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Opinion: US, Europe should mend rift

With the rise of China and Russia, the transatlantic relationship gains strategic importance.

A demonstrator holds up a placard featuring U.S. President Barack Obama during the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen on Dec. 12, 2009. (Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Speeches in the European Parliament rarely rate attention, and the same, sadly, can be said of the remarks of the EU’s first “foreign minister,” Catherine Ashton, who has been struggling to establish her position as the international voice of Europe since taking office in December.

But Ashton, who has suffered the slings and arrows of turf-conscious French, German, British and other European foreign ministries for months now, on Wednesday did something rarely done by diplomats: She was frank.

Speaking to the European Parliament, Ashton warned that India, China and other rising powers would not wait for Europe to get its act together in foreign affairs. “If we pull together we can safeguard our interests,” she said. “If not, others will make the decisions for us. It's that simple."

While you could read that as an attempt to argue for the relevance of her particular job, it also has the advantage of being true. Throughout Europe right now, anxious policymakers fret that China has usurped the EU as the focus of American global policymaking and that a “G2” world is emerging that will further diminish Europe’s voice.

Europe’s fear of being pushed to the margin of world affairs has been fueled by a series of American decisions that, deliberately or not, feed a particularly European gloom about the coming decades and has contributed to a particularly choppy period in U.S.-European relations.

Having adjusted its philosophical approach to the world to emphasize “soft” power in the past decade, European policymakers now realize that in a world where their economic throw-weight diminishes, the soft approach could lead to their irrelevance.

“European elites are paralyzed by sight of a future they fear has been claimed by the U.S. and China,” wrote Phillip Stevens in his Financial Times column recently. “The postmodern view of geopolitics struggles to measure up against the rise of great powers in Asia, which put narrow national interests well ahead of wider mutual obligations.”

The inability of the U.S. and EU to forge a common approach in Copenhagen set the tone, but three far less serious tiffs have supercharged Europe’s suspicion that Washington has a waning interest in European opinion.