WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- One of the amusements of our era is watching the political acrobatics of Tony Blair. Like his former transatlantic compadre Bill Clinton, Blair has an almost Roadrunneresque ability to extract himself from tight spots, reinvent himself on demand and play impossible situations adroitly and successfully. However, he has performed with more grace than Clinton and with fewer embarrassments.
One of his most interesting performances has been his simultaneous straddling of the European and Atlantic horses. He has managed to be a fervent Europeanist, at least by British standards, and a committed Atlanticist, equally beloved in Brussels and Washington.
At least to date. Now the two horses he is trying to straddle are galloping toward a series of obstacles that threaten to knock him off as they instinctively head off in separate directions. Blair's preferred course of action is to try to steer both horses in the same direction; if he fails, he must either leave one and ride the other, or risk being thrown in the dust. In his case, Chancellor Gordon Brown, who has been playing Tonto to his Lone Ranger, stands ready to leap upon either available horse and ride away if Blair is thrown.
As always, the biggest problem is the inherent structural one implied in Blair's strategy: the assumption that by integrating more completely into the European Union, Britain is also serving America's interests by being a bridge between the two continents. This is not an eccentric position; it has been the standard assumption of the American foreign policy establishment from the end of the Second World War. It is, however, wrong. Where it fails is the assumption that Europe as a whole and America are sufficiently alike that their interests will naturally be aligned.
There is some truth in this, but only up to a point and less so now than ever before. During the Cold War, it was Europe that had the incentive to fall in line with America, because it needed American military power to deter a live Soviet threat. But just as the end of the French threat in Canada after the the war of 1763 ended America's need for British military and thus encouraged Americans to seek independence, the end of the Soviet threat permitted the Europeans to forego their courting of America.
Meanwhile, the American foreign establishment underestimated the divergence in economic models between the Continental Europeans and Americans, partly because the divergence grew in the last two decades of the 20th century without their fully paying attention to it. The European percentage of income collected by the government continued to remain high or grow further, whereas the American percentage, already smaller than Europe's, remained low.
Meanwhile Britain moved more in the American direction through Thatcher's reforms. This resulted in a high unemployment rate in Continental Europe contrasted against low unemployment in America and Britain, with continued economic dynamism. This was paralleled by a revolution in American military capabilities unmatched in Europe, except to a limited extent by the United Kingdom, whose forces alone remained able to fully interoperate with America's.
Furthermore, the end of the Cold War accelerated an attitudinal change in Europe in regard to the use of military force as opposed to reliance on international law and diplomacy. Europeans saw their success at creating international legal structures to mediate differences between them, differences that used to be resolved on the battlefield, and started to believe that these structures could be made to work on a worldwide level. Americans retained a substantially more skeptical attitude toward this dream, partly because they knew that if diplomacy failed, it would be American forces that would be called upon to straighten out the situation, at a greater cost than if diplomacy and international law had not be tried.
Now a number of issues are causing these differences to matter more and more. America's refusal to join the International Criminal Court, based on its skepticism and also its suspicion that the court could become a magnet for anti-American stunt prosecution, threatened the European mental model of the future development of the world. Both America and Europe could contemplate the End of History, it would seem, as long as history ended on their own terms. And it would seem the the terms are not quite the same.
The divergence of economic models will come to a crisis point over the next 10 years as well. The Continental European pension and social entitlement systems, based entirely on state provision, must be reformed thoroughly in the next few years if they are to escape demographic disaster in that time. Such reform may happen, but it has a steep uphill battle.
Sooner than that, American action in Iraq, which seems more and more likely, and more and more immanent, will further strain Euro-American relations. All these issues will put a strain on Blair's ambition to be a good Europeanist (as it is now defined) and a good Atlanticist simultaneously. He will be pressured by America to commit forces to Iraq, but the left wing of his Labor party will likely bolt. Brown, although a good Atlanticist now, may find the temptation to ride the European horse to power too tempting to resist.
Over the longer term, the coming demographic-economic crisis in Europe will put further strains on Blair's Europeanism as integration becomes less and less attractive to the British electorate. Already polls indicate that British voters are growing even more skeptical of the single currency project, rather than less.
Meanwhile, the American stock-market decline has paradoxically removed one of the cards the hardcore Europeanists thought they had up their sleeves. They had been expecting for years that the American economy was merely a bubble and would collapse, leaving the slower but more stable European economy to pick up the pieces. But the American stock correction led only to a mild recession, with the prospect that a corrected market would eventually find its bottom and carry on.
And it turned out that American stock decline meant a similar decline for European markets, as investors filed to view them as a viable economic alternative. Meanwhile, although the euro made moderate gains against the dollar, as did sterling, it did not establish itself as the alternative reserve currency as they had hoped. Even their schadenfruede has turned sour in the end.
As the European dream in its current form sours, Blair will be less and less able to promote his vision of an Atlantic bridge with one of its piers sunk in the heart of the Continent. Action in Iraq will put strain on his Labor power base and open him up to a knife in the back.
Blair has continued to speak out for his dream of the Atlantic bridge. He has even specifically criticized the idea of the Anglosphere alternative for Britain, which I take as a heartwarming sign of progress for it.
Within the year, I suspect we will see whether he takes one of the two horses and rides it, or is thrown entirely. But it will be an entertaining ride while it happens.