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Transatlantic Relations — The Day After

Have transatlantic relations only worsened over Iraq — or is the schism much deeper?

August 14, 2003

Have transatlantic relations only worsened over Iraq — or is the schism much deeper?

Just imagine walking through an early summer night. The air is pleasantly warm and fresh, and the birds are still singing.

It is already dark, so you can't really see much except for the shadowed outlines of the landscape.

But you can feel the peace around you while walking in a most relaxed mood, enjoying the warm night after a long, cold winter. Out of the blue — as it sometimes happens in nights like this — lightning strikes.

For a second, you can see the seemingly peaceful landscape as it really is: Dangerous pitfalls ahead, deep slopes all around — and rocks blocking your way. And then, you realize that even those paths that you know so well are suddenly full of thorny weeds.

Dreams about the "summer night" landscape of international relations were struck down by the lightning of 9/11. The Cold War is over, but the post-Cold War world is still far from having established a new and reliable order. Risks have not diminished.

Instead, they have grown and changed in nature. New challenges still await satisfying answers. And many of those who have dedicated their careers to transatlantic relations find themselves with scratches and bruises on their hands and faces.

What has happened to transatlantic relations? Where are we today — and where will we go from here?

Europeans will have to realize that American strategists and pundits are asking different and more challenging questions than just how to best bring back transatlantic relations to what we all think they should be.

What are these questions? And what are the possible future prospects for transatlantic relations?

A closer look at the real picture leads us to a very simple view: The United States and major European countries are having more and more disagreements over common threats — and, above all, over the necessary strategies to deal with them.

The consequences are obvious, but also unpleasant:

1. The present crisis in transatlantic relations will not simply blow over as the dust over the Iraq crisis settles.

2. The European states no longer will be obedient followers. Thus, tensions and competition in transatlantic relations are likely to grow.

3. The United States is strong in military terms, but in major aspects of international relations it is more dependent than ever on its allies — mainly from Europe — and on their respective "soft power" skills.

4. Europe is much stronger,more influential and potentially more successful than many present commentators acknowledge.

Political scientists have spent a lot of energy over the last decades developing theories of international relations. At a time when international cooperation seems in such short supply one theory appears particularly useful: Regime theory. It analyzes the motives, preconditions and effects of functioning international cooperation.

Regime theory informs us that we have to look at four different levels in transatlantic relations: Values, norms, principles and procedures.

Applying this approach to the present state of transatlantic relations leads to a stark finding. On the highest level of abstraction, common values are easy to find, such as democracy, liberty, human rights and free trade.

We do accept that we share many of the same values: The Wilsonian triad of democracy, liberty and market economy. But also the rule of law, democratic self-determination and human rights as individual, rather than collective, rights.

But even on this most general level of cooperation there are signs of disagreement when it comes to basic assessments of change versus stability.

A major difference between the United States and Europe seems to be that, for the United States, solving problems is much more important — while the Europeans pay more attention to due process, such as procedural legitimacy given by the United Nations.

Things get worse when we move down to the more pragmatic levels of cooperation. Do we still agree on such norms as sovereignty — or alliances?

The debate on the war in Iraq clearly underlined the fundamentally different approaches of the United States and Europe.

One more level down — principles. Do we still agree on accepting (majority) decisions in the United Nations? We obviously do not. This principle is obviously in jeopardy.

Finally, let's assess the procedural level. There, it becomes clear that the rift in transatlantic relations is much deeper than many thought possible. We do not even agree on how best to fight terrorism.

As a result, from the perspective of regime theory, one has to argue that there is no way simply to rebuild relations as they were.

In fact, for true "shock and awe," it is worth noting that there are those who argue that — based on values, norms, principles and procedures — present-day Europe has more in common with democracies outside the transatlantic context than within the United States.

There is no way of simply rebuilding or repairing transatlantic relations with a top-down approach. There is also no way to repair them by pointing to common values and experiences.

The only alternative, it appears, is that we not only agree to disagree — but, above all, that we start reinventing transatlantic relations based on a bottom-up strategy of mutual collaboration.

Europe is stronger than many American neo-conservatives think. Europe excels where America is weak. Just think of items such as nation-building, management of transitions, peacekeeping, monitoring and giving legitimacy to multilateral actions.

The United States will need to tap into this European strength in order to transform easily won military victories into lasting successes.

There is no need to be pessimistic: Transatlantic relations will be different — but not necessarily less important or less efficient in the future.