Ditchley was founded in the wake of the Second World War and in the midst of the Cold War to support the alliance between the United States, the UK and Europe. By the end of the twentieth century, the nature of this ‘Transatlantic Alliance’ had changed. The post-war relationship, involving American economic and military assistance to a then weakened and divided Europe, had been transformed by the process of the formation of the European Union. The European Union was established with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.
Often described as a sui generis project, as ‘less than a state, but more than an international organisation’, the EU is now a political and economic union of 27 member states. As of 2020, the EU contains 5.8% of the world’s population, but 18% of global nominal GDP. Due to its global influence, it has been seen as an emerging superpower. The EU has had a strong partnership with the US for over sixty years, starting with a visit from American ambassadors to the EU’s precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community, in 1953. The relationship has been underpinned by cooperation on trade and military defence and the belief that the two share core values. The Ditchley Annual Lecture in 1969, given by McGeorge Bundy, sets out a growing interdependence between the US and Europe.
In the words of Sir Nigel Broomfield KCMG, the Director of Ditchley (1999 – 2004), the relationship at the start of this century was between ‘a European entity which was evolving in a remarkable and unique way, and a USA which had itself developed economic and military capabilities which marked it out from the world community as a distinct and dominant actor.’ Whilst the relationship has continued to change, discussions at Ditchley repeatedly came to a view that neither the EU nor the US are able to achieve their most important goals without cooperation. Unsurprisingly, the relationship between the US and the EU has therefore been a central issue discussed and debated at Ditchley throughout the last two decades. This paper examines the conferences and Annual Lectures held by the Ditchley Foundation that have evaluated this relationship— specifically those discussions of hard and soft power in the US-EU relationship, contextualising them and illustrating how these discussions evolved.
Soft Power: A Bond of Values
In May 1963, the celebrated American war correspondent Ed Murrow opened a conference at Ditchley on ‘the Atlantic Future’, stressing the shared values across the Atlantic. He described these values as "at bottom, a longing to live in the same kind of world”. The EU itself has declared that its relationship with the US is ‘constructed on a solid foundation of common values, including a commitment to the rule of law, the democratic process, free enterprise, respect for human rights, and alleviating poverty’. This bond of values has been at the core of the Ditchley mission and thus is part of many of the conversations held at Ditchley on the relationship between the US and Europe.
At a 2001 conference on ‘Transatlantic Relations’, chaired by former Prime Ministers John Major and Éduoard Balladur, it was noted that there was growing anti-Americanism in Europe — but not the reverse — perhaps because there was also a growing international Anglophone culture which was heavily influenced by the US. There were differing views at Ditchley as to how culturally similar the US and Europe actually were. At one conference, a participant claimed that Americans and Europeans were all part of the same civilisation, though others pointed out that religion played a much bigger role in shaping American attitudes, and another warned against assuming each culture was fixed rather than vastly varied and in constant flux.
A close identification with basic values made for European and American differences; the existence of the death penalty in the US for example, was troubling to some European publics. However, it was widely accepted that the two international regions were experiencing a similar backlash to globalisation in the early 2000s. According to one participant, the need to engage anti-globalisation groups in discussions of global governance was one of the major challenges facing both Europe and the US.
Now known for his criticism of Brexit, Sir John Major was the British Prime Minister responsible for negotiating the Maastricht Treaty. During his tenure as Prime Minister (1990-1997), Major oversaw British participation in the Gulf War, put in place the early stages of Northern Ireland peace talks, and continued reorganisation of the public sector, including privatising British Rail and the coal industry. From 2000-2009, Major was Chairman of the Council of Management at Ditchley, and now serves as an Honorary Governor for the Foundation. He gave the Annual Lecture on ‘The Changing Face of Government’ in 2011.
In 2004, renowned political scientist Joe Nye delivered the Ditchley Annual Lecture on ‘soft power, or the ability of a country to influence and attract others through culture, values and foreign policy, rather than coercion. Nye highlighted the changing attitudes towards the US, with strong majorities in Europe viewing US unilateralism as a threat to Europe and to world peace comparable even to Iran or North Korea, particularly since the Iraq war. In the US, some dismissed the rise of anti-Americanism as the consequence of disparities in size and military power. This was, according to Nye, a dramatic and regrettable turn-about from the Cold War.
Nye argued that the ‘Euro-Gaullists’, who viewed restoring military multi-polarity as an important goal for the EU, were unrealistic. He claimed that whilst European powers needed to pay more attention to their hard power, a more realistic goal for Europe was to form a counterbalance to America's economic and soft power, and to use this balance to encourage more multilateralism. He suggested that a united EU carries a great deal of soft power and is consistently seen as a positive force for solving global problems, more so than the US.
If Europe and America coordinated strategies, according to Nye, European soft power could assist and reinforce American soft power, and there could even be a ‘beneficial division of labour in which Europe's soft power and America's hard power can combine in a good cop - bad cop routine’. This was essential for the struggle against terrorism.
Joe Nye is one of the world’s most preeminent political scientists, known for co-founding the theory of neoliberalism and coining the term ‘soft power’. He has also worked for the U.S. government in various capacities, serving as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and Chair of the National Intelligence Council.
Nye joined the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1964 and became Dean of the school from 1995 to 2004, when he delivered the Ditchley Annual Lecture. Nye has attended numerous Ditchley events throughout his career. His impressions of Ditchley, the house, staircase and rooms, informed the setting for a scene in his novel, The Power Game: A Washington Novel. He chaired conferences in 2011 and 2014 and most recently gave a talk on the ‘Painful lessons in strategy and power from the COVID-19 crisis’ as part of the 2020 Ditchley Summer Project.
Over a decade later in 2016, Henry Kissinger echoed many of Nye’s arguments during a conference at Ditchley: The US and Europe: renewing the Transatlantic partnership. He argued that, from the perspective of increasingly internationalist Americans, Europe was one place among many in a globalised world, whilst in Europe, America’s leadership and approach to capitalism was viewed with scepticism rather than admiration.
Although Iraq was no longer such a source of division between western powers, conflict in the Middle East and the flow of refugees was summarised as ‘a mess that the United States had elected to make and then left unresolved on Europe's doorstep.’ The diverse and complex threats to peace and stability had left ‘Europe introspective and America frustrated with a globalisation that often seemed to bring more constraint than opportunity.’
Hard Power: NATO and Defence
Across all Ditchley conferences on US-EU relations, the issue that has most dominated discussion is defence. The second pillar of the Maastricht Treaty is the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the agreed foreign policy of the EU for security and defence. The CFSP presents the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and by extension the US, as responsible for the territorial defence of Europe. However, at the end of the twentieth century, the EU began to further develop its defence policy and capability, firstly with the Saint-Malo declaration in 1998, a bilateral Franco-British declaration that the EU should have the capability for ‘autonomous action backed up by credible military forces’.
A year later, at the Helsinki European Council meeting, the EU agreed on the Helsinki Headline Goal, a military capability target for 2003 with the aim of developing a future European Rapid Reaction Force. Since 1999, the EU—rather than NATO—has led on implementing missions such as peacekeeping and policing of treaties.
A constant bone of contention in Ditchley conferences on the US-EU defence relationship has been the EU’s limited defence capability. In the early 2000s, there was some optimism at Ditchley about the CFSP and Europe’s increasing commitment to defence. In 2000, Ditchley held a conference on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the main component of its CFSP. The conference was underpinned by an awareness of the large disparity in military capacity between individual European states and the U.S. It was suggested that the ‘obvious answer’ was role specialisation, yet this implied a greater degree of interdependence and pooling of resources than was acceptable to EU partners, as well as convergence of foreign policies.
A year later, Ditchley participants again evaluated the CFSP and CSDP, concluding that the EU had a wider range of instruments of influence available to it than NATO. The Helsinki Headline Goal was seen as a much-needed declaration of intent, and it was felt that if this ‘rapid reaction’ capability was successfully created, it would be harder for the EU to stand aside in future crises on the grounds that they were unable to act. In 2004, it was still generally felt that the CFSP and CSDP were areas of solid progress, and were needed. However, American participants pointed to the reluctance within EU Member States to raise their defence budgets as a major reason why the US and other major players such as Russia and China were unlikely to wait for EU decisions on global issues.
In the mid-2000s, there was less optimism at Ditchley on the matter. At a 2006 conference on ‘Adapting to geopolitical trends: what priorities for the EU?’, it was repeatedly highlighted that Europe was still unable to substantially contribute to foreign policy challenges due to its limited defence capacity. Europe, it was argued continued to ‘occupy the moral high ground without contributing materially to solutions.’
In a conference on ‘US-European communication’ in New York later that year, American perceptions of the EU took centre stage. The conference was attended by a wide variety of prominent individuals from various sectors, including academics, lawyers, politicians, diplomats and journalists, such as Harold Evans. Yet again, Ditchley participants argued that the EU was seen as ‘too soft for real action’ and European investment in hard security was highlighted as a priority for most Americans. It was also suggested that the transatlantic relationship overly relied on the relationship between national leaders, rather than multilateral institutions.
It was proposed that NATO should be reshaped, and other institutional opportunities explored, such as public diplomacy programmes and exchanges that promoted shared values. There was also the wider recognition that the US-European relationship would probably play a less central role into the future. It was felt at Ditchley that the possibility of an ‘à la carte relationship’ between the two, or a selective cooperation on particular issues, should be considered.
Sir Harold Evans (1928-2020) was a British-American journalist and writer. Whilst editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-1981, he was known for running bold and often high-risk campaigns. The paper unmasked Kim Philby as a Soviet spy and after Bloody Sunday in 1972, Evans sent his own team to Northern Ireland to uncover abuses by British soldiers. Most famously, he campaigned for 8 years for proper compensation for children who had been deformed by the morning sickness drug thalidomide, and their mothers. He was also editor of The Times from 1981-1982, resigning due to his lack of editorial independence from Rupert Murdoch, who disliked Evans’ criticism of Margaret Thatcher.
After moving to the US, Evans continued to hold prominent positions in journalism, at The Atlantic and US News & World Report, before founding Condé Nast Traveler in 1986 and serving as editor-at-large of The Week magazine from 2001 and the Reuters news agency from 2011. In the midst of this very full career, Evans attended the Ditchley conference on US-European communication along with his wife Tina Brown, another renowned journalist.
By 2008, a decade after the Saint-Malo declaration, it was concluded at Ditchley that the CSDP had not led to a sufficient increase in defence capability. Defence funding needed to increase and be spent more effectively. Furthermore, the ‘à la carte approach’ previously discussed at Ditchley had become the accepted model of US-EU relations. It was noted at a conference in 2009 that the US dealt with the EU as an entity only where the EU ‘punched its weight’, such as economic, trade, environmental and development issues. On security and defence issues, NATO was the preferred although imperfect vehicle. On foreign policy issues, especially regional ones, it was equally likely that the US would deal with individual states.
The changing nature of the relationship between the US and EU was also discussed. It was felt that the EU was increasingly inclined not to make decisions just to please the US (as was the case in the other direction). However, there was also widespread agreement that the arrival of President Obama changed this somewhat, as he made the US appear a problem-solver on global issues in contrast with Bush’s unilateralism, and thus made the EU more interested in cooperation with the US. On the other hand, due to the changing global distribution of power, American attention was likely to turn from Europe towards the Asia-Pacific region. It was concluded that since ‘the rest of the world would be suspicious of a transatlantic agenda, the EU should expand its capacity to mobilise other regions, particularly where the United States found it hard to do so’ such as in Russia, Turkey, Iraq and Central Asia.
At the end of Obama’s presidency in 2016, Ditchley hosted another conference on ‘Renewing the Transatlantic Partnership’. Yet again, American participants argued that Europe had to invest more in defence, as well as intelligence, in order to be a true partner to the US. The US saw itself as singularly bearing the military and economic burden of containing Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. On the other hand, the US could not understand why Europeans appeared to struggle with their land, sea and air defence, especially considering the economic and demographic weakness of Russia. Whilst European participants pointed to rising defence budgets, they acknowledged that this had and would continue to take time to have effect.
Role of NATO
Several Ditchley conferences have attempted to define and differentiate the intersecting roles of the EU and NATO in European defence. A conference in 2000 stressed the need for a restructuring of the NATO-EU relationship, particularly in light of the CSDP. American participants argued that the American public was reluctant for the US to continually play a leading role. European participants, on the other hand, felt that the EU had more crisis management instruments at its disposal than NATO and that it would be easier to get public consent to increase defence budgets under the EU rather than NATO. There was disagreement between American and European participants over whether the planning of EU military operations should take place in NATO, especially if the operation was not facilitated by NATO assets. It was generally felt that a new relationship that was open about force capabilities was in the long-term strategic interest of both organisations.
However, subsequent conferences continued to expose the differing attitudes of the US and EU towards NATO. In a 2001 conference on EU enlargement, it was repeatedly highlighted that, whilst the EU did have many ‘instruments of influence’, it failed to coordinate both within and between its various institutions, lacking an overall strategy. European participants urged the merging of Pillars I (the European Communities pillar, which handles economic, social and environmental policies) and II (the CFSP) to achieve greater coordination. American participants openly expressed impatience with such institutional debate and their desire for ‘less pillars and more effective partners’. In 2004, non-EU participants again accused the EU of insularity, being overly preoccupied with its own periphery and having little impact on events or countries further away. EU insiders defended this, pointing out the extensive and complicated nature of their periphery, particularly in terms of security and defence.
A conference at Ditchley on ‘The Future of NATO, in Europe and globally’ was deliberately planned to sit between NATO’s Bucharest Summit of April 2008 and the 60th Anniversary Summit in April 2009. The aim of the conference was to look at the purpose of NATO and how the Alliance could achieve its objectives. Since 2006, the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led military mission, had been fighting in the War in Afghanistan. This was NATO’s first full-scale ground operation, and the problems which the war exposed were central to the 2008 conference. Some participants felt that there had been no noticeable advance in the NATO-EU relationship in the decade since the Saint-Malo declaration.
It was still felt that European members of the Alliance would need to earn any American rethinking of strategy through greater military contributions, particularly to the War in Afghanistan. Without such contributions, ‘American leaders and public opinion alike might lose interest in the long NATO-EU debate if it appeared to be going nowhere.’ Others felt that there was increased convergence, exemplified by the French President's intention to bring French forces back into the integrated military structure, and substantial mutual understanding between the organisations when it came to crisis issues.
This mutual understanding was clearly exhibited during the Ukrainian Crisis in 2013-2014. At a 2015 conference, it was clear that the crisis had renewed transatlantic solidarity and a sense of purpose for NATO. Western participants were unanimous in stressing the importance of unity of view between the US (and Canada) and the EU. It was agreed that there was a tacit division of labour, with the EU and particularly Germany leading on the diplomatic side, whilst the US played hard cop in the background. However, there were fears that if there were a drop in tensions, the EU would lift sanctions and thus the division between a softer EU and a harder US could widen.
It was also concluded that NATO had to make it clear that it would carry out Article Vwhich states that if a NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, all other members will take any actions deemed necessary to assist—and thus any Russian aggression against the Baltic States, for example, would be met by a ‘firm, perhaps even disproportionate’ response.
The relationship between NATO and the EU has been shaped by the eastern enlargement of the EU. At the start of the century, Ditchley conferences grappled with the consequences of an increasingly diverse membership of NATO and EU. Some participants forcefully argued that new EU members should not be dissuaded from applying for NATO membership, which would differentiate them from other EU member states and could implicitly acknowledge a continuing sphere of Russian influence. Others highlighted the difficulties of upholding the Article V guarantee to eastern states, such as the Baltics, as it would involve stationing troops there—which could aggravate Russia. It was felt that enlargement of NATO could slow the pace of decision making, potentially causing smaller groups of the willing to form within NATO.
At a 2002 conference specifically dedicated to enlargement and attended by representatives from the candidate countries, it was pointed out that enlargement was attracting very little attention in the USA as the military gap between the EU and the USA was growing wider. However, there was American interest in the potential accession of Turkey to the EU. It was felt that there would be increasing American pressure on the EU to be generous to Turkey on strategic grounds, particularly if the US decided to attack Iraq and needed a base for their operations in Turkey.
The UK has consistently been seen as the link between the US and the EU, as the US’s closest ally in Europe. In fact, in a 2000 conference on the defence industry, there was criticism of the US’s preferential treatment of the UK over other European partners in NATO over technology transfer, which American representatives defended on account of the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US (oft-mentioned at Ditchley) which ‘was based on trust and confidence and was a product of many years of close cooperation which had included its share of sharp differences of opinion.’
However, since the early 2000s, it has been clear in Ditchley discussions that Britain was increasingly excluding herself from the EU. At a 2004 conference, pessimism regarding enlargement was ‘largely the provenance of the British’ and some even suggested that the UK should attempt a second referendum on whether to stay in the EU at all. Similarly, in 2012 a conference on ‘A two-tier Europe’, there was a general consensus that the only country which appeared to be ‘radically different’ from other member states in its attitudes towards integration and the EU more broadly was the UK.
There was concern at Ditchley over the UKs attitude towards the EU and it’s effect on the EU’s global role, including its relationship with the US. ‘Either Europe works together or we become strategically irrelevant’, argued Javier Solana in his Ditchley Annual Lecture. Years before the UK’s referendum vote, he asserted:
‘This very much includes the UK. The European Union needs you. We cannot have a credible foreign policy of the European Union without the UK. You have something which only very few other EU countries have: a global mindset’
However, with the onset of the eurozone crisis from the end of 2009, and as a British referendum became an increasing reality, there was less desire amongst EU participants to appeal to British strengths. At conferences in 2012 and 2015 representatives from other EU states did express regret over perceived British reticence about the EU project and with a promised referendum, the prospect of the potential loss of the UK’s foreign and security policy weight and free-trading instincts, as well as concerns that it would upset the balance of power within the EU and would send a damaging signal to both EU states and the rest of the world. But participants also expressed irritation at and fatigue with the UK’s position over over the eurozone and migrant crises, and insistence on holding a negotiation and referendum when, from a European perspective, there were more urgent issues for the EU to solve.
Dr Francisco Javier Solana de Madariaga is a Spanish physicist and politician. He served as Secretary General of NATO (1995-1999), and then acted as the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union and the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) from 1999 until 2009. In this capacity as head of the EU’s foreign policy, Solana negotiated many Treaties of Association between the EU and various Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. He also played a main role in unifying the remainder of the former Yugoslavian Federation and in working toward a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his final year as the EU’s High Representative, Solana delivered the Ditchley Annual Lecture.
It was noted that the US preferred a strong UK in a strong EU, and that a similar view was held by other countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and even China. Most participants at a conference in 2015 on ‘The UK and the EU: redefining the relationship or heading for the exit?’ saw no credibility at all in the idea of an ‘Anglosphere’ as an alternative grouping for the UK. In September 2016, three months after the Brexit referendum, Ditchley held another conference on the Transatlantic Partnership. Dr Henry Kissinger led the first half of the discussion, arguing that Brexit carried the ‘double risk’ that the UK lost all influence in Europe and that Germany was not ready to lead, compounding and prolonging the absence of Europe as an effective player on the international stage. Dr Kissinger emphatically called for the EU to take a more strategic approach to geopolitics.
It was widely concluded at the conference that the US should help the UK and the EU to forge a new relationship, and that Brexit could offer an opportunity to build a more unified transatlantic approach to geopolitics, with foreign and security policy frameworks expanded or created to include the UK and the EU.
A divisive but significant figure of twentieth-century politics, Dr Henry Kissinger is an American politician and diplomat who is synonymous with political ‘realism’. He played a prominent role in US foreign policy between 1969 and 1977, becoming National Security Advisor in 1969 and Secretary of State in 1973. During this period, he brought forward the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, arranged the opening of relations between the U.S. and China and ended American involvement in the Vietnam War, for which he received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.
He has been associated with several controversial foreign policies, such as American involvement in the 1973 Chilean military coup and American support for Pakistan during the Bangladesh War. After leaving government, Dr Kissinger founded Kissinger Associates, an international geopolitical consulting firm. It was in this capacity that he visited Ditchley in 2016. Dr Henry Kissinger will open Ditchley’s 2020 conference on world order (December 2020).
There has been no shortage of criticism of the US-EU relationship at Ditchley over the last two decades - from the American perspective, the EU’s apparent lack of commitment to defence and from the Europeans, American unilateralism. But there has also been a consistent awareness of the importance of this relationship, and the need for it to persevere and improve.
Paradoxically, it has often been during moments of crisis, such as the War in Afghanistan, the Ukraine Crisis or Brexit, that the importance of this relationship has been most clear to Ditchley participants. Perhaps the best summary of attitudes at Ditchley towards the US-EU partnership was the conclusion at a conference in 2016: ‘We should not take the Transatlantic Alliance for granted. It's still the best thing we've got and there is no obvious alternative, even if we often struggle to turn shared values into shared interests and action.’
Timeline: Ditchley conferences (in bold) in context of relevant contemporary political events
Maastricht Treaty (an important stage in EU integration – paving the way for shared citizenship, currency and common foreign and security objectives)
Saint-Malo Declaration (between UK and France on common security and defence)
Helsinki European Council Meeting (Millennium Declaration in preparation for EU enlargement)
Contested presidential election between Al Gore and George W Bush. Supreme Court decides. Bush wins.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union was signed. These include respect for privacy, family life, protection of personal data and the right to education.
The defence industrial base: European rationalisation and transatlantic co-operation
The European Union’s Common Foreign, Security and Defence Policy: aspiration or reality?
The euro and other currency areas: performance and prospects
Nice Treaty (to reform institutional structure of the EU to accommodate eastward expansion).
Terror attacks in the USA.
EU wins Nobel Peace Prize
The European Union: Enlargement
1 Jan Euro notes and coins become legal currency in 12 EU countries
Gulf War II. US strikes against Iraq against risk of WMD
Czechia, Cyprus, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia join the EU.
Social networking site Facebook is launched – to become a focus for EU protection of personal data – an EU priority
Kyoto Protocol to cut greenhouse emissions comes into force. The US signed but never ratified the protocol
Hurricane Katrina destroys New Orleans levees
The first tweet sent on Twitter (by co-founder Jack Dorsey)
Bulgaria and Romania join (January 1)
Treaty of Lisbon signed – to clarify powers assigned to the EU, member states and shared. Becomes law in 2009
Barrack Obama elected President, beating John McCain
Global financial crisis hits world economy (caused in part by breakdown in mortgage loans in the US) and banks face difficulties. Lehman Brothers are bankrupted. The EU and US are hit hard.
The Future of NATO, in Europe and globally
How can the EU deliver an effective global strategy?
Annual Lecture: Europe’s global role - what next steps?
What next for US-EU relations?
Protests in Tunisia mark what became known as the Arab Spring and to pro-democracy protests in Syria in 2011 which leads to a civil war that dominates international politics for years to come
Barrack Obama is re-elected
A two-tier Europe and its consequences
Croatia joins the EU
Congress rejects Obama’s request to approve a military response to the use of sarin by the Syrian government
Beyond the eurozone crisis: the EU and the wider world
ISIS declares the creation of a caliphate across territories in Syria and Irag
Investment Plan for Europe launched
Terrorist Attack in Paris on the magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’ leads to widespread demonstrations across Europe in support of freedom of expression
Migration crisis and arrival of asylum seekers in Europe. Angela Merkel accepts 1 million refugees into Germany
A referendum held in the UK voted for Britain to leave the European Union (52% to 48%)
EU / Canada Trade Agreement signed
The EU’s global satellite navigation system is launched - Galileo
The US and Europe: renewing the Transatlantic Partnership
The US elects Donald Trump
60th Anniversary of the EU (the signing of the Treaty of Rome)
EU – Japan trade agreement reached, to go live in Feb 2019
President Trump announces withdrawal of US troops from Syria
The future of the EU and the euro, after Brexit
The EU brings in data protection law - GDPR
The United Kingdom became the first country to leave the European Union (January 31st)
EU – Vietnam trade agreement
Joe Biden becomes Democratic nominee for President.
Global COVID-19 pandemic hits the world
US Presidential election – Joe Biden wins