European Affairs

Transatlantic Clashes Are Not All Bush's Fault     Print Email

Chief U.S. Commentator, Financial Times

That the administration of President George Bush has ruptured the polite drawing-room conversation of U.S.-European diplomacy is not seriously disputed by anyone who has participated in it on either side of the Atlantic.

Periods of tension between Americans and Europeans have been somewhat frequent in the six decades since World War II. Today, however, most officials and serious commentators on both sides of the Atlantic would echo (with varying degrees of concern) the view recently expressed by a senior European diplomat in Washington that relations are "at least as bad as they have been in 20 years."

After eight years of a Clinton administration, which, for all its infuriating foreign policy vacillations and reversals, at least seemed to take seriously the notion of international cooperation, policymakers in Paris, London, Berlin and Brussels have had something of a culture shock in the last year and a half.

In its prosecution of the war on terrorism, its embrace of a missile defense shield, its blunt rejection of international treaties on global warming, arms control and war crimes, the Bush administration has earned unusual opprobrium from Europeans. It has added injury to insult with a trade policy that has put the protection of U.S. corporations and producers aggressively first.

Chris Patten, the EU External Affairs Commissioner, said in February that the United States was in "unilateralist overdrive," while Hubert Védrine, the former French Foreign Minister, spoke superciliously of Mr. Bush's "simplisme" (simplistic approach).

This, in turn, has produced another bout of soul-searching - mostly by Europeans, it should be said - about the future of the Transatlantic relationship. A common view on the Old Continent is that the United States and the European Union - if not Russia - are adrift.

But while they agree that things are as bad as or worse than they have been in a long time, Transatlantic worriers cannot agree on whether this is all Mr. Bush's doing. The alternative interpretation is that the last 18 months have simply highlighted a much deeper and more significant continental drift that was in place long before.

Optimists, if they can be called that, think that the early years of the current Bush administration will prove just another bad phase in the relationship that will eventually give way to a renewed period of cooperation and harmony. Pessimists see the Bush years not so much as a diversion from the steady upward progress of U.S.-EU relations, but as a jolting reality check - a sudden, if unwelcome, glimpse of a new and harsher long-term relationship between the two sides.

It is always hard to disentangle underlying trends from cyclical phenomena without the benefit of historical hindsight. But it is possible to make some tentative judgments about how much of the angst today is Bush-specific and acute, and how much stems from chronic problems in the Transatlantic relationship.

One intriguing clue, at least inasmuch as it tells us about official European attitudes towards the relationship before the arrival of Mr. Bush, lies in EU governments' expectations about what the change of administration in 2001 would represent.

The truth is that the strongly conservative approach taken by Mr. Bush and his team came as a shock to most Europeans, even those who had been following U.S. politics closely. If there were any real signs of foreboding about the long-term relationship, they were hardly visible in late 2000 and early 2001.

When the Texas governor at last emerged from the swamp of the Florida recount, the view from most in§uential European governments was one of cautious confidence that not much was set to change in the big foreign policy picture.

Europeans had watched the 2000 presidential election and its aftermath with a faint air of detached amusement. It had seemed to be a contest memorable mainly for the lack of serious ideological differences between the protagonists, Al Gore and Mr. Bush. America was fat and at peace and in the end the choice between Gore and Bush, or between Gush and Bore as it was often parodied, did not look epoch-making.

Mr. Bush's brief forays into foreign policy on the campaign trail did not especially impress Europeans, but neither did they seem to presage anything to get exercised about. It was true Mr. Bush lacked experience and knowledge about Europe and the rest of the world, but he had prudently surrounded himself with highly competent advisors. By far the most in§uential seemed to be Colin Powell, the embodiment for many Europeans of the civilized, worldly-wise multilateralist.

The governor had kept company with some dubious characters on the far right fringes of the Republican establishment and he was known to be quite a bit more conservative than his father on questions of domestic social policy. But Europeans had admired George Bush senior, and the general verdict was that the same people who had made that administration a success in foreign policy - Powell, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice - would be the dominant foreign policy team members.

Indeed some European government leaders spoke privately of welcoming a sense of clarity and cohesion in U.S. foreign policy as a change from the chaotic idealism of the Clinton years. And those who had seen Al Gore close up - with his eager enthusiasm for U.S. intervention in the Balkans and elsewhere - had more reason to regard a Bush administration as potentially more stabilizing. It is easy to forget now, but in the presidential debates late in the 2000 election, it was Bush who promised a new "humility" in U.S. foreign policy. Even when the identities of the Bush team members began to be revealed in early 2001, there were few real concerns. There was a fair smattering of hardliners - Paul Wolfowitz, a Richard Perle protégé as number two at the Pentagon, John Bolton, a fiercely Euroskeptic under secretary at State, and Douglas Feith, another "neo-conservative" of similar rank at Defense. But these Rottweilers were all firmly leashed in relatively junior positions, held in check by their more agreeable masters - or at least that was what the Europeans mistakenly thought.

In short, in reporting back to their governments, most European diplomats conveyed a message of comfort that, while there were some tricky issues to be dealt with, continuity and stability in the U.S.-EU relationship seemed highly likely.

This wall of comforting self-reassurance was breached within a few weeks of the administration's taking office. Mr. Bush's peremptory dismissal of the Kyoto treaty on global warning and his aggressive pursuit of an early end to the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, so that the United States could pursue missile defense, were greeted with alarm and dismay in Europe.

Even more than the substance, perhaps, it was the tone of the new administration that was upsetting. The Bush team seemed eager to reverse virtually every attempt by the Clinton administration at diplomatic engagement, most notably in the Middle East and Korea. In an early standoff with China over the downing of a U.S. surveillance plane, the new administration looked positively in saber-rattling mode.

"It was just brutal," says a senior diplomat in Washington. "On every big issue, the hardliners seemed to have won and Powell was sidelined."

The situation was a little more nuanced than that. The Bush team made a special effort to engage Russia's President Vladimir Putin, mainly because it needed his support in a quick resolution of the ABM issue. And when September 11 changed everything, hopes rose in Europe that the realization of America's hitherto unforeseen vulnerability might make the administration more inclined to consult its allies.

But those hopes proved short-lived as Mr. Bush seized the initiative and prepared for a global war against terrorism. Relations with the European Union reached a new low when Mr. Bush outlined his campaign against an "axis of evil" (comprised of Iran, Iraq and North Korea) in January, and plans started to be laid for a full-scale war against Iraq.

European fears of the overbearing American hyperpower were compounded in a rather childish debate sparked by the ill-advised release by the U.S. government of some disconcerting pictures of al Qaeda prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Through the spring and summer of this year, the pot of anti-U.S. opinion in Europe has been kept simmering by the administration's strong support for Ariel Sharon's government in Israel and by the threat to UN peacekeeping operations that followed the establishment of the International Criminal Court in July.

And in some ways, less visible social, economic and cultural issues have further highlighted the Transatlantic divide in the early Bush years. The President's support for the death penalty, his opposition to most abortions, and his massive tax cuts have demonstrated how far the center of U.S. political gravity is from that of Europe.

Even Mr. Bush's affection for country music and barbecues serves to emphasize the differences as though - in European eyes - Texas has replaced New York or California as the fulcrum of American life.

Even when it has abandoned conservative principles the Bush administration seems to have failed to take account of European reactions - most notably in approving protectionist support for U.S. steel makers and farmers.

All this suggests the crisis, if that is what it is, in U.S.-EU relations is an acute problem with a specific U.S. administration. The Bush team represents, in this view, the temporary ascendancy of an extreme conservative clique. If and when power passes back into the hands of moderates - of either main party - it is hard to imagine relations being so troubled. But there is something not quite complete about this picture.

It would be a mistake to argue that without the Bush administration all would be just fine in the Transatlantic marriage. Transatlantic battles over U.S. "unilateralism" have their roots not simply in the sudden arrival in Washington of a new conservative team, but in some deep-seated and slowly evolving differences between the Old and New Worlds and in the global political environment in which they function.

The most important change is, of course, the end of the Cold War. For four decades, growing fissures in the relationship - caused by divergent evolutions of U.S. and European political systems and economies - had been veiled by the mutual objective of survival in a life-or-death struggle for democracy.

That era ended abruptly in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Why, then, did U.S.-EU relations not immediately begin to show the signs of decay that have become so evident since Mr. Bush came to power? Mainly because the Clinton administration, for two somewhat different reasons, was devoted to multilateralism in the immediate post-Cold War period.

Firstly, Bill Clinton, who was heavily in§uenced by the internationalist views of Senator William Fulbright and had spent time at Oxford University, was a determined Atlanticist. In a sense Mr. Clinton, not Mr. Bush senior, was the last Cold War president. Despite differences over the Balkans, Mr. Clinton and his European counterparts continued to see U.S. commitment to multilateral institutions as essential to world peace.

Secondly, the Clinton administration's foreign policy was driven, perhaps more than that of any other president in the last century, by economics. In particular, the administration's most in§uential agents were firm supporters of the process of globalization and believed that it required more, not less international economic co-operation. That in turn required good relations with the other major economic powers, especially Europe.

When the international pol-itics of the Cold War eventually receded at the end of the Clinton administration, new realities began to dictate U.S.-EU relations. There was obviously much less pressure on the two sides to resolve their differences to fight a common enemy.

Without the threat of communism, and in the absence of an internationalist administration like that of Mr. Clinton, it was inevitable that differences, rather than agreements, would begin to define the Transatlantic relationship.

And as the new post-Cold War world emerged it became increasingly clear that significant Transatlantic differences - social, economic and political - had increased rather than diminished. These differences were re§ected in politics. As Europe clung to a social market model, America, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, became more aggressively pro-market.

American politics is increasingly defined in the context of the country's strong attachment to religious beliefs, while Europe has become essentially a "post-religious" society. Throughout its history, America has known almost nothing but success in wartime and continuity in its basic political system and institutions. It has come to see the world in terms of relatively simply moral terms - in which U.S.-style democracy and liberal markets represent the right way forward.

Europe, ravaged by war, revolution and counter-revolution, has seen fascism and communism, two of its dominant 20th century ideologies, exposed as cruel delusions, and has lost faith in the moral clarity that ideological success engenders. As a result Europeans have become increasingly skeptical about a moral dimension to foreign policy.

Furthermore, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post-Cold War world was unipolar. U.S. political and military power, already massive at the beginning of the 1990s, expanded even further as the decade progressed. As

America's economic and technological superiority also grew, the widening gap between U.S. and EU capabilities became particularly evident.

This development is at the heart of the problems of U.S.-EU strategic relations today. Any power with such an overwhelming advantage would find it hard to resist the temptation to use increasingly unilateral means to achieve its ends in foreign policy. Imagine if the tables were turned - and Europe were the dominant global power.

The United States, however, was particularly likely to use its military supremacy to act unilaterally because for Americans, unlike Europeans, the role and success

of the nation state in the world is still unchallenged. With their troubled continental history, Europeans are much more likely to see solutions to global problems in multilateralist terms - indeed they have spent half a century building a union explicitly designed to diminish the role of the nation state and to elevate international consensus.

The United States is under no such historical constraints. The nation state has served Americans remarkably well for a couple of centuries. Few see the case for diluting it by excessive multilateral obligations. September 11, far from heightening a sense of global interdependence in the United States, has, in fact, sharpened Americans' resolve to pursue their own interests aggressively. They have, they believe, the will, the right and the wherewithal to do it.

Of course, the aggressive and unilateral pursuit of U.S. national interest by Mr. Bush and his conservative foreign policy team has accelerated this process, widening the Transatlantic gap. But it is hard to believe that the forces propelling the United States and Europe in these divergent directions were not beginning to burgeon long before the current incumbent even dreamed of his place in the White House.


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

  • High Skills versus Family-Based Immigration Policy: Complex Considerations.

    By Nicholas Zill

    In the current era of rapid demographic and technological change, and massive refugee flows, there has been much debate in European nations and in the US about immigration policies. One of the major points of contention is whether preferences should be given to would-be entrants on the basis of their high skills (merit-based immigration) or their family ties to individuals already residing in the country (family reunification).

    Read more ...

UMD Jean Monnet Research Project

Infrastructure Planning and Financing: Lessons from Europe and the United States

The University of Maryland has received a Jean Monnet grant from the EU to conduct a series of policy exchanges between Europe and the US on filling infrastructure needs and the utility of public/private partnerships as the financing mechanism. If interested in participating in or receiving more information about these exchanges, please contact Rye McKenzie (

Read more ...

New from the Bertelsmann Foundation

The Bertelsmann Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC with a transatlantic perspective on global challenges.

"Edge of a Precipice" by Nathan Crist

"Newpolitik" by Emily Hruban


Summer Course