When U.S. President George W. Bush began his second term, he said fixing relations with Europe would top his diplomatic agenda. A fence-mending trip to Europe has revealed how hard that will be. Both the United States and Europe must decide the purpose of their relationship and whether the trans-Atlantic alliance forged in the aftermath of World War II and during the ideological standoff of the Cold War is fitted to the realities of a post-Cold War world.

While it is tempting to forget many of the difficulties that beset the U.S.-Europe relationship during the Cold War — and there were regular contretemps — it is no exaggeration to say that the Iraq War and its fallout have shaken the trans-Atlantic alliance in unprecedented ways. Disagreements over how to deal with Saddam Hussein and the fissures that were created within Europe, and between Europe and the U.S., by those differing perspectives fed upon and magnified each other.

Differences over Iraq reflected profound differences about the role of the United Nations, U.S. policy toward the Middle East in general and growing European unease about the power of the U.S. The European Union’s ambition to claim a more prominent international role for itself — a goal that divided Europeans — contributed to rising tensions between Washington and its allies. On one extreme, Europeans saw the Bush administration as a crusading menace, determined to reshape the world in its own image and for its own interests, the consequences be damned. On the other, Americans complained about a shortsighted, accommodating — and sometimes corrupt — mind-set that dared to view U.S. power as a bigger threat than international terrorism.

A reluctance to move forward and find a compromise became a source of complaints. It seemed that governments on both sides of the divide were more intent on pointing fingers and playing to both domestic and foreign audiences than on healing the deepening wounds in their alliance.

Mr. Bush’s trip was intended to end that downward spiral. While the visit was well intentioned, it does not appear to have achieved its purpose. Mr. Bush’s style was certainly a contributing factor. A plain speaker, the president at times came across as testy, especially when questioned about Iraq. He sounded more intent on justifying his policies than on building bridges. Europeans complained that the president seemed to be waiting for them to come to him on critical issues rather than search for common ground.

The fault is not Mr. Bush’s alone. Days before the visit, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder dropped a bombshell by calling for an independent assessment of the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Mr. Schroeder is right to suggest that NATO needs a hard look, but the bold announcement, which came without warning, smacks of the same kind of “unilateralism” that the Europeans decry when it comes from the U.S.

Iran dominated the visit. The U.S. is skeptical of prospects of European diplomatic initiatives’ capping Tehran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. To some degree, this is “good cop” vs. “bad cop,” with Washington in the latter role. Mr. Bush said he favored a diplomatic solution, but pointedly noted that all options remain open. The U.S. refusal to join the negotiations could be a problem, since any deal with Iran must eventually lead to improved relations with the U.S. If the U.S.-European differences are more than tactical, then any eventual deal could compound trans-Atlantic difficulties rather than demonstrate real burden sharing.

The second key issue was China. Europe is ready to lift its embargo on arms sales to China, imposed in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Mr. Bush has made it equally clear that the U.S. is very much opposed to that move for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that those sales could boost Chinese military capabilities in a Taiwan Strait crisis, and that the arms might be used against the U.S. That prospect is a direct challenge to the trans-Atlantic partnership, and the consequences could be long lasting and severe.

The trip had its successes. All 26 NATO members agreed to help train Iraqi security forces. Mr. Bush reiterated his support for a strong Europe and appeared to reach out to his allies in Europe. The choice now is Europe’s. It must decide how important its alliance with the U.S. truly is. In the end, it is a simple equation. Which is more important: a multipolar world or alliance with the U.S.?

Will Europe reach out to China and Russia to balance the U.S. even if that means clashing with its ally and partner? That is not to imply that the responsibility for rebuilding the trans-Atlantic alliance is Europe’s alone, but Europe does seem to bear the greatest burden and faces more basic choices.

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