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The Transatlantic Turnaround

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow
March 2008
Current History


The Atlantic alliance has made a remarkable recovery over the course of President George W. Bush’s second term. Relations between the United States and Europe hit rock bottom after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, raising the prospect of an irreparable transatlantic rift. Although the war won grudging support from some European governments, it was staunchly opposed by many of the continent’s citizens. Acrimonyand recriminations engulfed diplomacy as well as public debate. The Atlantic community faced its most serious crisis since World War II.

This crisis and the charged rhetoric that accompanied it have since abated. Over the past three years, the Bush administration and its European counterparts have worked hard to mend fences—with impressive results. And it is not only the atmospherics that have changed. The United States and its European partners are fighting together in Afghanistan. They are working jointly to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, negotiate peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and ease Kosovo toward formal independence.

From the European perspective, the Bush administration continues to fall short of expectations on several fronts—especially curbing climate change. But even on this issue, which President Bush effectivelydismissed during his first term, Washington has now moved forward, agreeing to multilateral negotiations over a successor to the Kyoto Protocol and supporting measures to reduce consumption of fossil fuels.

The improvement in Atlantic relations has been a matter of necessity, not choice. The Bush administration once thought the United States was strong enough to run the world on its own.  The debacle in Iraq proved otherwise. For their part, many Europeans initially welcomed a distancing from Washington. With the end of the cold war and with the European Union’s growing economic and political muscle, it was time—the argument went—for the EU to countenance life without its American guardian. But with the Atlantic link on the verge of being severed, the EU soon found itself adrift and deeply divided. Both Americans and Europeans, after getting a glimpse of what it would be like to go it alone, realized they remained each other’s best partners.

Recognition of this strategic reality was reflected in—but also fostered by—changes in key leadership positions on both sides of the Atlantic.  In Washington, though President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney remained in charge, their top echelon of foreign advisers changed dramatically. Out were Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and others responsible for the ideological excesses of the first term. In were Condoleezza Rice, Robert Zoellick, Robert Kimmitt, Robert Gates, and others associated with a more pragmatic and centrist brand of internationalism.

In Europe, elections rather than political appointments were the main driver of change.  Bush’s main allies in Europe—Tony Blair in Great Britain, José María Aznar in Spain, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy—all lost the confidence of their citizens and are no longer in office. But also gone are Gerhard Schröder of Germany and Jacques Chirac of France, the two leaders who led the charge against the Iraq War. Curiously, these leaders’ successors—Angela Merkel in Berlin and Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris—are far more Atlanticist and pro-American than were their predecessors.  Both Merkel and Sarkozy campaigned primarily on domestic issues, not foreign policy. But it nonetheless speaks volumes that even after the ill will toward the United States provoked by the Iraq War, both Germans and Frenchmen voted into office leaders intent on repairing Atlantic relations.

The White House no doubt misses Blair, its most stalwart ally, especially because his successor, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, has been keeping his distance from the Bush administration. On balance, however, Washington has more leverage in Europe today than it did when Blair was in office.  Working through London had a major drawback for the United States: Britain’s own reluctance to integrate fully into the EU (the United Kingdom, for example, remains outside the euro zone) means that its influence in Europe is limited. Washington in this respect is better off dealing directly with Berlin and Paris, long the dual locomotives of European integration, instead of working through its offshore ally.

This year’s election in the United States has the potential to advance further the repair of the Atlantic link.  President Bush, despite the conciliatory overtures of his second term, remains a singularly unpopular figure in Europe. The bitter legacy of the Iraq War, Bush’s stingy approach to fighting climate change, his refusal to negotiate with Iran, his policies on treatment of detainees—all these continue to generate ire. Should the Democrats prevail in the presidential contest, transatlantic relations are poised to receive a new boost. Indeed, Europe awaits with bated breath the arrival of a Democrat in the White House.

Although a change of leadership in Washington will no doubt brighten the prospects for transatlantic comity, both Americans and Europeans should keep their expectations in check. A Democratic administration would not be satisfied with just a warm welcome from Europe; the new US government would also expect the Europeans to shoulder more international burdens. In the probably correct belief that the EU had not gone out of its way to do favors for the Bush administration, a Democratic White House would seek greater European assistance in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other trouble areas. The Democratic candidates, after all, are promising the electorate that the United States will benefit not just from renewed respect abroad, but also from a reduction in the nation’s onerous overseas commitments.

Some such help may be forthcoming from Europe—but not much. EU member states simply do not have the personnel and military assets needed to undertake a substantial expansion of their missions abroad. To be sure, the union is in the midst of reforming its institutions in order to allow greater coherence on foreign policy. But that project will advance only slowly. And as casualties mount in Afghanistan, EU member states will find the war increasingly unpopular—even if a Democrat controls the White House.

Meanwhile, Europeans will be expecting an about-face in foreign policy from a Democratic administration. Yet, while some change will be in the offing, the next US president will not hold a strong hand of cards. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, instability and extremist violence in Pakistan, nuclear ambitions in Iran, an economic downturn at home, a deeply divided electorate—these inauspicious conditions will constrict the administration’s room for maneuver as it seeks to pursue a new brand of statecraft.

An ebullient transatlantic reunion may be in store come January 2009. But then the hard realities of transatlantic cooperation will set in. The good news is that Americans and Europeans alike have realized that they will need each other for the foreseeable future. The sobering news is that transforming this recognition into concrete partnership will remain difficult—no matter who holds power on the two sides of the Atlantic.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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