Op-Ed

Kerry Offers Chance of a Transatlantic Thaw

Dominique Moisi and Philip H. Gordon

As the Democratic convention gets under way in Boston, the Kerry-Edwards ticket appears to be gaining momentum. In Europe, there is growing speculation about whether a Democratic administration could help revitalise the transatlantic relationship.

Europeans should be careful to avoid unrealistic expectations. Structural changes such as the growth in US military and economic power and the need to confront terrorism will produce unilateralist tendencies in any US administration. Equally, Americans should not indulge in the illusion that Paris and Berlin, overjoyed by a Bush defeat, would immediately send troops to Iraq.

Still, the opportunity for a fresh start under John Kerry would be significant. When it comes to US elections, European governments traditionally prefer continuity over change. But after four years of transatlantic acrimony, it is fair to say that the majority of European governments and public opinion—not only in “Old Europe”—would welcome a change. How, then, could hopes for a better transatlantic relationship become reality? There are five steps each side could take within six months of a Kerry inauguration.

The first is to change the tone and style of the White House team. Unlike the incumbent team, a new administration should acknowledge that it needs partners to achieve its goals. Punishing potential allies for what were legitimate differences over Iraq has been deeply counter-productive.

Second, a new administration should be willing to trade control over Iraq for legitimacy, even if that means the US is sometimes overruled. Washington should accept it will neither win new allies nor shed its image as an occupier as long as it tries to retain power over key decisions about Iraq—including government contracts.

Third, a Kerry administration should devote more political capital to the Arab-Israeli peace process. The assumption that the road to peace in Jerusalem would pass through Baghdad proved wrong. The Israel-Palestine tragedy is more important—both to the region and to transatlantic relations—than the Bush administration has acknowledged. The White House could demonstrate more commitment by greater involvement in peace negotiations and by appointing former president Bill Clinton as special presidential envoy to the Middle East.

Fourth, Mr Kerry must try to restore America’s moral authority. From punishing those responsible for abuses at Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq to resolving the legal status of Guantanamo prisoners, there is much a new administration could do. Mr Kerry should make clear that America supports those Muslims who aspire to more open societies.

Finally, Washington should reconsider its attitude to multilateral treaties. Even if the new US senate will not ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change or the International Criminal Court treaty, a new administration could restore America’s image as a responsible member of the world community. A new initiative on climate change, a resubmission of the comprehensive nuclear test-ban treaty for ratification and an agreement to co-operate with the ICC would be welcome departures from the current insistence that the US play by different rules.

What must Europe do? First, Europeans need to change their own tone and style. If Mr Kerry wins the election, they must make clear it was specific objections to recent US policies, and not anti-Americanism in general, that drove their foreign policies.

Second, Europeans should make concrete gestures to help rebuild Iraq. Given the security risks and resource shortages, significant troop commitments are unlikely. But Europeans could provide additional debt relief, train and equip Iraqi security forces, give aid and advice in areas such as healthcare and the judiciary. They should also be aware that if Mr Kerry cannot show that a new approach gains concrete allied support, the domestic US backlash could be severe.

Third, Europeans need to show how seriously they take the threat of weapons proliferation by holding Iran to the nuclear commitments it made last year. Iran is testing the Europeans to see how much it can get away with. As Iran’s largest trading partner, the European Union has significant leverage with Tehran, but only if Europeans have the will to use it. If they do not, a US-Europe split on this issue even under Mr Kerry is likely.

Fourth, the EU should assist a unilateral withdrawal by Israel from Gaza which, like it or not, is the only way forward for any peace process. In exchange for a say in the wake of any settlement, the EU should be prepared to play a key financial and security role.

Finally, Europeans need to fulfill commitments to develop their military capabilities. If the EU had the military forces to contribute more to security in places such as Afghanistan, it would be taken more seriously in Washington.

Perhaps Mr Bush will manage to win the election after all. But if he does not, a Kerry administration must be ready to reach out to Europe—and Europeans must be ready to respond. Otherwise, we will see another four years of transatlantic resentment and acrimony, with all the missed opportunities for productive co-operation that implies.

More