Making the Best of Difference: A New Start for Transatlantic Relations

By Riecke, Henning | International Journal, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Making the Best of Difference: A New Start for Transatlantic Relations


Riecke, Henning, International Journal


THE IRAQ CRISIS ILLUSTRATED RIFTS IN SECURITY POLICY between the positions of the US and some European states as well as among the Europeans themselves. Snappy remarks about "adventurism" (Gerhard Schroder) and "old versus new Europe" (Donald Rumsfeld) have escalated a long-simmering debate about new risks and appropriate responses. European Atlanticists reacted nervously. Politicians in Europe minimized the crisis as mere dissent among old friends and stressed the efficient co-operation in many areas. Various transatlantic networks launched a number of declarations to detoxify relations during the crisis.(1) It was possible to put aside the aggressive wrangling and move back to normal.

The better climate might be a relief, but the crisis is not over yet and could quickly resurface in a different shape. Although there is finally a debate in Europe about the use of force as an instrument in the fight against new risks like terrorism and proliferation, most Europeans have a different attitude than their American allies. They also dislike the American defiance of international law and multilateral institutions. While many pundits conjure the spirit of a new start, a redefinition of transatlantic relations or a new deal, none of these has taken shape yet. New tensions over the unilateral strong-arm politics of the US seem likely. New alliances opposing American action are possible, as well as a lasting breakup, together with a marginalization of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). There remains an uneasy feeling of the ambiguous character of transatlantic relations.

Pessimists look at diverging foreign policy principles in Europe and the US and their material causes. They see a fundamental rift that will change transatlantic relations, from co-operation to blockade or even competition. Robert Kagan argues that military power, or the lack of it, shapes the way Americans and Europeans look at the world. His frequently cited bon mot that the latter are from Venus and the former are from Mars alludes to the assumption that the chosen weakness of Europe shapes the way its inhabitants see the world, as a place where the use of force cannot change a lot and norms and institutions are the instrument of choice. The "end of Atlanticism" is looming, as Ivo Daalder has warned, since "American and European foreign policies no longer center around the transatlantic alliance to the same overriding extent as in the past." The columnist Tom Friedman denies that the two sides pursue the same objective and only apply alternative approaches: no, he writes, "we have two different visions, not just tactical differences."(2)

Optimists are equally worried but look at the seemingly close value systems and the transnational problems that make co-operation inevitable. Phil H. Gordon puts the "irreconcilable differences" into perspective, showing that Europeans and Americans are not so far apart in most issue areas, including the use of force. The assumption of fundamental differences itself could prevent the necessary co-operation.(3) Proliferation, international terrorism, civil war and failing states can be targeted by unilateral actions, but even the last remaining superpower will need the co-operation of allies to cope with these challenges. An opportunity for renewal would open up for NATO, an alliance based on coherent beliefs and attitudes. James B. Steinberg warns that despite a great potential for solving problems together, "it is not enough to rely on an invisible hand" to make this happen.(4)

An analysis of transatlantic relations cannot stop at asking what went wrong but has to go beyond that to ask: "What kind of transatlantic relations do we want?" Having in mind both the pressing need for collaboration and the differences that cannot be negotiated away, finding ways to make the best out of the divergence must be top priority.

This article will discuss the differences and the degree of co-operation that is feasible.

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Making the Best of Difference: A New Start for Transatlantic Relations
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