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US-Europe Dialogue Turns a Corner

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New leaders are now in charge of "Old Europe". Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel recently has been joined by Nicolas Sarkozy, the new President of France and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Some analysts say the change in leadership will help reinforce the transatlantic alliance, which has been challenged in recent years.

U.S.-European relations have weathered a number of controversies in recent years.  Perhaps most notable among them was the crisis over Iraq in 2003, which strained transatlantic ties and bitterly divided the European Union itself.

But in the past several years, many analysts say, both sides have made efforts to restore strong relations.  And recent U.S.-E.U. summits have sought to emphasize areas of cooperation and partnership, especially in trade and business.  The transatlantic economic relationship is the largest in the world -- and growing.  Trade between the Atlantic partners tops $1 trillion dollars a year.  Their mutual investments amount to more than $1.9 trillion.

U.S. foreign affairs specialist John Hulsman, at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, says political relations have also noticeably improved, particularly since the coming to power of new "Old Europe" leaders. He says French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown have joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel in changing the tenor and substance of the transatlantic dialogue.

“Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair got into trouble for being too close to President Bush and former French President Jacques Chirac got in trouble for being too far away from President Bush.  Now you have Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy moving to almost a common position, which is the one that Angela Merkel is,” says Hulsman. “She set the groundwork to be much more pro-American than former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was, but to make it clear you are allowed to disagree with America, while being a friend of America. And that fine line is the line that Brown and Sarkozy are now trying to walk after her.”

Disagreements Over Terrorism Remain

But Hulsman adds that despite better rapport at the government level, America's standing in Europe's public opinion has yet to be restored.

Dana Allin of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies agrees.  He says many Europeans remain wary of U.S. foreign policy goals, which they say often override the interests of America's friends and allies.

"Popular affinities are tattered. You can see this in extraordinarily low levels of public support in various European countries for the U.S.," says Allin. "We don't really know how easily American moral prestige will rebound. It hasn't really sunk this low in a long time."

Allin says Europeans view the Middle East differently than Americans, for example. “There is a much greater consensus in Europe across the board, including a very Atlantacist country like Britain, that the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is crucial to broader stability in the Middle East and the relations with the Arab and Muslim world.  Americans have tended to look at it the opposite way.  They are saying they need a reformation in the Arab world in order to make Israeli-Palestinian peace possible.”

Moreover, says Allin, Europeans fear the U.S. is losing the battle for Muslim "hearts and minds" as a result of its military action in Iraq and some of its practices in combating terrorism.

Many Europeans would like to see the Guantanamo Bay detention center closed because they say it disregards international human rights accords.  Europeans are also concerned about the American program to detain and question suspected terrorists outside of the United States.

Many analysts say most disagreements stem from the competing foreign policy and security doctrines the U.S. and Europe have developed since the end of the Cold War.  Europeans generally favor compromise, political and economic engagement with adversaries and rarely opt for war.  Americans, mindful of U.S. global security responsibilities, often say unilateral action is justified to prevent serious threats.

The Next Test

Michael Brenner of the University of Pittsburgh says that more than 60 years after World War II, the transatlantic partners need to forge a new, 21st century security arrangement.  He argues its time for Europe to be more assertive.

"A Europe and America, each of which knows its own mind and each of which is prepared to act in the world and on that basis are prepared to act in concert, would simply be more effective dealing with problems than is currently the case,” argues Brenner.  “Allies can provide a corrective. They can raise questions. They can make it clear that doing certain things has some costs. The current balance is so out of whack that you pay a heavy price for it and we are."

According to Brenner, the next test for the transatlantic relationship is how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions. U.S. officials consider it an urgent matter that threatens security and stability in the Middle East.  They say military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities are not off the table, if diplomacy fails.

But most Europeans strongly oppose use of force against Teheran, says John Hulsman of the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Iran is the deal-breaker. All these good trends go out the window if the United States unilaterally bombs Iran.  I think one more good knock at public opinion with America behaving unilaterally in terms of military action, this difficult, tenuous, frustrating, but incredibly important and prosperous alliance comes to an end," says Hulsman.

Still, some experts, including Dana Allin of the International Institute for Strategic Studies say there are signs that some European nations, like Britain and France, are close to adopting the U.S. position.  He points to French President Sarkozy's recent statement on Iran.

"He said it could come down to a choice between an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran.  And he said an attack against Iran would probably be catastrophic, but an Iranian nuclear bomb would also be unacceptable," says Allin.

President Sarkozy, some analysts note, is seeking a bolder global security role for Europe, which would remain strongly allied with the United States.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

 

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