The Transatlantic Rift: US Leadership after September 11. (Perspectives on the United States)

By Solana, Javier | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Transatlantic Rift: US Leadership after September 11. (Perspectives on the United States)


Solana, Javier, Harvard International Review


Forged in the aftermath of World War II, the transatlantic partnership between Europe and the United States has proven successful and resilient over the past half-century. The international environment changed radically with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but its impact has only gradually manifested itself. The shock of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has shed light upon the developments in the relationship between Europe and the United States over the past decade. While Washington has been quick in reacting to new challenges, both in practice and in its definition of strategy, differences in perceptions and capabilities contain the seeds of a potential transatlantic rift. Nothing could be more dangerous for both sides. Europe and the United States have a common duty to nurture their relationship, which requires a serious debate about perceptions, values, methods, and capabilities.

Distinct Perceptions

While the end of the Cold War was a major victory for the West, it ushered in a period of adjustment and evolution that diminished the centrality of Europe for the United States. The disappearance of an existential threat, the reduced strategic importance of the European theater, and the increasing US focus on other priorities removed some of the glue from EU-US relations. This picture was compounded by other developments: the inability of Europe to tackle the Balkan crises without US assistance, the gap between the two partners in economic growth through the 1990s, and Europe's preoccupation with its own internal development. It is a tribute to leaders on both sides of the Atlantic that relations remained strong despite these growing gaps; the Transatlantic Declaration of 1990 and the New Transatlantic Agenda of 1995 were intelligent steps toward a reinvention of the partnership after the end of the Cold War.

In Europe, the immediate impact of the September 11 attacks was to trigger a fresh wave of emotional solidarity with the United States. "We are all Americans," proclaimed Le Monde on the day following the attacks. Indeed, Europeans felt that the attack had been an attack on values they shared with the United States. Now, over a year later, the relationship looks considerably less rosy. A hard look at the facts reveals a more critical tone, a more complex mix of emotions, and some degree of exasperation in Europe--even from those who consider themselves staunch Atlanticists. In part, this is simply a normal effect of the passage of time, which has allowed political debate to resume just as bipartisan solidarity within the United States has inevitably eroded. More fundamentally, however, this friction reflects a new set of tensions between the two sides, fueled by differences in perceptions, priorities, and responses to the terrorist attacks.

Clearly, US perceptions of the world have been transformed. Where geography and military power once provided comfort and security, today there is an enduring sense of vulnerability and exposure. "Homeland security"--a phrase and concept alien before September 11--is now the overriding value in US policy with far-reaching consequences for changes in US domestic, economic, defense, and foreign policy initiatives.

In contrast, for the rest of the world--horrified spectators rather than direct victims of the attacks--September 11 was an iconic event, a brutal wake-up call to the dangers from a "mega-terror" that combines fanaticism with immense destructive power. For citizens of London, Paris, and Madrid, the deadly novelty of the Al Qaeda attacks lay in the appalling degree of death and destruction wrought, not in the fact that innocent civilians had been targeted on home soil without warning. For most Europeans today, the most important recent change in the security environment is the removal of the Soviet threat and not the emergence of a terrorist threat, which is the natural focus in the United States.

There is further disparity between the perceptions of the actual nature of this new terrorist threat. …

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