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Transatlantic Tensions - 2003-01-09

Entering 2003, the United States and Europe seem to be drifting apart. The relationship is not only said to be lacking coherence, but in many ways losing its necessity.

The global image of the United States has suffered considerable bruising in the past two years, and surprisingly so among many traditional European allies, a major new opinion survey has found. U.S. threats of war against Iraq appear to have heightened concerns about an American foreign policy seen as overassertive and not concerned enough with the interests of friends and allies.

Many say U.S. ratings in Europe began to fall with the series of multilateral agreements that the administration of President Bush either objected to or refused to join. These include the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the International Criminal Court and the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Treaty. The death penalty issue and the treatment of al Qaida prisoners in Guantanamo Bay also drew sharp European criticism.

Francis Fukuyama, Dean of faculty at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, says poor diplomacy and mistakes in explaining the new U.S. strategic doctrine by the Bush administration have added to European concerns. "The famous 'axis of evil' speech was another unnecessary rhetorical self-wound because you suggest that there are these three members of the axis of evil, and you have this new strategic doctrine that involves pre-emption. If you put two and two together, you would naturally think it would be used against all three members of the axis. In fact, the whole structure of this new doctrine is all driven by the need to justify this one unique case, Iraq. This was not something that they really needed to elaborate in that fashion without putting some sense of limitation on where and when you would use this new doctrine."

While many agree anti-Americanism is nothing new in European countries, there is a new anti-European echo in the United States. Most of the criticism stems from the fact there is a growing gap in the military capabilities on the two sides of the Atlantic. As a result, say some experts, Europe is an emerging economic giant, but remains a strategic and political dwarf compared to the U-S. Unequal military prowess can foster resentment and mistrust, says Jeffrey Gedmin, director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin. "Europe simply doesn't have the capabilities necessary to work with, to compete with or to partner with the United States. Europe is a weakling and the United States is a super-power. And that creates inevitable tensions, and on the part of the Europeans, considerable amounts of distrust, envy, resentment -- a mixture and combination of lots of different things. The Europeans also have to ask themselves, when it comes to strategic military questions: do we want to be an entity, do we want as this entity, Europe, to think regionally or globally? And if we are going to think globally, are we going to spend money, invest time and technology and develop the necessary capabilities? That's an unanswered question."

Mr. Gedmin doubts Europe will take that step. The United States is, then, going to work with Europe where it can, but seek other partners where necessary.

Michael Mayer, British ambassador to the United States, says critics seem to forget Europe is faced with the greatest transformation challenge since World War II. The impending enlargements of NATO and the European Union require enormous organizational and financial support. He sardonically notes two doctrines that govern transatlantic relations. One is mutual assured schizophrenia, the other mutual assured paranoia. "On the American side -- you look at the Europeans and you say, get your act together, integrate. One phone number please, and then when we show some modest sign of getting our act together immediately, the message comes, don't you dare caucus or consult without talking to us first. On the European side, there is an equal and opposite affliction, which is this: when the United States is perceived not to be leading, we Europeans complain: why isn't the United States leading? You're the world's only superpower- Lead. And then when you do lead, immediately there are accusations of unilateralism, hegemony or as they say hegemonie. And this is a prominent tension in the relationship, which simply has to be managed. I actually think it is a creative tension and not a destructive tension."

Others believe current tensions are not that alarming. They reflect a new reality, says Richard Haass, director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department. He says Europe is no longer at the center of U.S. concerns. "Despite the occasional screams or the occasional op-ed, there is not a crisis in the U.. uropean relations and more important, there not need be one. But there is a transition, and there is a fundamental challenge that faces both sides of this relationship. We are now facing a transition, where we need to contend with the reality, a simple one: that Europe as a geographic area is no longer at the heart of the US-European relationship. This is a wonderful thing. It's a sign of success. It reflects the demise of the Soviet Union. It reflects at least as much or more the degree of integration within Europe. But again, what that means is relationships that for decades were focused on bringing Europe to this point, these relationships now have to adjust to the fact they have succeeded."

Mr. Haass says U.S/European tensions can be overcome by concentrating on the basic issues currently causing trouble. Specific problems require specific remedies.

Some scholars worry that underlying transatlantic differences run deeper. Charles Kupchan of the Council for Foreign Relations even argues that the next clash of civilizations will not be the West against the non-West, as some argue. It will be the United States against Europe. He writes, "Europe is strengthening its collective consciousness and character and forging a clearer sense of interests and values that are quite distinct from those of the United States. America and Europe, therefore, are on two diverging paths."

Francis Fukuyama, author of the much-discussed book End of History, says Europe is developing a different geopolitical mentality. "Europeans actually believe that they are at the end of history, which is to say that they believe that they are living in a world in which power politics, traditional real politik, has been superseded by a structure of norms, laws, international organizations, consensus negotiation rather than the classical European state system based on a balance of power."

Mr. Fukuyama says in contrast to Europe, the United States retains a strong sense of nationhood and American exceptionalism. "From the beginning of the American Republic there has been a sense that American institutions are a precursor and a forerunner to broader spread of democracy around the world and a model for other societies. And therefore, the idea that the American public under those institutions should defer to the opinion even of other democracies is something difficult to accept."

Yet analysts still believe that the common values that link Americans and Europeans will override current strained relations. Observers say that for all its power, the United States can't succeed in the world without partners, and the fact is America's most important partners in the world have been and will likely continue to be those that reside in Europe.