Don’t for a moment think that Hillary Clinton is going to slow down as she nears the end of her stint as U.S. Secretary of State. Beginning this week, December 3, she will be in Europe, her 38th visit since taking office nearly four years ago.
Her first stop will be Prague where she will discuss Czech energy independence, human rights, and democracy. Then to NATO headquarters in Brussels for a foreign ministers’ meeting. Later, across to the EU’s new External Action Service headquarters—or foreign ministry—where she will discuss the future of energy security.
As if that’s not enough for one week, Clinton travels to Dublin to attend a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and then to Belfast where, as she said herself, “I’ll meet leaders and citizens to reiterate America’s commitment to a peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland.
This packed program is surely Clinton’s valedictory trip to Europe. But it represents something more, which Europeans have lost sight of. It is about the State Department’s continuing commitment to Europe and its efforts to “modernize” the transatlantic relationship.
This was the main theme in a lively and convincing speech Clinton gave last week on, November 29, to the Brookings Institution. Her visit to Europe, she said, “demonstrates the commitment we’ve brought to our transatlantic partnership.
That may surprise Europeans. They complain about how President Barack Obama has turned his attention away from Europe towards Asia, confirming, they say, his lack of interest in Europe, except when it comes to the euro crisis. Clinton and her European experts at the State Department see things differently. Now, more than ever, Clinton argued in her speech, the United States and Europe must work together, not in the parameters of the old transatlantic relationship but in a new partnership. The fact that they share so many values must be put to use.
As ever, it is the United States, not the Europeans, that is setting an agenda in response to the new geopolitical landscape that is taking shape in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. European leaders remain too inward-looking to think beyond the euro crisis or their next national elections. Even more damaging, Europe lacks ambition as my colleague, Jan Techau recently argued.
Security and strategic issues are on the back burner, but not for Clinton.
Clinton cites at least a half-a-dozen areas where the U.S. and Europe have been working closely together and can do much more. They include Iran and especially South-Asia, Russia and the Caucasus, Ukraine and Belarus, and the Balkans. And just as important is the hope that the United States and Europe can agree a comprehensive transatlantic trade agreement that would surely boost jobs, investments, and growth. That would bind the two continents even closer together.
Clinton has discussed this nascent new partnership with her European counterpart, Catherine Ashton, head of the EU’s European External Action Service, (EEAS) which has the makings of a European State Department.
Over the past few years, these two top diplomats have forged a special rapport and friendship. This has helped enormously to “to improve the lines of communication that had become strained,” before Obama had first entered office in 2009, as Clinton diplomatically put it. Europeans did not get on with Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush.
Since November 2009, when Ashton took up her new job as Europe’s de facto foreign minister, Clinton and Ashton have met 20 times at various multilateral summits or meetings. That does not include the special meetings both leaders recently did together in October in the Balkans, where they met Serb, Kosovar, and Albanian leaders, nor the regular phone calls.
This special connection between an American Secretary of State and her European counterpart is important. For Clinton, it shows that a leading European diplomat is not obsessed with competing with the U.S. or grabbling the headlines on behalf of Europe. They can both cooperate. For Ashton, it shows that the State Department wants to work with Europe because it sees the merits and benefits of two big democratic blocs working more effectively together. It also suggests that the Europe’s External Action Service is being taken seriously as a European foreign ministry.
“What a pleasure it has been working with Cathy Ashton. Not only is she a great diplomat and a personal friend but it is exciting to see the EU becoming a more cohesive voice in world affairs”, Clinton said.
It is surely time that the other EU member states began giving the EEAS the green light to work strategically, especially towards building a new transatlantic relationship. The State Department has thrown down the gauntlet to Europe. It should not miss the chance of winning over Clinton’s successor by convincing that person that Europe does want to work with the United States.