- Building a European Identity: France, the United States, and the Oil Shock, 1973–1974 by Aurélie Elisa Gfeller
The thrust of this book is indicated in its title and subtitle. Aurélie Gfeller argues that circumstances surrounding the 1973 oil crisis allowed Europeans to break through previous obstacles and create a common political identity. The book is meticulously documented with a wealth of primary sources but is ultimately unconvincing.
The book’s central claim is that Europeans developed a common political identity largely as a result of doubts about the credibility of U.S. security guarantees following the 1973 Arab oil embargo. But concern about the reliability of the United States as an ally was not new. Fears of U.S. isolationism were a motivating factor in European, and especially French, policy from the end of World War II. Charles de Gaulle thought that U.S. assurances offered little solace because, as he remarked to U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery just after the war, “you are far away and your soldiers will not stay long in Europe … it is a matter of life and death for us; for you, one interesting question among many” (quoted from Caffery to SecState, 3 November 1945, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945, Vol. 3, pp. 890–891.) Likewise, the British government sought to develop its own nuclear deterrent in 1947 because it feared the United States might leave Europeans high and dry to cope with the Soviet threat on their own. Prime Minister Clement Atlee explained: “We couldn’t [End Page 285] allow ourselves to be wholly in their [American] hands … there was always the possibility of their withdrawing and becoming isolationist once again.” (See Ian Clark and Nicholas Wheeler, The British Origins of Nuclear Strategy, 1945–1955, Oxford, UK: The Clarendon Press, 1989, p. 41.) The French acquired their own nuclear deterrent for much the same reasons in late 1954. The concerns of the two European countries were reinforced by the Suez crisis in 1956, when U.S. pressure forced Britain and France to withdraw and abandon their illusions of great-power status.
Gfeller cites two particular instances of cooperation in the fall of 1973 that indicate the emergence of a new European identity. One is a “Declaration of Principles” in response to the Nixon administration’s call for a new “Atlantic Charter” in a “Year of Europe.” The other is the “Declaration on European Identity” proclaiming the rightful place of a united Europe in world affairs. Together, these two documents purportedly represent the assertion of a distinct European personality and a challenge to U.S. hegemony. Gfeller claims that the declaration of European identity was a “primary document” and not a “mere footnote of history” (p. 67). But what kind of political identity would exclude areas of defense, culture, or foreign policy? Europeans have had difficulty uniting their military forces since the collapse of the European Defense Community in 1954. The fact that Europeans were not capable of waging war even against the third-rate military of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011 without massive U.S. assistance indicates the continued absence of a defense identity. The recent insistence of France, to the chagrin of its European Union (EU) partners, on a cultural exception in trade talks with the United States indicates that cultural identities are distinctly national. The trivial role of Catherine Ashton, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, in world politics suggests that, twenty years after the Maastricht Treaty, a common foreign policy is still in the formative stage.
The determination to define a European identity was allegedly reinforced by the Arab oil embargo in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973. European states backed the Arab side with a “Declaration on the Middle East” in an effort to “assert a European voice vis-à-vis the United States” and to “counteract the ascendancy of the United States and the Soviet Union” in the Middle East, where...