A European Front

Jeremy Shapiro and Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

June 20, 2004

President Bush will travel to Istanbul, Turkey, next week to attend NATO’s first summit in almost two years. The meeting will cap what has arguably been the most intense month of summitry in the alliance’s history, including the D-day anniversary celebrations in Normandy, the G-8 gathering in Sea Island, Ga., and the U.S.-European Union Summit to be held outside Dublin on Saturday.

In normal times, summits provide a tremendous opportunity—particularly in an election year—for a U.S. president to showcase his role as the leader of the world’s democracies. Such meetings also are rare opportunities for European leaders to demonstrate continued faith in an alliance that has long underpinned their security and prosperity. But these are not normal times, and the alliance is not what it used to be.

The traditional pomp and circumstance of summits—the photo ops of leaders strolling on Sea Island’s beaches and saluting the fallen in Normandy’s cemeteries—remain. But lurking beneath the superficial friendliness and diplomatic niceties, real differences on critical issues remain essentially unaddressed.

It is not that nothing has been or will be achieved. The expressions of gratitude for past American sacrifices, expressed at the D-day ceremonies, were genuine and heartfelt. At the G-8 summit, leaders agreed to a modest initiative to promote political reform in the “broader Middle East” and endorsed a U.N. Security Council resolution, passed unanimously just a few days before, backing the American plan to transfer sovereignty to a new government in Iraq. And at the NATO summit, the allies will probably make new commitments to support the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.

On the whole, however, the month of summits will be remembered more for what it failed to achieve. Most Europeans are still unwilling to provide any tangible new help in Iraq. Bush is now so unpopular with the European public that European leaders—even those such as Britain’s Tony Blair who have supported the president on Iraq—fear doing anything that would further tie their political futures to his. And while European leaders such as French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder are careful not to appear to be meddling in the U.S. election campaign, European officials privately acknowledge their governments’ reluctance to help Bush rebut Sen. John Kerry’s charge that Bush’s policies have isolated the United States.

The Europeans have not adopted a position of obstructionism—they did not stand in the way of the U.N. resolution on Iraq, for example—but they have refused to provide the things the president wanted most: additional money and more troops for Iraq.

As a result, the month of summits has a sort of “Waiting for Godot” quality about it—European leaders biding time, neither creating a crisis nor mending fences, in the hope that the American election in November will somehow save them from the choice between having to deal with Bush and letting Iraq, and the Atlantic Alliance, slide into disarray.

Downward slide

How did things get this bad? As recently as a few months ago, there still appeared to be a reasonable chance that Iraq would prove to be just the latest in a long line of serious trans-Atlantic disputes and that this month’s summits would be used by both sides to turn the corner.

Faced with obvious difficulties in Iraq, the Bush administration was becoming less arrogant. By the spring of 2004, Bush was willing to give the United Nations a more prominent role, transfer more complete powers to a newly sovereign Iraqi government and moderate American military tactics to avoid civilian casualties—all policies called for by the Europeans.

Those changes made it possible to imagine Europe accepting American overtures for help, even from the Bush administration, because European leaders were acutely aware that instability and chaos in Iraq would be catastrophic for their countries as well as for the United States.

The hope was that, to avoid such a calamity, all Europeans, including the French and Germans, would agree to support a NATO role in Iraq, fulfill pledges to relieve Iraqi debt, offer reconstruction aid, and possibly even agree to provide more troops after the hand-over of sovereignty.

Now, that scenario appears highly unlikely. The rise of violence in Iraq, the Abu Ghurayb prisoner-abuse scandal, and Bush’s warm endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial plan to pull out of Gaza, have all combined to make Bush so radioactive that European leaders fear making common cause with him. They know their own political futures are at stake.

No European leader wants to suffer the fate of former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who was rejected by voters in March, in part because of his close association with Bush and the United States.

Reduced expectations

Given that inauspicious backdrop, the goal of the NATO summit is no longer to get more European troops for Iraq, as the United States initially hoped, or even to define an explicit NATO role; Turkey, France and Germany have already made it clear they do not support either. They argue that their military contributions would make little difference on the ground, that a NATO failure in Iraq could damage the organization and that NATO would be no more welcome in Iraq than the United States currently is. They sometimes implausibly add that NATO troops need to be saved for other contingencies, such as a potential Arab-Israeli peace deal.

But the most compelling explanation for the opposition is that key European leaders are simply unwilling to support what they believe is a failed American policy, and unwilling to make peace with an administration they believe has ignored their interests and made the world less safe. Now the main goal of the NATO meeting is to avoid a public disagreement and prevent further attrition of European support.

Whether a Kerry victory in November would give the alliance a new lease on life is another matter. The U.S.-European split does not begin or end with Bush.

Ever since the end of the Cold War removed the common enemy, American and European strategic perspectives have diverged. During the 1990s, Europeans turned increasingly inward, focusing on the historic and difficult efforts to create a common currency and to complete the political integration of Europe. Accustomed to interdependence and acutely aware of the limits of their power, they sought to develop a rules-based international order built upon multilateral agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Americans, by contrast, confident in their power, began to focus on new types of threats, particularly weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and “rogue states.” An increasingly powerful United States—particularly the Republican-held Congress—chafed under the constraints of international treaties and institutions and sought to use the unilateral moment to fashion a new world order.

Bush’s arrival added considerably to the already growing tensions. Key members of the new Bush team had harshly criticized the Clinton administration for being excessively deferential to allies—fighting a “war by committee” in Kosovo, for example—and for its willingness to accept international constraints on America’s power. Bush quickly abandoned several treaties dear to the Europeans and made clear that the United States would henceforth demonstrate a much more assertive style of leadership.

But it was the American reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—and in particular the decision to invade Iraq—that turned gradually growing differences with Europe into a crisis of historic proportions. Americans’ new sense of vulnerability led most of them to accept the administration’s argument that their country was “at war” and that “regime change” in Iraq was necessary. The power and optimism of the United States encouraged most Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein’s overthrow—and Iraqi democracy—were possible.

European governments did not deny that Iraq was a problem, but they disagreed about the solution. Accustomed to both vulnerability and terrorism, lacking the military power even to contemplate large-scale invasions, and convinced from their own historical and colonial experiences that stabilizing and democratizing Iraq would be nearly impossible, most Europeans believed the risks of an invasion outweighed the benefits.

These broad differences in perspective were exacerbated by reckless diplomacy on both sides that seemed to place a much higher priority on “winning” the debate over Iraq than on maintaining the alliance.

November results

Such deep U.S.-European tensions will not evaporate simply because of one election in the United States or, or for that matter, in Europe. A change of administration in Washington would, however, remove four years’ worth of acrimony and resentment that has accumulated under Bush. A Kerry team would also probably place a higher premium on allied cooperation, show more respect for allies and work harder to win their support.

A Bush victory would not be well received in Europe, particularly among European publics that would have trouble understanding how an administration they view as having deceived the public and failed in Iraq could be re-elected.

There is a genuine risk that the current “anti-Bushism” in Europe might convert into a more lasting anti-Americanism. At best, a second Bush administration would help break today’s current deadlock because Europe’s leaders would then know they had no choice but to deal with the president whether they like him or not.

Ultimately, the rift in the trans-Atlantic alliance cannot even begin to heal until the United States and its key allies develop a common approach to the issue that has most divided them: Iraq. Despite differences over the war itself, Washington, Paris, Berlin and London do all now have a common interest: They want to foster a stable, democratic, self-governing Iraq. This month’s summits would have been the perfect place to start working together on that goal, and to start mending relations within the alliance. Apparently, that will have have to wait at least until November’s presidential election.