Transatlantic Ills

By Wells, Samuel F., Jr. | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Transatlantic Ills


Wells, Samuel F., Jr., The Wilson Quarterly


Tensions between the United States and its European allies often ran high during the later days of the Cold War, but today's conflicts are more numerous and frequently more severe--and they won't be resolved without strong commitments from leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

There was quiet celebration on both sides of the Atlantic last November when President George W. Bush and German chancellor Gerhard Schroder shook hands and grinned for the cameras at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Prague. It wasn't the handshake itself that was notable, but the fact that this small (and palpably insincere) token of amity between the leaders of the two largest Atlantic powers was considered a noteworthy event. The reaction showed just how badly transatlantic relations have frayed in recent years.

The immediate source of German-American tensions was Schroder's strong stance against war with Iraq during the recent German elections, and personal antagonisms have doubtless been added to the policy disagreements. But the problem isn't confined to two men or two nations. The relationship between the United States and Europe is in trouble, and common attitudes and policies are less evident than at any time since World War I.

For all the happy talk in Prague as NATO extended historic membership invitations to three countries that had once been part of the Soviet Union, the United States went away without important commitments from its allies on the confrontation with Iraq. NATO did declare that Saddam Hussein must disarm, but there were no promises to join in dislodging him if he does not. And the Iraq problem is only the visible manifestation of more deeply rooted difficulties.

Perhaps the most widely discussed of these difficulties is the serious disparity in American and European military and intelligence capabilities. With the partial exception of Britain, no European nation has equipment and forces capable of operating with the Americans. That's one reason why the United States responded unilaterally in Afghanistan to the terrorist attacks of September 2001. It had the help of a few British aircraft and special forces but otherwise sought assistance from no states other than those neighboring the targeted territory. Yale University historian Paul Kennedy, who in the 1980s famously warned the United States against "imperial overstretch," declared: "The larger lesson [of the Afghanistan war] ... is that in military terms there is only one player on the field that counts."

American unilateralism has exacerbated basic differences with Europe over other security issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arms control and weapons proliferation, and aspects of international law. There's contention, too, over the environment, food safety, development assistance, culture, trade, corporate mergers, and the death penalty.

In a much noted article in Policy Review this past summer, Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace bluntly declared: "It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world. On the all- important question of power--the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power--American and European perspectives are diverging....On major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."

Another observer has written:

American complaints tend to center on three areas: a belief that Europeans are not bearing their full share of the defense burden; an impression that a tide of anti-Americanism is sweeping across Europe; and a suspicion that Europe expects Americans to take all the ... risks. For their part, Europeans are unhappy at the perceived stridency and militancy of tone in the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy; tend to believe that the United States would rather confront than negotiate; and resent that Americans do not seem to appreciate the burdens that Western Europe does share. …

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