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Toward a More Independent Europe?

Are Washington's errors of judgment doing lasting damage to the pursuit of common Western interests?

April 30, 2007

Are Washington's errors of judgment doing lasting damage to the pursuit of common Western interests?

Popular opinion not just across the Middle East, but also in Europe overwhelmingly rejects the U.S. policies on Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and in the Holy Land — not to speak of continued outrage at the practice of torture and rendition. Sadly, but unavoidably, visceral anti-Bushism has given way to a conviction that the United States of America is now as much the problem as the solution.

Yet, the voice of Europe’s government leaders is meek in its criticisms — and they are too ready to accede to the administration's terms for a return to the conciliatory exchanges the Europeans apparently so deeply crave.

The insults and disrespect that marked the split over the 2003 Iraq invasion evoked anxiety across the Atlantic, mainly because it initially threatened to leave the West Europeans on their own in a world controlled by a supremely self-confident — and maverick — America.

What lies behind Europe’s timid apprehensiveness? We are, after all, 60 years from World War II, 17 years after victory in the Cold War and unification of the continent — and more than half a century into the historic enterprise of European community-building.

Europe is rich, stable, at peace — and unnaturally dependent on the United States. That dependency is not just structural and military. It is above all psychological. It has all the earmarks of a classic dominant-subordinate relationship. America acts — and Europe reacts.

That pattern is rooted in differential levels of confidence and optimism more than in tangible capabilities. Experience mixes with national personality to determine what that level is.

Americans are “pro-active” and optimistic by philosophy and temperament. Position accommodates the propensity. Habit institutionalizes it. Automatic deference from allied leaders reinforces it.

Action begets action for alpha types. Europe is composed of alphas resigned to being second-in-command (Britain), frustrated alphas (France) — and a slew of betas.

Some of the latter are so by nature, others by virtue of the shock therapy dispensed in big doses during the 20th century. The orientation of all is perpetuated to a considerable degree by an overweening United States, whose looming presence these days intimidates as much as it reassures.

The extent of European estrangement from U.S. actions and attitudes toward the world's trouble spots is masked by two things. First, the confected displays of unity prompted by George Bush's recent charm offensive — and second, the Europeans’ dread of doing anything that might provoke Washington.

On the surface, supposedly sobered U.S. officials meet with their supposedly forward-looking counterparts to acclaim their renewed brotherhood. Daniel Fried, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, waves off mention of clashes on Iraq with the cute phrase: “so 2003.”

Their new mantra is discourse rather than dispute, reflection rather than passion, cooperation rather than crossing of swords. Commentators nod approvingly. A page has been turned, dedication to common good works is proclaimed — with nary a scowl or petulant lip in sight.

Too good to be true? Alas, yes. As a result, virtual reality is eclipsing actual reality in transatlantic relations,with form counting more heavily than substance. The hallmarks of American public life skipping across the Atlantic.

For sure, there is a convergence of thinking on identifying core problems and on objectives. But what does it amount to? Some things are obvious. When it comes down to concrete decisions and policies, unilateralism — American unilateralism — remains the modus operandi.

Moreover, the United States has no grand strategy tying issues together. The linkages are barely recognized or badly distorted. Improvisation is more and more the name of the game.

If Washington lacks a strategy, ipso facto Europe lacks a strategy. That is not only due to Europe's divisions and weak coordinating mechanisms. Without an American lead either to follow or to play off, European leaders and political elites lack the confidence and conviction to design a strategy.

They will get no encouragement from the United States, where senior Bush Administration policymakers show no real interest in sitting down with their partners to compose their views in sustained and concerted diplomacy. Witness global warming. Witness missle defense.

Contrary to protestations, NATO still is not a forum for the Western democracies to iron out differences in order to take on joint projects. It is seen by Washington in strictly instrumental terms. Its value as the formal expression of Euro-American comity is implicitly disparaged.

As it stands, NATO is a toolkit to be used — as, and when, the United States so chooses. The metaphor is that of a Swiss army knife — multi-functional, passive, ever-ready and, in the improved model, constantly honing its implements for possible activation.

The much trumpeted transatlantic concord conceals basic disagreements. These serious, not easily reconciled views are evident on every one of the high agenda items.

The inhibition of governments in Europe to air the issues testifies to distressing realities: Many European leaders do not believe that Washington has mended its maverick ways — and therefore it is dangerous to do or say anything that could provoke the prickly Americans.

The United States thereby continues to denature Europe by its intimidating presence. And Europe lets that happen still all too willingly, to the detriment of both sides— and to the detriment of a real partnership. What a curious — and twisted — world we live in.

How much of a change in attitude can we expect from official Washington in the light of George Bush's plummeting political fortunes along with widespread reversion from the imperial mindset that set in motion the Iraq misadventure?

What difference would another administration make?Less than might appear. It is true that Americans have had their fill of “Wilsonianism in boots” — for the time being.

We cannot be sure, though, that the newfound modesty and moderation will endure or shape how a future president addresses other international problems, even if we leave aside the real possibility that this president will launch further military ventures.

Let us remember that the inoculation against dubious interventions administered in Vietnam did not last. Moreover, the continuing fear of jihadist Islamic terrorism remains deep-seated. Any return to normalcy will be neither quick nor easy. What was normalcy in transatlantic relations?

It never has been routine for the United States to confer with its European allies on anything like terms of equality. Washington has been accustomed to define the issues, propose a course of action and — in the end — get its way, a few exceptions like the natural gas pipeline dispute of the early 1980s notwithstanding.

The next president, admittedly, will be less unilateralist and more calculating as to the advantages of bringing allies along with him. He still will face a set of pressing issues — Palestine, Iran, most certainly Iraq in one dire strait or other.

Each will engage major American interests. Each will have a strong domestic resonance. Each will require some kind of decisive action. Each will incline an administration to keep its own counsel and to rely on its own judgment. The odds will be stacked in favor of unilateralism, albeit of a modified sort.

One need only monitor the discourse within the American foreign policy community to appreciate how natural it is for Americans to place themselves in the position of command — figuratively and literally. The dialogue is punctuated with 'we musts,' and 'they shoulds.' The 'they' is everyone from allies to enemies to all those implicated in the matter at hand.

The matters the United States should take in hand are conceived very broadly. Despite Iraq, the assumption that Americans know best/act best is very much alive