President Bush has had his foreign policy failures -- and some successes -- but when he met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week, he made one of the major foreign policy mistakes of his tenure. And it had nothing directly to do with Iraq.
According to the Sunday Times of London, Bush strongly encouraged Blair to oppose a European "super-state" and therefore, by implication, the ongoing efforts to create a European constitution that would establish a stronger European Union. Bush's opposition and his near-exclusive focus on Iraq have made it harder for a public debate on the constitution to emerge, to the detriment of Europe and the United States.
The administration is seemingly worried about a united Europe challenging American power. Have no doubt about it: This constitution would have a transformative effect on Europe and the United States. It would unify power in a single European president and in a single foreign minister. For the first time, there would be a clear bill of rights that had preeminent status throughout Europe. The U.S. would no longer be dealing with disparate countries, but instead with a formidable, coherent Europe.
Since the end of World War II, Europe has gradually become more and more united as one entity. Two years ago, the 15 member-states of the EU decided to take this further, agreeing to create a formal constitution to govern Europe. However, there is no continent-wide discussion about it, and that is the problem.
The Bush administration's consistent opposition to a united Europe has European leaders trying to pacify the Americans instead of focusing on the constitutional debate. The political oxygen in Europe is almost entirely sucked into a discussion of the United States and terrorism. That is important, but not the only major issue facing Europe.
The leaders of the constitutional debate are all well past their political prime, so there is no larger-than-life figure to drive the momentum. The constitution currently focuses mostly on technical issues, not first principles of government that are likely to arouse the interest of the citizenry. The result is clear: Less than 40% of Europeans even know about the constitution.
Encouraging greater participation by all governments and citizens would ensure that the European founding fathers do not go too far too fast. The elites and the average citizens greatly differ in their attitudes about how much power the European Union should have over cultural issues and foreign policy. An engaged population could serve as a check on overeager elites. Moreover, in a heterogeneous area like Europe, it is particularly important to have a dialogue with all citizens to ensure that the full range of costs and benefits of any potential action related to the constitution is considered.
Creating the constitution with the full participation of all citizens can help the United States. Europe does not have the military might to be a threat to the U.S. in the near future. A united Europe could even help the United States in any new global wars. There is NATO, but it is dominated by the U.S. and therefore limited in what battles it fights. A European military force, freed of American political constraints, might be more willing to respond to some crises that deserve attention -- and sooner.
These positive results follow only if a united Europe is what results from the new constitution. If the process continues without widespread citizen involvement, there will be much discontent with a new EU government.
This is where Bush enters the picture. He should encourage Blair and the other major leaders of Europe to join the constitutional debate more directly and actively, including convening special sessions of their domestic legislatures solely to discuss the constitution. European leaders could then sponsor a referendum on the constitution.
Europe is in the midst of a historic transformation. The Bush administration's opposition has made the process harder -- and Europe and the United States could be the worse for it.