One of the most striking examples of the potential for new trans-Atlantic solidarity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was the publication by the French newspaper Le Monde, not known to be reflexively pro-American, of an editorial entitled “We are all Americans.” The degree to which that solidarity has now dissipated was illustrated by a rather different headline in that same newspaper five months later: “Has the United States gone crazy?”
For several months, Americans and Europeans surprised each other. President George W. Bush, regarded by many Europeans as an ill-informed cowboy, did not shoot from the hip as feared. Instead he was patient, careful and focused. There was applause, if sometimes grudging, across Europe.
Europeans also broke with stereotypes. Seen by many Americans, and in particular by most of the Bush administration, as weak-kneed and military-averse, they strongly supported the military campaign not only against the Qaeda network but also against the Taliban. In a twist that few could have predicted before Sept. 11, America was conducting a major war halfway around the world and the biggest problem for the European allies was that they wanted to send more troops than Washington was prepared to use.
All this goodwill is now quickly dissipating, and the anti-terrorist campaign that could have been a source of consolidation of the trans-Atlantic alliance around common values and interests is instead becoming a source of deep divisions.
After several months of pleasant surprises, Americans and Europeans are now confirming each other’s fears, and in the process pushing the other side toward its own worst tendencies.
America is starting to look like the unilateralist hyperpower that acts alone and sees only military solutions to the world’s problems. Europe advocates political solutions to international crises but fails to overcome its own internal divisions in foreign policy and ignores hard security issues. Tensions over the war on terrorism were arising even before Bush’s State of the Union address denouncing the “axis of evil”—over the detainees at Guantánamo and Europe’s exclusion from Operation Enduring Freedom, for example. But the speech was the spark that set off the trans-Atlantic explosion.
By focusing on military issues like the need for a missile shield and large increases in defense spending, speaking in religious terms of good and evil and implying a readiness to use military force to attack Iraq, and maybe Iran and North Korea as well, Bush confirmed Europe’s fears. He had little to say about the sources of terrorism, showed no willingness to address diplomatic issues like the Israel-Palestine dispute, and implied that the United States alone would decide when and how to take on dangerous regimes.
Europeans also noted that while countries like Pakistan were singled out for praise for cracking down on terror, European allies who had shown total solidarity with the United States and were leading the Afghanistan security force did not merit mention.
One key drawback of the re-emergence of American unilateralist and military instincts is that it provides a pretext for Europeans to ignore the very real problem – the potential nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction – that the Americans are worried about. The more the Europeans concentrate on U.S. attitudes and statements, the more they avoid seriously assessing the threat.
The widely cited comment by Hubert Védrine, the French foreign minister, that the American approach was “simplistic” had the merit of being true, but it did not offer much of an alternative for dealing with the problems posed by Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
By allowing their critics to portray them as militaristic unilateralists, the Americans waste an opportunity to generate a real trans-Atlantic dialogue about how to deal with common threats such as the prospect of a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein.
And the more Europeans reject the notion that some international problems do have to be dealt with by force, the more they reinforce the conclusion that consultation is a waste of time and America must go it alone. These latest trends in trans-Atlantic relations are dangerous. If the United States takes the view that it alone should determine the future course of the war against terrorism, and that such a war must be fought almost uniquely with military power, it is likely to find itself very much isolated in the world, engaged in a long-term struggle that cannot be won without allies.
If the Europeans refuse to accept that the war on terrorism does sometimes require military power and isolation of dangerous regimes, they will only push the United States to act without them and to resent the lack of allied support.
American and European leaders are scheduled to meet in Prague in November at a NATO summit conference that is supposed to focus on expansion. If they are not careful, there will no longer be an alliance to expand. The time may be right to call a special summit between Bush and his key European partners. The objective would be to recommit to the joint defense of common interests and settle on a strategy that deals with both the sources and the manifestations of terrorism.