Rift is Real, but Curable

January 04, 2005

By Wayne Merry

Can trans-Atlantic relations get worse? Yes, and they will if the United States and Europe do not candidly recognize what divides them, and what binds them.

The problem is that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic treat the relationship forged in the Cold War – America as servant of European security, Europe as loyal auxiliaries to U.S. policies – as a permanent norm rather than as an aberration lasting four decades. The true historic norm of trans-Atlantic relations is one of extensive economic interaction in parallel with sharply different societal choices and roles in the world. The Cold War glue supplied by the Soviet Union is gone for good, but the economic mortar for a new partnership exists, if both sides can build with it.

For European governments and populations, the issue is not Iraq, but the scope of American power in the world and whether that power can be constrained by non-American interests. However, Europe helped create today’s unipolar world by its own economic inertia and political lethargy--a world where European interests are a backwater of American strategy.

European leaders pursue two approaches to restrain American power: Tony Blair’s constructive engagement and Jacques Chirac's candid opposition.

Neither has accomplished much. Blair is accused of being Washington’s poodle, while Chirac reminds one of the Chinese proverb that "the dog barks but the caravan goes on."

In contrast, Washington expects Europe to support and supplement American power as it did during the Cold War through NATO, currently called a "toolbox" for U.S. power projection around the world, with little concern for the views of the "tools." This attitude enjoys bipartisan support, as Senator John Kerry believed he could engage NATO in Iraq despite firm allied refusal even under very heavy pressure by President Bush.

Still, America and Europe do communicate. While the political dialogue is at cross purposes, broader trans-Atlantic relations have never been healthier. New York, Chicago and other American communities have no difficulty communicating with Europe through the medium of money. This is a genuine two-way dialogue involving four-tenths of global trade, most of its foreign direct investment, and tens of millions of jobs. It continues the norm of trans-Atlantic relations from colonial times: America and Europe linked by trade and investment but with diverging visions of the state, society and citizenship. Only the crisis of the European system in the previous century interrupted the norm, injecting American power into Europe to restore and preserve peace.

That crisis ended more than a decade ago. The Cold War was a temporary conjunction of trans-Atlantic interests to deal with the challenge from Soviet Russia. Like most alliances, NATO was created as a conservative risk-sharing mechanism to respond to a shared problem, and not as a permanent temple of "shared values." It is a truism of history that alliances do not long outlive victory, nor should they. With the end of the Cold War, there was much rhetoric of a "new world order" without much recognition that the Soviet collapse had removed the essential unity of the Atlantic Alliance. Today, people who grew up with the Cold War and NATO have great difficulty letting them go, and still more in accepting our differences.

Americans should accept that Europe will not play a political and security role in the world commensurate with its economic size (although it can certainly look after its own region) and Europe will remain risk averse, allergic to the use of force, and isolationist. Europe’s psychology is the product of massive self-inflicted trauma of the past century and is reinforced by weak demographics and political fragmentation.

For their part, Europeans reacted to the U.S. election with their persistent delusion that America is somehow just an extension of European culture, no matter how often the American round peg refuses to fit into a European square hole. Europeans should accept that America has long-since developed a non-European identity, and also recognize that America’s interests and attention link it increasingly with the restored power and prosperity of Asia.

Throughout the 20th century, Europeans saw America's purpose in the world as serving European interests, and bridled when Washington pursued policies reflecting a broader self-identity. Today, Washington sees Europe's purpose in the world as serving American interests, and bridles when Europe conducts policies reflecting a narrower self-identity. In many ways, our global roles have reversed in the past hundred years, but the perception gaps remain.

The foundation of genuine trans-Atlantic partnership lies in our immense economic interchange. This can be a permanent bond, but using it for mutual political benefit requires respect for cultural differences, realistic expectations, plus divestiture of the mentality and institutions of the ever-receding Cold War.

It is long overdue for Europe to take full responsibility for its continental and regional security, inheriting the infrastructure and shared experience of NATO, and for the United States to welcome an independent Europe with its own interests and outlook. American public opinion supports a stronger European role. As partners, there will doubtless be many disagreements, but also an opportunity to reduce the rancor and resentments infecting trans-Atlantic ties today.


Wayne Merry, a former State Department and Pentagon official, is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy and a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

Posted by coalition at January 4, 2005 10:07 PM

<< Ending the Israeli-Palestinian Stalemate | Main | Ending the Israeli-Palestinian Stalemate and US National Security >>


Comments in The Economist are exactly on target. Anyone with any real experience in the region will agree. This is not 1948 or 1967. It is past time for Israel to be responsible for their actions, and to stop using us as a crutch. Their behavior, and our part in it, does no party any good.

Posted by: jfowler at January 7, 2005 06:34 PM

Thank you for all your hard work and dedication.

Posted by: Steve Gibson at January 20, 2005 04:16 PM

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