Trans-Atlantic quarrel: An indifferent Washington shrugs

Posted in Europe , NATO | 19-Jan-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium
First of two articles.

WASHINGTON - Big building, vast office. A senior Bush administration official is talking about the Europeans. "The quickest distinction between Europeans who come and sit on my couch," he says, "is between those who want to act and those who don't."

No mistake, after an exceptionally divisive year in American-European relations, the line in Washington on Europe in relation to Iraq and fighting terrorism is that for all the understanding Poles and Spaniards, Dutch and Danes, a significant part of European leadership remains disinclined to do much that's forceful about what America considers threatening to the peace.

Nuance here. The administration official thinks that the capture of Saddam Hussein, together with a great leap forward by the U.S. economy, American success in diverting Libya from nuclear arms, and signs of a return to a U.S.-Iran dialogue, are moving the recalcitrant Europeans - essentially the French and German governments, and significant slices of Continental and British public opinion that regard the United States as trampling caution and international law - toward accepting that American success in Iraq is in their interest.

With a G-8 economic summit meeting in the United States, with President George W. Bush as host, and a NATO summit meeting both programmed for the first half of an American election year, the 2004 international agenda points toward less head-butting and a greater portrayal of solidarity, at least outwardly, across the sea. Indeed, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could wind up taking over the command of troops in Iraq from the United States.

But this is hardly, as some Europeans would have hoped, the soil of a new terrain for profound administration introspection about trans-Atlantic estrangement. The idea that something awful, fateful, has happened to the community of Western nations gets next to no attention here, if only because the complaint comes essentially from a fragmented Europe. In this view, Europe, officially designated by the Bush administration as "whole, peaceful and free," has devolved into an area of marginal strategic interest for the United States.

Francis Fukuyama, the Johns Hopkins historian and author of the famous essay "The End of History," explains: "Generally, the American people just don't care, whatever the ritualistic mention of America's alienation from the rest of the world. I even doubt this gets much traction even with the base of the Democratic Party."

Rather, the administration's you're-either-with-us-or-against-us judgments in relation to Europe sustain themselves because the Bush team sees Europe as disablingly divided, without anything approaching a foreign policy consensus, and because reticence in specific European countries about supporting Washington was regarded from the start of American engagement in Afghanistan not only as a disadvantage but also as a way of circumventing the bog of interallied consultations.

In reality, the great change on the U.S. side of European-American relations since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington may be in the ready acceptance here of the neoconservative Robert Kagan's characterization of two similar cultures with markedly different views on the use of power and military force.

Many Europeans would want to caricature Kagan's views as simplistic, even though he clearly refuses to qualify Europe as a crabby has-been. All the same, the Kagan vision is largely mainstream in Washington's widest view of the world. Europe-as-ogre or rising danger to American pre-eminence - or, conversely, Europe-as-potential-returnee to an Atlanticist Garden of Eden - are convictions that appear, on the basis of a series of interviews here, to get much less palpable support.

Along this line, there is little American hesitancy now to slip around the once-sacred discourse of common Euro-American values or "a community of fate"- so much so that a collection of talks on European-American relations by a key administration figure refers, in a precisely calibrated definition, to "certain" common values.

Fukuyama talked in an interview of the Bush administration's reveling in an "in your face" attitude toward multinational institutions, and of the rise of a "nastier, contemptuous attitude" toward Europe on the part of key executives of American corporations with whom he had spoken. Europe, they told him, was "hopeless on entrepreneurship and innovation."

This, in a sense, he said, was a response to a Europe that seemed to find gratification in saying the United States was a more brutal, styleless, fundamentalist culture. But unlike the Americans, who had not run away from decades of debate on race, in Fukuyama's view, the Europeans, including the British, were now hiding from their most destabilizing contradiction - dealing with Europe's growing Muslim and Arab population and its effect on terrorism and relations with the Islamic world.

"What they basically don't like is that it's more democratic here than in Europe," Fukuyama said. "If you look at both sides' public opinion polling on the death penalty and gay marriage, there just isn't that much difference. But in Europe, it's the elites that set social standards that don't necessarily reflect mass opinion. People are more deferential to the elites in Europe. What people in Europe have no patience with is that America is a democracy that doesn't reflect its elites' desires. It will come back to bite them."

What may particularly enrage Europe about the United States in this context is that after experiences with governments relatively distant from European elites - the Carter and Reagan presidencies are examples - the Bush administration appears distinctly cut off from the traditional American East Coast elites. Their numbers traditionally peopled the U.S. foreign policy community and gave their European counterparts a whiff of familiarity and continuity.

In an interview, Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, who is much admired in Europe for his nuanced views of European realities, and was the key State Department operational player in forging German reunification, offered an elegant description of contrasts in American and European world views as he had seen them evolve:

"The post-modern European notion of international arrangements fits the European context, but doesn't apply well in the rest of the world. That means that the European idea that all problems can be resolved through compromises at all-night sessions at nice locations just doesn't work everywhere.

"This European concentration on local circumstances leads to a status quo outlook on the rest of world. And this is because Europe is preoccupied and uncomfortable with major new approaches to match very changed circumstances."

Coming from Zoellick, this appeared a refined reading of an altered relationship, one not necessarily hostile, but colder, and to be played out in the future on an à la carte basis.

Walter Andrusyszyn, who retired at the end of the year as a director at the White House's National Security Council, said that although a few members of the Bush administration thought mistakenly that it was now possible to do "everything over the Europeans' backs," European cooperation was an advantage - but in the context of acknowledging the changed realities between the old partners.

That meant, he said, that tensions will remain, whatever the United States does. "Europeans think efforts to change the world will only end in failure. The basic criticism of Europe here is that it is unwilling to promote change. We have a fundamentally different view of what doing means. If Howard Dean is president, we'll still ask Europe to do more and they won't understand what we mean."

For an acknowledgment of estrangement, this fell well short of hedging. But how much difference does it make?

At the least forgiving end of the judgmental U.S. political scale on Europe's perceived incapacities, Richard Perle - the neoconservative often portrayed in European media with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz as outranking the president, vice president and defense secretary combined - says the stakes are next to none:

"The end of the cold war liberated the United States so as to be less concerned about Europe. Before, anything that divided us was very dangerous. While we would clearly prefer a close relationship, it isn't vital.

"They're not ready to invest in the military. That's a given. They're interested in their own comfort. I don't see any coherent ambition to make a mark on the world. It's not a very impressive performance."

Against this view, there is that of a senior foreign policy adviser to Howard Dean, the front-running Democratic candidate challenging Bush. He says that the current administration does not like a strong Europe, but that Dean favors one because confident partners are needed to achieve things. This approach is described as an instrumental one, not ideological.

But the adviser described the United States' European policy in a possible Dean administration as "being in the American tradition."

"Dean's view of the French is not much different than that of most Americans. He is not an old Atlanticist in the religious sense. He isn't Madeleine Albright. I think he would be like Bill Clinton. But remember, it was during the Clinton administration that all this unilateralist stuff began in Europe" - a reference to the assertion of a former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, in 1998 that described the United States as a hyperpower whose unilateralism posed one of the world's great problems.

James Steinberg, who served under Clinton as deputy national security adviser and now directs the foreign policy studies program of the Brookings Institution, believes that the Democratic presidential candidates have much greater regard for the experience of the Europeans and are much more in touch with European motivations. If Americans don't have a deep conviction one way or the other on Europe, he said, the decline in regard for Europe is less sharp in the United States than it is in the other direction within the European Union.

"All the same," he told a visitor, "a Democratic administration is going to be much more unilateralist than the Europeans want."

Steinberg accuses the Bush administration of not supporting EU integration, preferring to deal with individual European countries than a European whole. But he hardly sees the end-goal of such integration with the eyes of those Europeans who would want the EU to function as a counterweight to the United States.

"I think more integration actually would have isolated the French and the Germans," he said, noting their effort to speak in Europe's name against the United States on Iraq. "What so angered the other Europeans is the way the French and the Germans went off on their own."

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder "doesn't give a damn about Europe," Steinberg said. And the other Europeans see the French and the Germans as "miscreants."

But even among opponents of the Bush administration's take on Europe, wanting a more respectful, more cooperative relationship does not necessarily come combined with a sense of apology or regret on what they share, if tacitly, with the administration. More than a few critics of a neoconservative view of Europe acknowledge the emergence of palpably different visions of the world, and a genuine diminution in identical values. Ivo Daalder, who served on the National Security Council under Clinton, and has written a critical new book about Bush's foreign policy, believes that "the value gap is a lot larger than we think."

"It's a serious matter involving the place of religion here and, the primacy of secularism as a value there," he said. "Most of the elite here now believes Europe is anti-Semitic. We think Europe has lost its societal moorings. They think we're backward."

What Europeans resist understanding, perhaps because they've been treated with disdain, he said, is that "the United States has the choice not to cooperate."

"Atlanticists say everything will be fine. No, in the end it may be that things are not fine. Europe has to actively work this issue. That involves offering things the U.S. wants."

What does the United States want? Action, movement, change (simplistically perhaps, as Vedrine once argued), but from the same people who America regarded even 50 years ago as not necessarily comfortable with the concept.

John Kornblum, a Clinton administration ambassador to Germany, has argued that the trans-Atlantic dynamics of the early 1950's, when Eisenhower sought to line up the Europeans to hold off Soviet Communism, are not terribly different from those today when the American view of the great global threat involves terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. He quotes the American journalist Theodore White, who wrote "Fire in the Ashes," as describing the United States as it left World War II as wanting to act, to do, to make history.

Europe, White said then, had "a bellyful of history," a "sense of powerlessness that is the incubator of all European restlessness," and "a sense of being swung about by the actions of strange men in distant places."

"Europe is stranger to American understanding than ever before in our linked histories," White wrote. "Europe wants rest, quiet and forgetfulness. But even this it cannot have in the world of today, for it is helpless to calm the world."

That was in 1953. Today, much of Washington does not disagree. Tomorrow: The view from Europe.