LONDON — Ever since the end of World War II, Western Europe and the United States have felt like partners, sharing a wide range of common values and bound militarily by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance. There have, inevitably, been strains over the decades, and a need to re-assess the relationship emerged with the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War.
Now, European capitals are asking themselves if the bedrock of the last half-century is being seriously eroded. Fresh trans-Atlantic disputes seem to emerge almost every week, with most of them originating across the ocean.
Some of U.S. President George W. Bush’s early policy moves were a portent of things to come. The refusal to go along with the Kyoto Protocol caused widespread disquiet in Europe, where Green parties had Cabinet members in both France and Germany. Plans for an antimissile system also worried a continent that would see the destruction of treaties it had considered integral to its security.
The president’s “axis of evil” speech went down badly in Europe, where senior officials spoke openly of Washington adopting a “simplistic” approach. Major governments like those in Paris and Berlin have no wish to endorse an open-ended commitment to the war on terrorism, without knowing where it could lead. Equally, they do not see military action as an answer to the problem of Iraq, and seek open dialogue with Iran.
The climate was further chilled by the American raising of steel tariffs, with the accompanying threat of a trade war that would help neither side. Then came Bush’s speech on the Middle East, calling for the removal of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — in direct opposition to the European view that the peace process should be continued despite the violence and that, whatever his failings, the Palestinian leader must be included in it.
The sidelining of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell by hawkish members of the administration was a fresh blow since European foreign ministries and the European Commission in Brussels saw him as the one man in Washington they could count on listening to them.
Most recently, the U.S. repudiation of the new International Criminal Court, and its vetoing of a Security Council resolution extending the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, sent a shudder through the Continent. Even the British government, which had been the European administration most supportive of Washington, expressed its disagreement while the foreign minister of Denmark, which currently holds the revolving presidency of the European Union, expressed deep regret.
When Bush paid his first visit to Europe to meet EU and NATO leaders after he took office, the Europeans realized that they were dealing with a different kind of American leader from President Bill Clinton, who had felt a natural empathy with the old Continent. The new president made it clear that his prime interest lay in advancing American interests whatever this meant for others.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York, European leaders were swift to express solidarity — President Jacques Chirac of France, a country that has always prided itself on independence from the U.S., was the first foreign leader to fly into Washington to give his support.
But that mood has drained away both because of the way Bush has acted and the feeling by European leaders that they must distance themselves from American policies, which seem to them to take little account of the nature of the problem in areas such as the Middle East. At best, they see the administration as taking a black-and-white view of a complex world; at worst, they view it as motivated by concern for the domestic electorate in the congressional elections in November.
Behind the immediate causes of friction — steel, the ICC — lies a deeper sense that Bush’s administration not only sees its world role in a way different from its predecessors, but views the parameters of American action differently. That raises the question of where this leaves Europe; and the fear is that the administration in Washington does not care very much what the answer is.
The danger for Europeans who had sought to maintain their autonomy while remaining good allies of the U.S. is that the more brittle relationship now emerging will oblige them to make a choice they feel should not be forced on them. With the attitude of American leaders like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld boiling down to “either you are for us or against us,” U.S. action against Iraq could provide a breaking point in the postwar relationship.
That, in turn, would inevitably promote widespread anti-Americanism in Europe, and could lead to strains between NATO, with its dependence on the U.S. military contribution, and the EU, which aspires to a stronger world political role, but appears to make little impression in Washington.
“The continents are without doubt drifting apart,” British commentator Hugo Young wrote recently. As he noted, the situation is complicated by a lack of clarity on how Europe would like to see the U.S. behave — in some cases, it approves of the Pentagon waving the big stick, as in the Balkans, but in others, such as the Middle East, it wants a more diplomatic approach.
European governments are anxious to avoid the drift in relations becoming a real break. Their worry is that such concerns may not be felt in Washington and that, on the contrary, attempts to engage in discussion about foreign and military policy will be seen as dissent that disqualifies them from being listened to.
The need for dialogue has never been greater; the tragedy is that one side does not appear to want to listen while the other cannot make its voice heard.
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