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A Long Marriage Ending?

Author: Bruce Stokes
July 27, 2002
National Journal


BERLIN-During a recent campaign swing through his rust-belt electoral district in the Rhineland area of Germany, Volkmar Schultz, a member of the German parliament, was accosted by one of his constituents-a man who owns a Rhine River ferry in Cologne and is also an active member of Schultz's ruling Social Democratic Party. The constituent was incensed by the Bush administration's refusal to submit American citizens to the jurisdiction of the newly created International Criminal Court. The irate ferryman told Schultz he'd bolt his party if the SPD government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder failed to stand up to the United States on this issue.

For Schultz, the head of a German-American parliamentary exchange group, this constituent's fury was a wake-up call. Long-smoldering European resentment toward the United States had finally burst into flame, fanned by U.S. indifference to European concerns about the court, by U.S. tariffs on imported European steel, and by President Bush's plans for a war with Iraq. Among many Germans-from the people in the street to the highest officials in European politics and business-this anger at America is growing. "Even my most sincere colleagues in the European Parliament are moving to anti-Americanism," ruefully observed Erika Mann, another member of the European Parliament, who is also the body's rapporteur, or coordinator, on European Union-U.S. relations.

Nor is such indignation with America confined to the Rhineland, or to Germany. It is being felt in Britain, too. "In 20 years," said Digby Jones, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, "I have never known such a level of frustration and suspicion of America by British business. And we are your best friends."

Many Europeans say the rising ill will goes in both directions. European Union officials report a small but growing amount of hate mail from the United States. "There has always been a streak of anti-Americanism in Europe," acknowledged a British diplomat in London, "but, possibly for the first time, there is now a streak of anti-Europeanism in the American body politic." He cited two types of evidence: columns in The New York Times equating European criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with anti-Semitism; and assertions by U.S. officials that, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, Europe is no longer a U.S. strategic priority.

The trans-Atlantic alliance, long the keystone of both U.S. and European security and economic policy, is increasingly dysfunctional. "It was always possible to say, 'What unites us is more than what divides us,' " said one EU diplomat in Brussels, "and, while that was fundamentally a cliche, people believed it. It was what held us together. But no more. There are now more problems with the trans-Atlantic relationship than at any time in the postwar period."

And many observers now believe these problems run deeper than mere policy differences over trade or foreign affairs. "Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus," wrote Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow Robert Kagan in a recent article published in the journal Policy Review and much talked about on both sides of the Atlantic. "They agree on little and understand one another less and less," Kagan wrote. "When it comes to setting national priorities, determining threats, defining challenges, and fashioning and implementing foreign and defense policies, the United States and Europe have parted ways.... The future seems certain to be one of increased trans- Atlantic tension." The problem, he asserted, "is systemic. And it is incurable." Interviews this month with more than three dozen senior European business and government officials in London, Berlin, and Brussels showed that nearly all of them shared at least some of Kagan's concerns.

Such bleak sentiments are not, of course, universal. European diplomats are quick to point out that the current EU-U.S. foreign-policy dialogue is broader and deeper than ever. Security experts note that Washington and its European allies have recently defused potentially divisive disputes over both America's national missile defense and Russia's closer ties with NATO. "Things that are corrosive are still within the realm of problems that can be contained," said Dana Allin, editor of Survival, a journal published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Sure, many Americans feel a warm affection for the lands of their ancestors and a nostalgia for a Cold War-era world in which alliance politics look comparatively stable and predictable. But apart from those feelings, does the growing alienation between the United States and Europe, however severe, really matter in terms of global security or economic well-being?

Conservatives inside and outside of the Bush administration answer no, arguing that the alliance died with the Cold War. The United States, as the world's sole military and economic superpower, now has global, not simply trans-Atlantic, interests. Moreover, they contend that September 11 has imbued America's actions with a moral imperative that trumps both European queasiness about the exercise of military power and the European preference for collaborative decision-making.

But such American self-righteousness, even if grounded in changed circumstances, threatens to undermine U.S. national interests, warns former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who, for a career-long proponent of international realpolitik, sounds surprisingly cautionary. "No matter how selfless America perceives its aims," he wrote in his recent book Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century, "an explicit insistence on predominance would gradually unite the world against the United States and force it into a position that would eventually leave it isolated and drained."

Worst Ever?

Trans-Atlantic tensions have been high before: In 1956, when Washington opposed the Anglo-French invasion of Suez; in the late 1960s and early '70s, when thousands of Europeans took to the streets to protest the U.S. role in the Vietnam War; in the early 1980s, when Europeans fought Reagan administration plans to introduce intermediate-range nuclear missiles into Europe. And the post-World War II era has seen periodic trade wars-over chickens in the 1960s, pasta and citrus in the 1980s, and bananas and beef in the 1990s.

But now the geopolitical, military, and economic circumstances that helped contain even the most fractious of these trans-Atlantic disputes have changed, and U.S.-European relations are spiraling downward.

A decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full consequences of the end of the Cold War are finally apparent. The Soviet bear at the door-a constant reminder that what united Europe and America was more important than what divided them-is gone. Moreover, the all-preoccupying nature of the nuclear confrontation with the Soviets accorded trans-Atlantic relations a centrality that can no longer be sustained. "Europe made the mistake of thinking it was important as a player during the Cold War," said a chagrined British official, "when it was only important because it was the stage upon which the Cold War was acted." That self-deception has ended.

The second alliance-altering development has been the strong, unrivaled performance of the U.S. economy over the past two decades and the under-performance of the European economy; this disparity in economic success makes it harder and harder for Americans to see Europe as an equal. With America's economic growth rate averaging a third higher than Europe's, year after year, the U.S. economy has simply pulled away from its European competitors. Washington, with its economic pie expanding more rapidly, has easily allocated more resources to research and development, spending, on an average annual basis, 70 percent more, as a portion of its economy, than Europe. Such expenditures are only likely to reinforce the current U.S. lead in both productivity and innovation in the years ahead. And booming growth has afforded more resources for defense, enabling the Bush administration to propose a $48 billion increase in U.S. defense spending for next year, a quantum leap that will further widen the gap in military outlays between America and its European NATO allies. To put it in perspective: That $48 billion increase is almost a third of what Europe collectively spends annually on defense as a whole.

Most important, the last two decades have witnessed the globalization of the U.S. economy and thus a broadening of U.S. economic and security interests. So even as the sheer magnitude of trans-Atlantic trade and investment-$4.4 trillion-ensures both mutual dependence and unavoidable economic frictions, Washington is losing its willingness to accord Europe special status because of those ties.

To be sure, trans-Atlantic disparities have always existed. The gap between U.S. and European economic and military strength was even greater in the immediate post-World War II era. But now, unlike then, observed Allin, "the Bush administration has a proclivity to make an ideological virtue out of these differences."

The New 'X' Article

In 1947, George Kennan wrote a seminal article for Foreign Affairs that convincingly outlined the case for containment of the Soviet Union. The article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," provided the conceptual framework for U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War. Robert Kagan's piece "Power and Weakness," published in the current (June/July) issue of Policy Review, may come to be remembered as the defining reconceptualization of U.S.-European relations, albeit in a negative rather than a positive light.

Kagan contends that Europe and the United States simply see the use of power differently, thanks to America's growing military strength and Europe's recent history of economic and political integration, which has led it to reject military force as a means of settling disputes. He argues that this disparity, both in the ability to exercise power and in the perception of power's efficacy, leads to differing assessments of global threats. Europeans, who Kagan argues also don't have the power to do anything about most threats, are more likely to tolerate them. "I worry that the West will have difficulty holding together, when we have such fundamentally different views on the use of power," he told a recent European-American conference hosted by the Aspen Institute in Berlin.

Surprisingly, many Europeans agree with Kagan's diagnosis and see him as a messenger saying something they need to hear. "This piece Kagan wrote, I found a very good one," said EU trade minister Pascal Lamy in an interview with National Journal. "We in Europe have this confidence in rules, which probably stems from what we did in the construction of Europe. But that has limits."

Yet it drives Europeans to distraction that many Americans use Kagan's analysis to justify a claim of American moral and policy "exceptionalism." In debates over the International Criminal Court, the global land mine treaty that Washington refuses to sign, and similar trans-Atlantic disputes, Americans cite new U.S. economic and security interests as a rationale for a U.S. refusal to play by the same rules as everyone else. State Department officials turn European criticism of American unilateralism on its head, arguing that it is Europe, not the United States, that has been acting in a unilateralist fashion in recent months. They complain that Brussels repeatedly presents Washington with non-negotiable policies precooked among the EU's members and allies, refusing to accommodate America's unique role and responsibilities in the world. In so doing, American officials charge, Europe is unilaterally defining new areas of international law with regard to climate change, biological weaponry, or whatever, without the international consensus that must necessarily include the United States.

Moreover, more and more Americans cast recent trans-Atlantic disagreements in moral terms. "The Europeans are craven," charged American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Joshua Muravchik at the Aspen Institute Berlin meeting, in discussing Europe's unwillingness to crack down on Palestinian terrorism or join in the effort to topple Saddam Hussein. "They are weak morally."

That kind of talk drives Europeans nuts. "Some parts of the U.S. conservative political elite are becoming too arrogant for their own good," griped a senior EU foreign-policy expert when told of Muravchik's comment. "It's the arrogance of a lonely superpower who really believes it doesn't need any help," added a senior German diplomat. Most dangerously, said Constance Stelzenmuller, the foreign-policy and security editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, "it's a vocabulary that suggests hubris is unimaginable." And Europeans echo Kissinger in warning that such "pride goeth before a fall."

Force and Its Uses

This clash of American and European worldviews on the utility and morality of the use of force will be intensified in the months ahead, threatening even greater drift in the trans-Atlantic relationship.

The most immediate friction is created by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Senior EU diplomats who work the issue daily with their American counterparts claim that Brussels and Washington agree on most issues and that their only major disagreement is over tactics.

But that's not how the public views it. While Americans strongly support the Israelis over the Palestinians, by 41 percent to 13 percent, according to an April 2002 poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, pluralities in Britain, France, and Italy support the Palestinians more than the Israelis, and in Germany, the population is evenly split on the issue.

"The United States has a totally different approach to the Middle East than does Europe," said Peter Sutherland, chairman of the board of the British oil company BP. "The United States is in a different world, and it will leave a terrible imprint on history" if it continues to support the Israelis at

all costs over the Palestinians.

Differences over Iraq could pose an even graver threat to the alliance, although this may not be initially apparent. "For conservatives in Washington," said a senior EU diplomat, "Iraq has become a test of loyalty." And European governments vow to pass that test. If and when the United States invades Iraq, United Kingdom troops will be part of the effort, British officials are quick to reassure Americans. German officials say they won't send troops, but they will provide significant logistical support and won't withdraw the German tanks now stationed in Kuwait. Everyone in Europe assumes the French will drag their feet, but at the end of the day they won't be able to bear standing on the sidelines while Britain and the United States fight a war without them.

Despite such unity among allied leaders, the American and European publics fundamentally disagree on what to do about Iraq. And that could put European governments at risk if they are seen as too supportive of a U.S. attack on Baghdad. More than two-thirds of Americans support military action against Saddam Hussein, according to the Pew survey. Only a third of Italians and Germans agree. "The differences in political perceptions are huge," Lord Gilbert, a member of the House of Lords and twice minister of state for defense in Labor Party governments in Britain, told the Aspen conference. "And these have consequences. No doubt [Prime Minister Tony] Blair will be prepared to go along, but he will pay a price. And not just with the left wing of the Labor Party."

Germans express similar concerns, particularly if, as is now expected, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union coalition wins control of the Bundestag in Germany's September parliamentary election. The CDU/CSU coalition, more conservative than the current ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, would be more likely to support action against Iraq. But if the Social Democrats and Greens are out of power, they will feel little reluctance to go into the streets to voice their displeasure about an invasion of Iraq, say German diplomats, politicians, and journalists. The inevitable television images of the American flag being burned at the Brandenburg Gate will only reinforce American conservatives' disdain for Europe.

More important, America may pay a price for putting European governments at odds with their electorates. "Governments fall, over these kinds of things," warned a senior EU diplomat. It is little wonder that EU officials worry that if the U.S. invades Iraq without first convincingly making the case to the European public, the assault could do irreparable damage to trans-Atlantic relations.

British officials also fret about new U.S.-European tensions over Turkey. They predict that this fall, Ankara will offer Washington a trade: Turkey's help with an invasion of Iraq in exchange for Washington's help in getting Turkey on a fast track to membership in the European Union. Europeans, who generally oppose Turkish membership, would deeply resent American meddling on this issue.

Finally, several new trans-Atlantic economic disputes that are looming on the horizon raise touchy sovereignty issues because they deal with taxes and homeland security, heretofore mainly domestic concerns.

The U.S. Treasury, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., have proposed restricting some of the allowable tax deductions that foreign-owned corporations have traditionally taken to lower their U.S. tax bills. It's part of an overall administration effort to rewrite U.S. tax law to

comply with a World Trade Organization ruling that invalidated certain U.S. tax provisions. But how these changes are made could have big implications-read: higher taxes-for the many European corporations with large American subsidiaries.

Pascal Lamy said this issue is becoming increasingly important to Europe, and if mishandled, could have serious repercussions for the U.S. economy. Noting that European financial investments in the United States help balance the U.S. deficit in trade goods with Europe, Lamy said, referring to senior administration policy makers: "If I were them, I wouldn't play with fire on this."

Europeans are also sensitive about their sovereignty in an issue that to Americans is about homeland security. To bolster the U.S. anti-terrorist effort, Washington recently demanded new security checks for cargo containers loaded in foreign ports and destined for the United States. The Bush administration then bypassed both the European Union and the national governments in Europe and negotiated these new inspection procedures directly with individual European port authorities. Not surprisingly, this end run has sparked European resentment and suspicion. "There is this U.S. tendency to export standards of control in an extraterritorial fashion," said Lamy. "Of course, we have to be careful that does not, by coincidence, translate into an unfair advantage for U.S. harbors."

Ties That Bind

With such problems straining U.S.-European ties, Kagan asks, what would be the cost to the West of a breakdown in the trans-Atlantic arrangements? And, more important, who would pay that price? At the end of the day, many European policy analysts say it could be the United States.

By marginalizing, alienating, and antagonizing Europe, Washington could force Europeans to increasingly define themselves as "not American," a self-reinforcing self-image that at every turn could place Europe at odds with the United States. Such oppositional behavior can't be in America's long-term self-interest.

"But this doesn't have to be a Cain-and-Abel relationship," said Bundestag member Schultz. "America is the bigger brother, but Europe is the older brother, and he wants to use that experience to protect our common interests. Right now, the Americans have no better friends and allies than the Europeans. And any nation that wants to be a global hegemon needs the trust of its many partners. That has nothing to do with power."

Kissinger, too, says that U.S. policy makers must be careful to lead by example and not always by coercion. He concludes in Does America Need a Foreign Policy? that "America's ultimate challenge is to transform its power into moral consensus, promoting its values not by imposition but by their willing acceptance in a world that, for all its seeming resistance, desperately needs enlightened leadership."

And for all its current power and moral certitude, the Bush administration is finding out the hard way in Europe that the first job of leadership is to ensure that there are followers.