true, would not the peace process be in a better state?

European leaders have therefore called upon the US to accept that it has a political role to play in the peace process, particularly given the EU’s interests and strong relations with states and peoples throughout the Middle East. As European policymakers often note, this role complements the American role; it is not an attempt to compete with the US.[5] Neither Brussels nor the individual EU states, however, want to limit their engagement to the financial and economic aspects of the peace process.

The semi-official US response is that Europe and the EU, for lack of sufficient policy instruments, are simply not capable of playing a political role. More often than not, Americans also charge Europe with being unbalanced, too strongly pro-Palestinian or pro-Arab to play a useful role in the process. [6] The EU’s ability to play a constructive political role in the peace process warrants critical discussion indeed. [7] First, Europe is not a unified actor. Although European states coordinate their policies toward the peace process, they do not always speak with one voice. A case in point was Germany’s abstention in 1997 from two votes in the UN General Assembly on resolutions critical of Israeli settlement policies. Second, European policymakers are not always clear about the EU’s overall motivations in the peace process. Is the wish to play a political role, as French statements often depict it, the result of realpolitik or neo-Gaullist attempts to shift the balance of power, or is it the logical consequence of Mediterranean interdependencies expressing a European sense of responsibility for the peoples in its southern neighborhood, as European officials maintain? Or is it, rather, the result of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership program (the Barcelona process), through which Europe has launched its own geopolitical project for the region, the success of which is essentially endangered if the peace process remains stalemated?

After successfully launching the Barcelona process in 1995, Europeans soon learned that a causal relationship links “Barcelona” to “Madrid.” The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership process cannot be separated from the Arab-Israeli peace process: once the latter stagnates, the former will falter, particularly in its security dimension which, from the European perspective, is more important than other aspects of the process. [8] The Arab states have indicated that they will not support European proposals for a Euro-Mediterranean Stability Charter as long as the territorial conflict between Arabs and Israelis remains unresolved.[9]

The Barcelona framework can — and has — contributed to stabilizing the Middle East peace process. It has made it possible for Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians to participate in a structured multilateral dialogue on political, economic and security issues despite the current stalemate in the peace process. It cannot, however, replace peace talks, and it could not outlast the complete breakdown of the peace process. If the EU wants the Barcelona framework to survive, it must become more active in the peace process. Declarations and financial support alone will not suffice.

Europeans often forget that “Europe’s means of action [in the Middle East] have not increased as a result of Washington’s lack of breadth and imagination.” [10] Both US and European policies have certain comparative advantages that should be utilized to further peace in the Middle East. Like the US, Europe often lacks the political will to use its leverage with regional actors. There is, therefore, a case for policy complementarity, coordination and, on occasion, cooperation. A joint US-European initiative for the implementation of the Oslo II interim agreement, for instance, might have discouraged the Israeli government from dragging its feet.

In a nutshell, when unilateral, high-level diplomacy or force is needed, the US remains much better equipped than Europe. Neither the president of the EU Commission, the French president or the European troika would have been able to convene the Madrid conference. Europeans, however, possess more of the necessary skills and patience required for building regional structures, facilitating second-track and people-to-people diplomacy and organizing mid-term confidence-building exercises. It is hard to imagine that the US State Department could have endeavored, let alone succeeded, in establishing and maintaining a Barcelona-type multilateral and multilevel dialogue structure acceptable to all the parties in the Middle East.


[1] Regarding issues discussed in the US-European dialogue on the Middle East, see Robert D. Blackwill and Michael Sturmer, eds., Allies Divided: Transatlantic Policies for the Greater Middle East (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997). Note that throughout this article, “Europe” is used as shorthand for the member states of the European Union (EU).
[2] Eberhard Rhein, “Europe and the Mediterranean: A Newly Emerging Geopolitical Area?,” European Foreign Affairs Review 1(1999), pp. 79-86.
[3] By issuing presidential waivers, the US administration has avoided open conflict over European economic engagements with Iran.
[4] George Joffe, “The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership: Two Years after Barcelona,” Royal Institute of International Affairs Briefing Paper 44 (May 1998), p. 1. See also Dominique Moisi, “Europe’s Backyard,” Financial Times, October 13, 1997: “Seen from Europe,” he writes, “Washington’s strategy could be summarized — unfairly, of course — as: ’The situation is extremely dangerous and explosive: It is imperative that we do as little as possible’.”
[5] See Malcolm Rifkind, “Blueprint for a Region at Peace,” Financial Times, November 5, 1996.
[6] See Richard N. Haas, “The United States, Europe and the Middle East Peace Process,” in Blackwill and Sturmer, pp. 75-77.
[7] For a more detailed discussion of Europe’s policies towards the Middle East and the peace process, see, among others, Francois D’Alancon, “The EC Looks to a New Middle East,” Journal of Palestine Studies 23/2 (1994), pp. 44-51; Ghassan Salame, “Torn Between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean: Europe and the Middle East in the Post-Cold War Era,” Middle East Journal 48/2 (1994), pp. 226-249; Rosemary Hollis, “Europe and the Middle East: Power by Stealth?,” International Affairs 73/1 (1996), pp. 15-29; Paul Marie de La Gorce, “Europe and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Survey,” Journal of Palestine Studies 26/3 (1997), pp. 5-16; Muriel Asseburg and Volker Perthes, eds., Surviving the Stalemate: Approaches to Strengthening the Palestinian Entity (Baden-Baden: NOMOS Publishers, in press).
[8] Aside from the so-called political and security partnership, the Barcelona process involves two other “baskets,” referred to as the economic and financial partnership and the partnership in social, cultural and human affairs.
[9] For more details, see Fred Tanner, “The Euro-Med Partnership: Prospects for Arms Limitations and Confidence Building after Malta,” The International Spectator 32 (April-June 1997), pp. 3-25.
Dominique Moisi, “Europe in the Middle East: A New Combination of Modesty and Ambition,” in Robert Pelletreau, ed., Advancing Common Purposes in the Broad Middle East: A Report to the Trilateral Commission (New York: The Triangle Papers, April 1998), PP. 27-30:

How to cite this article:

Volker Perthes "Points of Difference, Cases for Cooperation," Middle East Report 208 (Fall 1998).

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