The Atlantic Alliance

Ivo H. Daalder
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

June 24, 2001

There can be little doubt that President Bush exceeded expectations during his first major foreign-policy foray, when he visited five European countries and met with 20 European leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. But since Europe had painted Bush into quite a caricature—”a shallow, arrogant, gun-loving, abortion-hating, Christian fundamentalist Texan buffoon,” as one administration official put it—exceeding expectations proved to be the easy part.

Less successful was Bush’s effort to persuade the Europeans to accept his position on a host of issues from missile defenses to trade, from global warming to the death penalty. Stark policy differences separated the United States and Europe before Bush’s visit, and those differences remained just as stark when the trip ended last weekend.

There is little doubt that some of the tension between the longtime partners stems from the normal disruption of presidential transition, which, while a political honeymoon for most Americans, often is a nightmare for Europeans. Recall Ronald Reagan’s attempt to abandon arms-control negotiations and Bill Clinton’s fumbling over Bosnia.

But the current policy differences are more than a repeat of this pattern. They are symptomatic of a far deeper and more fundamental shift in U.S.-European relations. The reality is that the partners mean less to each other than they once did, and their interests and priorities are diverging.

To be sure, the relationship between the United States and Europe remains the most important bilateral relationship in the world, one that spanned two world wars and is built on cultural affinity, economic interdependence and a common acceptance of core political values. But increasingly, Washington’s attention is being drawn to Asia—with its economic opportunities and security threats—while Europe’s attention is focused on itself.

Will the drift in U.S.-European relations prove perilous for global security? Probably not. Europe’s fundamentals are sound, and they are unlikely to change even if the United States grows more distant. Will the cooler relationship harm us in other ways? Probably so. Many opportunities for cooperation are likely to be lost, complicating the task of dealing with such global challenges as stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arresting global warming and halting the spread of infectious diseases like AIDS.

The two sides are also less likely to defer to each other than in the past, meaning neither side can count on the support sometimes needed to stand up to other countries.

Where the changes arise

There are several reasons for the growing distance between the two sides of the Atlantic:
The unifying threat of the Soviet Union is gone. The United States has emerged over the past decade as the most powerful country in the history of the world, one that can go it alone relatively easily if it chooses. And the European Union is being transformed from what was a collection of independent nation-states into an international actor in its own right.

These fundamental structural changes have had a major impact on U.S.-European relations, leading to different foreign-policy priorities, different foreign-policy agendas and different foreign-policy styles.
These fundamental structural changes have had a major impact on U.S.-European relations, leading to different foreign-policy priorities, different foreign-policy agendas and different foreign-policy styles.

For the remainder of this decade, the No. 1 priority of every European government—of every prime minister, foreign minister, finance minister, justice minister, indeed, every minister—is Europe itself.

Over the past 10 years, European integration has accelerated significantly. In 1991, countries that had been loosely integrated before—including Britain, Germany, France and Italy—formed the European Union. They strengthened their common market in which goods, capital and labor flowed freely. They decided to build a united policy to deal with a range of regional and global problems, such as conflicts in the Balkans, and to devise an increasingly coordinated defense policy that should enable Europe to act autonomously in limited crises.

Most also committed to coordinating their economic and monetary policy, including introducing the euro, a currency that in January will replace all the marks, francs, lire and guilders now in use.

For the next several years, attention is expected to focus on making the European Union work better and on bringing in new members. And, as Bush was reminded by more than one European leader during his trip, the United States has no role to play in these efforts.

At the same time that Europe has looked inward, Washington has begun to shift its focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The United States’ primary regional focus is increasingly Asia—where the rising power of China and the proliferation of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction now challenge U.S. security interests most directly.

This shift is apparent in the Bush administration’s emerging defense policy. The push for missile defenses is driven in large part by the perceived threat from North Korea and, for many missile-defense advocates, from China as well. It has also been widely reported that the Pentagon’s much-vaunted defense review is poised to conclude that the focus of America’s defense resources and policy should shift away from Europe and concentrate squarely on Asia.

Unity in the hemisphere

In addition, the Bush administration seems to have a particular interest in consolidating democracy in the Western Hemisphere. It’s telling that the president met four times with Mexico’s leader, Vicente Fox, in less than three months, although Bush met only three European leaders in his first months in office and waited nearly half a year before heading to Europe.

The diverging regional priorities of the United States and Europe are mirrored in their different foreign-policy agendas. For Washington, the top foreign-policy priority is dealing with what many perceive is the growing U.S. vulnerability to new military and security threats—including weapons proliferation, “rogue states,” terrorists and cyberattack.

As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it recently: “The genie is out of the bottle in terms of some very bad stuff—chemical, biological, but also nuclear. People are going to have very powerful weapons. And they don’t care about safety, they don’t care about accuracy, they don’t care about reliability, they don’t care about making big volumes of these things.”

As Bush must have learned on his trip, none of these new threats resonates much in Europe. For the average European on the street, as for their leaders, the more immediate concerns are food safety and containing the spread of infectious diseases more generally. The major foreign-policy challenges are global—addressing climate change, poverty, immigration, the trafficking in women and children, and the “digital divide.”

In sum, while the United States is worried about rogue states, Europe is worried about failed states, nations whose troubles spread across borders.

It is not surprising, then, that the United States and Europe approach international engagement in very different ways. For the United States, because the primary concern is security, foreign engagement tends to stress the use of American military power. And because of its unique position of power in the world, Washington increasingly acts in ways that seem to have little regard for others—and often gets away with it.

Europe’s leaders complained loudly during Bush’s trip about this tendency of the United States to act unilaterally. Such charges are, in fact, nothing new. President Clinton was also accused of taking a unilateral route when, for instance, he did not sign the land-mine ban or submit the Kyoto treaty on global warming to the Senate for ratification.

But the complaints seem more vociferous this time around, perhaps because Clinton blamed the country’s unilateral posture on a Republican Congress, while Bush seems to have few qualms about a unilateralist course (now dressed up as forceful leadership). This approach is evident in many of the issues that are of most concern to Europeans; Bush not only rejected the Kyoto Protocol, he also called the AntiBallistic Missile Treaty a “relic” and threatened to limit steel imports.

A faith in treaties

Going it alone is not the European way. Europeans put their faith in international institutions, treaties and norms, often to the exclusion of using power as a means to achieve their desired objectives. Part of the commitment to a unified approach most likely results from a realistic assessment of power: No European country is strong enough to push an agenda despised by its neighbors. Another reason, though, is that Europeans have had good results joining together with others, as with formation of the European Union.

This clash of approaches—between a United States bent on achieving its way and a Europe devoted to negotiating and adhering to treaties—is, in fact, at the heart of the most recent disputes over global warming and missile defenses. And if Bush’s trip is any indication, the clash is likely to get worse rather than better in the months and years to come.

While devoted Atlanticists will deplore the drifting apart of the U.S.-Europe alliance, we should recognize that it is happening, in part, for a good reason. Europe today is more secure, more peaceful, more united and more democratic than it has ever been. Under these circumstances, an American presence in, and attention to, Europe is both less likely and less necessary.

The U.S.-European relationship is slowly but surely maturing. The two sides are not equal, and most likely never will be. Nor are they ever likely to become political, let alone military, competitors. Too many ties still bind the United States and Europe for anything like that to happen.

That may be a normal part of growing up. The question is, will we lose too much that is important to us in the process?