European Affairs

EU-U.S. Differences Have Evolved Over Half a Century     Print Email
Brian M. Carney

Business Editor, Wall Street Journal Europe

President George Bush's recent trip to Europe gave Europeans a closer look at some of the differences of substance and style that have bedeviled Transatlantic relations since Mr. Bush took office.

Europeans now know that Mr. Bush likes Texas and his ranch and cowboy hats. He also likes to play the country bumpkin, to say things like "Jacques tells me that the food in France is real good" and so on.

Such foibles, as well as his testy response to an American questioner who spoke a few words of French at a Paris news conference, grated against the nerves of some Europeans, who considered them boorish and unsophisticated. But to others in Europe, Mr. Bush's folksy mannerisms have a more sinister side.

For them, Mr. Bush's notorious description of Iran, Iraq and

North Korea as an "axis of evil," a phrase that prompted France's former foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, to describe U.S. foreign policy as "simplistic," is dangerous as well as ignorant. When country bumpkins start threatening to launch wars around the world, the charm can wear off fast.

Mr. Védrine is, to be sure, an extreme case. And with President Jacques Chirac's new center-right government now firmly installed in Paris, there will be less name-calling by the French from now on. Nevertheless, most European politicians followed Mr. Védrine's lead in criticizing the "axis of evil" as dangerously absolutist.

To some Europeans, Mr. Bush's moral certitude seems reminiscent of European dictators of the past; to the Bush administration, Europe's squeamishness brings to mind Anglo-French appeasement of Nazi Germany before World War II.

At least some of this difference emerges from the reality of power politics. If Europeans are reluctant to wage all-out war on international terror, it is because they are largely incapable of doing what America did, for example, to defeat the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

To many Europeans, the display of U.S. military might half way around the world at three weeks' notice was astonishing, although, at the time, many more predicted quagmire and disaster than swift victory. To Europe's policy makers, however, America's tour de force was alarming. They realized that, put in the same position, they would have had to either rely on the United States to do the dirty work, or resign themselves to inaction or diplomacy.

The United States accounts for the lion's share of world defense spending; European governments, individually and together, spend far less on their militaries. This helps them fund their lavish welfare states, of course, but the real reasons for Europe's startling and unprecedented unilateral disarmament over the last half century run deeper.

After World War II, the six founding members of the European Union decided, as a first step, to pool their coal and steel - the key ingredients of contemporary warfare - under a common authority. European political and economic integration was based on the idealistic vision that violent struggle was at its heart futile and that cooperation and engagement were the only way forward.

"Europe" itself is thus a kind of pacifist movement, which is why attempts to muster a European army never seem to get off the ground. But it is also the most important reason European countries have been winding down their militaries for years. The European project has succeeded so well in ending centuries of con§ict on the Continent that many Europeans have a hard time believing in war at all.

America, on the other hand, was a victor in both World Wars. In the century before that, it ended slavery at home with the help of a war, and the century before that fought its way to freedom from colonial rule. The idea of American military efficacy is a founding myth every bit as powerful as the resignation from warfare that lies at the heart of the European project.

The philosophical difference that divides Europe, or at least continental Europe, and the United States has surfaced before. Today's European emphasis on engagement rather than confrontation in the Middle East echoes earlier disagreements, such as the argument over deployment of American Cruise and Pershing 2 missiles in Europe, in response to the Soviet Union's deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces, in the 1980s.

Then, as now, many Europeans, particularly on the Left, felt that provoking the enemy would lead to an undesirable escalation of the con§ict. In protests that put the recent anti-Bush marches to shame, hundreds of thousands turned out in the year Ronald Reagan became President to protest NATO's response to the Warsaw Pact.

Just as with Mr. Bush's "axis of evil," Mr. Reagan's description of the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" was initially viewed by many Europeans as dangerous warmongering. "Sophisticated" Europeans could not believe that a B-movie actor who became famous "playing straight man to a monkey" was provoking America's rival superpower in such seemingly apocalyptic terms.

Twenty years ago, the fear was that Mr. Reagan would prompt a nuclear exchange in Europe. Today, the European fear is that ongoing U.S.-led military activity and failure to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian con§ict may radicalize an already tense Muslim world.

Mr. Bush seems to be far more aware than most Europeans that Mr. Reagan's "evil empire" diplomacy actually worked - that it helped to bring down the Soviet Union and give hope to the millions still under communist domination. Mr. Bush is looking for a repeat performance in the war on terrorism.

But the parallels with 20 years ago are not exact. In the 1980s, the protests against American Cruise missiles came mainly from leftist and pacifist groups. European governments, even those to the left of center, finally steeled themselves to take the decision to deploy despite the vociferous opposition.

This time, the opposition to Mr. Bush has come from European governments as well as from the usual left-wing suspects. When Mr. Bush came to power, most European governments were led by center-left parties. Following a spate of recent elections, center-right parties are now moving to the forefront. Will this rightward shift by European governments, and voters, lead to greater sympathy in Europe for Mr. Bush's policies, as many suspect?

Probably not as much as pro-American forces in Europe might hope. As noted, the Transatlantic rift is at least as much a philosophical as a political problem. Thus many expected a chilling of U.S.-UK relations when former President Bill Clinton, an old-time "Third Way" type like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was replaced by Mr. Bush.

But, if anything, the opposite has been true. Mr. Blair has led his Labour Party far enough to the right to feel perfectly comfortable cozying up to the new conservative administration in Washington, and has remained one of the staunchest voices of support for Mr. Bush in Europe.

In France, we can expect a change in tone now that Mr. Védrine and his Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, the former Socialist leader, are out of the limelight. But really little else; the "right" in France is as much nationalist as classically liberal, and standing up for French prerogatives will only become more important now that Mr. Chirac has the reins of power to himself.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has done yeoman's work keeping a reluctant coalition behind the war on terror, despite his tendency to attack America's supposedly unbridled capitalism. Edmund Stoiber, the conservative challenger to Mr. Schroeder in September's elections, may change the terms of the economic debate if he wins, but on the foreign-policy front it is hard to imagine him going much further than Mr. Schroeder has to support the United States - although Mr. Schroeder has recently been sharply distancing himself from Washington on Iraq.

The change in attitude is the most marked in Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has always touted himself as enthusiastically pro-American. But Italy still punches below its weight in European politics, partly owing to a long history of democratic instability.

But even allowing for some drift in America's direction as a result of recent changes in government, the composition of the European Commission in Brussels has not yet been affected by the electoral gains of the right.

So changes of government are unlikely to do much to resolve the other main area of U.S.-EU contention - a rash of unusually serious trade disputes. These con§icts re§ect not just the vagaries of day-to-day politics, but fundamental clashes of economic and commercial interests as the European Union becomes an economic superpower.

The 15 member European Union constitutes an economic area nearly four-fifths the size of the U.S. economy, and the European Union's total gross domestic product is almost twice as big as that of Japan, the second largest national economy in the world after the United States.

On trade, Europe is a genuine peer of the United States. And, partly owing to the in§uence of an increasingly assertive trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, the European Union is becoming bolder in challenging the United States on its own turf.

Take Mr. Lamy's carefully chosen targets for retaliation in the dispute over Mr. Bush's steel tariffs. Judging that the Bush administration had made its decision for domestic political reasons, Mr. Lamy responded in kind, with a list of retaliation targets designed not so much to hurt the industries the tariffs were supposed to help as to hit states where Mr. Bush seemed most electorally vulnerable.

Mr. Lamy calculated that international pressure would avail him nothing if Mr. Bush had decided to help marginal constituents. He needed to apply domestic pressure instead. So he set about supporting those in the United States opposed to the tariffs, on the grounds that Mr. Bush's steel protectionism was hurting other industries, and consumers, more than it was helping steelworkers.

Of course, this threat has not driven Mr. Bush to roll back the tariffs completely, but it does show that, at least in trade disputes, the United States and Europe are equally armed, and equally prepared to use the weapons at their disposal to advance their own interests. Such European capability does not, of course, extend to the military sphere, where rapidly growing U.S. superiority is matched by a proportionate decline in European political in§uence.

If the European Union, for instance, does not want the United States to invade Iraq, it can withhold support or, as France did during the 1986 bombing of Libya, deny the U.S. Air Force over-§ight rights. But in the end it can and will do nothing to stop the United States once a decision has been made. What is more, both sides recognize this. And the imbalance is not going to go away in the foreseeable future.

Nor is Europe's preference for multilateral, negotiated solutions to con§icts, whether military or commercial. The European Union's attachment to the "internationalization" of dispute resolution is a natural extension of the pacifist ideal to which it owes its founding.

Thus the International Criminal Court, which is so vehemently opposed in Washington, seems like a no-brainer in Europe. To American critics, however, the push by Europe for international solutions looks more like a bid to assert a veto over U.S. actions that Europeans might see as unacceptably "unilateral."

The Bush administration, on the other hand, believes that, whatever progress Western Europe may have made toward con§ict avoidance, mankind has not fundamentally changed. Certain disputes can be settled only, and some objectives achieved only, by force.

Thus Mr. Bush is instinctively sympathetic to attempts by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, to bring Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority to heel, while Europe was much more comfortable with former President Bill Clinton's ultimately unsuccessful prescription of locking the combatants in a small room until they agreed to get along.

The true failure of Transatlantic communication, however, comes from the very different lessons that Europe and America have drawn from the past half century, in which the United States has advanced to become the sole superpower and Europe has finally sought the path of peace. This will not change soon, any more than the capabilities gap will narrow.

Nevertheless, both Europe and the United States are discovering limits to their ways of operating. The United States is learning that it cannot actually issue commands to either side in the Israeli-Palestinian con§ict; Europe is learning that there are certain things, such as the removal of the Taliban, that can only be accomplished through force.

The current differences should not be overstated; they are more about how to achieve objectives than the goals themselves. America's common interests with Europe (and vice versa) far outweigh any difficulties that may arise in translating shared goals into reality. As with Mr. Reagan's "evil empire" diplomacy, the ultimate arbiter will be what works. If Mr. Bush can really make the world safer from international terror, most Europeans will be among the first to applaud.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number III in the Summer of 2002.