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Europe and the United States: A Perfect Divorce

Will a second Bush term in the White House permanently mar transatlantic relations?

November 5, 2004

Will a second Bush term in the White House permanently mar transatlantic relations?

From my very subjective and personal point of view as a European, I was close to resignation when confronted with the clear statement from the American sovereign, which called President Bush into office for four more years.

Why, I was wondering, did America elect someone who made almost all the wrong decisions — with the exception of Afghanistan — in response to the substantive challenges facing him in his first term?

Even more so, this time Mr. Bush's election is no mistake or accident, something left-wing conspiracy theorists could not stop chattering about for years.

No, by not only winning the electoral vote, but also very clearly the popular vote, there is no trace of doubt after this election. George Walker Bush is the rightfully elected president of the United States. What does that mean for Europe, personal feelings aside?

First of all, Mr. Bush's interpretation of handling Iraq — and what has led to this situation — will remain completely at odds with the views of virtually all Europeans, including myself. Europeans think of the war as an aggressive act — and a violent breach of international laws and conventions.

Moreover, the United States is still far from rebuilding Iraq and establishing minimum safety for its citizens. And I cannot think of many Europeans happy to help America pull itself out of this misery.

Europeans will probably help to some extent, but you can surely imagine the fist in our pocket.

Iraq, and everything connected to it, brings about the larger Atlantic divide over how to continue our struggle to overcome terrorism — note my words when I refuse to call it a "war." In this struggle, the Iraq adventure is not only distracting us, but also binding resources that should be used elsewhere.

In addition, as long as the United States keeps holding on to its doctrine of preemptive war, there will be an ongoing dispute about the role of international institutions — and that is not only regarding terrorism. Other than in self-defense, a mandate by the United Nations is a prerequisite before any military action is taken.

At the same time, the writings of Washington's chattering classes notwithstanding, Europeans have not abandoned the use of military power as a matter of principle. In fact, the EU has adopted a security policy that acknowledges the use of military force — also preemptive if needed — but only as an ultimate ratio and in line with the United Nations.

The institutional embedding of global politics is our "European Gospel."

We believe in a global system of institutional checks and balances as the most dependable way to ensure not only security and peace, but also to tackle a host of other problems, from poverty to environmental degradation.

The difference could not be more pronounced to the "Gospel of George W. Bush." It allows him to pursue the best of all worlds by an unrestricted America, which as an empire is apt to create its own reality — in a world apart from the rest of it.

The European Gospel, as I called it, has been shaped by Europe's common history, which has been a history of bloodshed.
One of those, the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century, is at the root of our belief in institutions. The Peace of Westphalia ended religious and/or confessional fighting — and established a peace order for all of Europe, not with the sword but with the word.

In the 18th century, the age of Enlightenment brought the idea of individual freedom in a secular society under the premise of human reason and — as a derivative — morals and ethics. In fact, it was Adam Smith himself who founded not just capitalist thinking, as so many Republican policymakers believe, but most of ethical theory with his "Theory of Moral Sentiments".

In our collective European memory, a repetition of the greatest tragedies in our history, the two World Wars in the 20th century, could only be avoided in the future by completing the project begun 300 years ago — establishing an institutional framework for all of Europe.

What is now the European Union only recently acquired not only a whole lot of new members, but also a constitutional contract (yet to be ratified).

This truly European belief in institutions, reason and law brings me to the most serious division between Europe and America: the now readily apparent moral and religious tone. It was well visible in the U.S. exit polls which showed that moral values, synonymous with "religious" ones, were the number one issue for Bush voters. This one item also fundamentally shifts the way politics is perceived, planned — and executed.

This ranges from a partial pursuit of "Realpolitik" to a strange blend of religious idealism and neo-imperialism. God, so it appears, has entered the mindsets of Republican voters and the Bush Administration and is firmly with a conservative, puritan and imperial America.

For a European rationale, this religious move is a contradiction of this greatest project of the West — "Enlightenment" — which up until now united Europe and America more than all conflicts could possibly divide.

The possibility that America today might be on the verge of surrendering its secular society and the division of religious faith and government — as well as the secular belief in the right and duty to question and criticize all authority, including religious ones — is increasingly becoming a reality.

Let me end on a personal note. All of this is not only irritating to me, but downright frightening. If the Atlantic divide should not be temporal, but permanent — not a gap but a yawning canyon — then this would mean a lasting schism of the West, a split into two alternative pathways.

On the one side, there is America and her religious belief in being the chosen nation, not subject to any order except His order. And there is Europe and her painfully acquired awareness that freedom can only be secured in mutuality, respect, diversity — and reason. For the rest of the world, and the pressing problems it faces, this must be even more frightening.