Bridging the Atlantic Divide

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

January 1, 2003


In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans and Europeans surprised each other in positive ways. George W. Bush, who had faced vast protests during his first visit to Europe earlier that summer and who was widely regarded there as an ill-informed cowboy, confounded Europeans’ expectations with his patient, careful, and proportionate action in Afghanistan. In turn, Europeans also broke with stereotypes, strongly supporting military action not only against al Qaeda’s network but also against its Taliban hosts. European leaders pronounced their “unlimited solidarity” with the United States, and in a matter of hours NATO allies invoked the Article V mutual defense clause of the North Atlantic Treaty. In a twist that few could have predicted before September 11, within a month of the terrorist attacks the United States was conducting a major war halfway around the world, and the biggest problem for its European allies was that they wanted to send more troops than Washington was prepared to accept.

Since then, however, relations between the transatlantic allies have sharply deteriorated. Europeans now regularly accuse the United States of a simplistic approach to foreign policy that reduces everything to the military aspects of the war on terrorism. Americans respond with resentment over Europe’s unwillingness to support U.S. efforts to deal with hostile states such as Iraq. In the Middle East, the recent cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians has prompted Europeans to accuse Washington of unconditional support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Americans to accuse Europeans of going soft on terrorism, or even of antisemitism. Deep disagreements about U.S. unwillingness to accept binding constraints on its sovereignty within multilateral institutions—as evidenced by U.S. rejection of the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the global ban on land mines, verification measures for the Biological Weapons Convention, and other multilateral initiatives—have also been highly corrosive.

U.S.-European differences on matters of policy and global strategy or governance are certainly nothing new. What is striking today, however, is that some serious observers are starting to conclude that the fundamental cultural and structural basis for a transatlantic alliance is eroding. Author Francis Fukuyama, who 13 years ago was declaring the triumph of common Euro-American values and institutions to be the “end of history,” now speaks of the “deep differences” within the Euro-Atlantic community and asserts that the current U.S.-European rift is “not just a transitory problem.” Jeffrey Gedmin, director of the Aspen Institute Berlin—once a bastion of Atlanticism—talks about Europe’s “pathology” regarding the use of force and argues that U.S. and European views of security are now so different that “the old Alliance holds little promise of figuring prominently in U.S. global strategic thinking.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer has not been alone in asserting that NATO—once the centerpiece of the transatlantic alliance—is “dead.”