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Resurfacing Transatlantic Tensions

During the past year, the United States and Europe have worked hard to mend relations that were deeply frayed by differences over Iraq. But divergent American and European views are resurfacing over how to handle the crisis in Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Many experts note that since the beginning of President Bush’s second term in office, there has been a clear improvement in U.S.-European relations and that both sides have gone out of their way to heal divisions exposed during the debate over the war in Iraq.

Charles Kupchan, Director of the Europe Program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says Americans and Europeans looked at the possible weakening of their relations and didn’t like what they saw.

He says, “The United States tried to run the show on its own, but found the world a very lonely and expensive place. And some European naively thought life without America would be rosy and that it is about time that Europe comes out from under the shadow of American power. They looked over the abyss; it was very divisive in Europe. Most Europeans didn’t want to contemplate life after Pax-Americana.”

According to U.S. analyst John Hulsman at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, contends the United States is going to need support of at least some European allies. And the Europeans are going to need American involvement to get anything done.

"It's Bigger Than the Both of Us"

Hulsman adds, “Europeans acting on their own have accomplished absolutely nothing in the world recently; Americans acting on their own have accomplished absolutely nothing. And so as [rock 'n' roll star] Keith Richards said to Mick Jagger, “Darling, its bigger than the both of us.”

Still most analysts argue that the fundamentals of the transatlantic alliance have changed since the end of the Cold War. The United State and Europe, they say, have developed competing foreign policy and security doctrines. Europeans favor gradual change, and economic and political engagement with adversaries, while Americans may confront adversaries unilaterally, if necessary.

But John Hulsman notes that, if harnessed well, the different perspectives can produce a positive outcome. “The reality is a that good foreign policy meshes together international consensus vs. national interests, and military wherewithal as a tool vs. economic and diplomatic wherewithal. You need all of these pieces of the puzzle to get anything done. So yet again, despite disagreements, there is a lot of complementarity that is out there to actually get and a foreign policy that might succeed in doing something,” says analyst Hulsman.

Many analysts note that with the escalating violence in the Middle East, the separate views the two sides hold - - especially when it comes to the use of force, the impact of warfare on civilians and the definition of terrorism - - have re-emerged. The French, who are working closely with the U.S. to help resolve the conflict in Lebanon, favored an immediate end to fighting on both sides. The U.S. was pressing for an international force to be established between Israel and Lebanon before the hostilities end, arguing that Israel’s security remains at risk without it.

US, EU Parting Company on Iran?

A compromise solution to bridge this gap has been reached says Jeffrey Gedmin, Director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin. However, he cautions that the Atlantic partnership could stumble over the much tougher issue of how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“For the Americans, it is an urgent matter. It is non-negotiable. When the President of the United States says we will not permit the mullahs in Teheran to acquire the bomb, I think he really means it. I believe Americans are willing to sacrifice because they think that’s a threat to peace and security and stability in the region. But beyond that, it is part of a broader war on terror. The Europeans think a little bit differently. They take it seriously, we must trust that. But you find out how serious people are ‘when the rubber meets the road’ and you find out what they are actually willing to risk and sacrifice,” says Jeffrey Gedmin.

Many analysts also point out that Europeans and Americans have different interests throughout the Middle East. They say that unlike Americans, Europeans view the Middle East as their back yard and are mindful of the large Muslim communities across Europe. Most importantly, experts say, they have strong economic and commercial ties with all sides in the Mideast.

Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations says U.S.-European differences over Iraq pale in comparison to the challenges Iran could pose. He argues the issue could seriously weaken transatlantic ties if the United States takes military action against Iranian nuclear facilities without the support of its European partners.

The United States and the Europeans generally agree that Iran should cease [uranium] enrichment and should not become a nuclear power, says European specialist Charles Kupchan.

“There is an agreement that if Iran refuses to abide by the Security Council resolution to cease enrichment that sanctions will be applied. They are likely to be relatively light sanctions. Once we get passed that stage and we talk about a full-scale embargo [of Iran], the possibility of military force, there, I think, we will see the coalition crack. If we get to a stage where military force is used or considered, the United States may find itself without even the rump number of countries in Europe that backed the Iraq war,” says Kupchan.

According to some analysts, an American military action against Iran without the support of the U.N. and Europe would severely set back transatlantic relations. But others discount the prospect of a military strike simply because there is no guarantee it would curtail Teheran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

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