eu-usa

Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author and editor-in-chief Iva Kopraleva.

Whenever a state becomes powerful in the international relations system the other states have two options according to structural realists. Put simply, they can choose either to bandwagon or to balance its power. Bandwagoning refers to a situation where a state forms an alliance with the power in hope that this would benefit its own national interests. Balancing, on the other hand, suggests that the rest of the states would act in a way which is aimed at preventing the power from becoming a hegemon and at limiting its advantages in the international relations system. One can hardly dispute the fact that the United States is the dominant world power at the moment. But where does this leave the European Union states: Are they bandwagoning or balancing US’s power?

Probably one of the most interesting developments which could give us an answer to this question is the creation of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), now called Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). This policy has both military and civilian elements and trough it the EU can establish peacekeeping, crisis management, post-conflict stabilization, and humanitarian missions. In the framework of structural realism there are two possible reasons for the creation of the CSDP with regard to EU-US relations.

Firstly, by pooling their resources and creating independent military capabilities, the EU states attempt to limit their security dependence on NATO and to balance US hegemony. This is necessary because US interests are not always in line with the ones of European states and therefore the Europeans feel that they need an alternative source of security. Nevertheless, CSDP is hardly designed in order to replace NATO as the primary security provider for Europe at this point. For this reason another argument can be put forward. Instead of trying to balance the US in the domain of security and military capabilities the European states are applying a strategy of “soft balancingwhich implies the use of economic and diplomatic instrument in order to limit US influence and hinder the hegemon’s foreign policy preferences. Nevertheless, although this might be true in certain cases there is no convincing evidence that the EU is systemically attempting to undermine US influence either through “hard” or trough “soft” balancing. The example of EU-US cooperation when it comes to crisis management in former Yugoslavia, for example, undermines the thesis that the Union is balancing against the United States.

The second explanation which can be put forward for the creation of CSDP is that this is a form of bandwagoning. According to this argument the EU policy is in fact completely in line with US interests and it simply represents an attempt of division of labour between the US and its European partners. But this argument, although once again proves to be accurate in some instances, can be easily contradicted by certain events such as the European response to the second Iraq war, for example. Therefore there is no evidence that the EU is bandwagoning with the US in a systematic manner.

The arguments presented above lead many scholars to question the explanatory power of structural realism when it comes to EU-US relations. Nevertheless, the author of this article maintains that the theory has merit in identifying certain behavioural patterns. The fact that the EU does not choose to balance or to bandwagon all of the time does not mean that the Union does not alter between these two strategies due to different structural characteristics (and dynamics) of the international relations system and the foreign policy preferences of the actors at a given moment. By abandoning the assumption that the European states should act in the same way under all (structural) circumstances as long as the US is a hegemon, a new research agenda with a slightly shifted focus can be put forward. Instead of asking whether the EU is balancing or bandwagoning when it comes to the US, scholars might attempt to find answer to the question under which conditions the EU adopts either strategy.

Image source: European Commission