European Affairs

The U.S. and Europe: Rivals as Much as Allies     Print Email

"Is this really worse than what we've been used to?" asked a participant in a recent discussion about the deterioration of relations between Europe and the United States. True, history shows that the relationship never was harmonious for very long. Europe and America agree on some basic values and may disagree on almost everything else. They are rivals as much as they are allies. Nothing new, then.

And yet, the rapid shift that occurred, at the end of 2001, in the wake of America's victory in Afghanistan, from solidarity to disagreement, is quite unusual. European misgivings about what the United States calls the "war on terror" seem to be much stronger than they were at the beginning of the Gulf War, for instance, or during the war in Kosovo.

That point, once made, immediately requires qualification. British, French, Danish and, for the first time outside Europe, German troops fought alongside American forces in Operation Anaconda, the mopping up operation against

Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters earlier this year. European countries are cooperating to secure peace in Afghanistan, to consolidate the provisional government led by Hamid Karzai and to rebuild the country.

European and U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies are working together to track down terrorist networks and cells, and to disrupt their financial circuits. It is possible, therefore, that the harsh words recently heard on both sides of the Atlantic might turn out to be media buzz or ordinary politicking, especially in countries with elections brewing. But let's first review the record.

Afghanistan: Most European peoples finally came to hate wars, a change that it would be hard to regret, after centuries of murderous con§icts among themselves and two world wars that started on their continent. This does not mean that it is impossible to get support for wars - Europeans backed the Gulf War, intervention in Bosnia and the war in Kosovo - but leaders must endeavor to build support against die-hard pacifist opposition.

Moreover, the war in Afghanistan was conducted by the richest and most powerful country in the world against, or at least in, one of the weakest and poorest. No wonder that many did not like it and were eager to denounce the way the U.S. military waged it.

In Europe, civilian casualties were viewed by left wingers and pacifists as the consequences of a new American tactic, tested in Kosovo, of taking no risks with ground forces, avoiding direct contact with the enemy, and dropping bombs - and, yes, food, blankets and leaflets - from high altitudes and with minimum care for people on the ground. The truth is that most of this criticism was erased by victory and by images of liberated women getting rid of their burkhas and men of their beards.

Guantanamo Bay: the law of victimization, which has flourished since the 1990s, quickly transformed people associated with the ruthless organizers of the September 11 attacks into poor, defeated, pitiful wretches. The uprising of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners in the fortress of Qala-e-Janghi struck many in Europe as the last-chance revolt of desperate men, abandoned by the United States to the well-known cruelty of a Northern Alliance warlord, the Uzbek Rashid Dostum.

Six weeks later, these same people, or at least some of them, were transferred to the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and a photograph issued by the Pentagon showed some of them shackled, hooded and kneeling in front of American soldiers. "Tortured!" screamed the headline on the front page of a British tabloid. The Pentagon was able to address concerns about the way that the prisoners were treated, but their confinement in cage-like cells remained a shocking sight to many Europeans.

This revealed a difference in sensitivities. American people consider the prisoners captured in Afghanistan as enemies, responsible for, or approving of, the September 11 attacks, whereas Europeans thought that most of them, at least, were caught in circumstances about which they probably had no clear idea. But the main question was, and still is, the status of these prisoners and how far they will benefit from the due process of law.

Axis of Evil: The State of the Union speech, delivered by Mr. Bush on January 29, was viewed in Europe as a major blow to the alliance. The President was seen as setting America's goals without taking into account the policies, interests or concerns of the European countries. It is legitimate, of course, for the United States to define its policies and announce them to the world. It can be considered at least clumsy, however, for a country to point its finger at its enemies and ask its allies to stand by its side, without any previous discussion with these allies.

Mr. Bush was basically saying that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are the enemies that America intends to fight, regardless of the views of its allies in the struggle against terrorism. Most Europeans can accept that any state or group of people that attacks the United States should face American retaliation. But the reverse, which would define an offensive alliance, is not true: the Europeans are not ready to consider any country that the United States threatens to attack as their enemy.

Of all the criticism that the State of the Union speech raised in Europe, the most significant barbs and those that were, or should have been, the most painful to the U.S. government did not come from Hubert Védrine, the former French Foreign Minister. They came from Chris Patten, the British Conservative and America-friendly European Commissioner for international relations, and from Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, whose leadership of the leftist Green Party adds value to his usually pro-American inclinations.

It was no surprise that Mr. Védrine should deem Mr. Bush's generalization of the war on terror "simplistic." Some in the administration and elsewhere would, after all, consider that as a token of Mr. Bush's clear-sightedness. But Mr. Patten used the same word and added to it "absolutist," implying that the President of the United States was behaving as an absolute monarch - one of the worst insults in the American historical lexicon.

To Mr. Fischer's mind came an even more bitter analogy when he said that the United States was treating its allies as "satellites," in the same way that the former Soviet Union dominated the European communist countries before 1989. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a mission to defend the "Axis of Evil" mantra, nevertheless shot back at Védrine with the usual French-bashing, caricaturing the minister as an 18th Century marchioness getting "the vapors."

Some European governments thought that the September 11 attacks would reverse the unilateral course of the Bush Administration. Weren't these terrorist attacks a clear signal that, in the age of globalization, the United States could not pretend to ignore the rest of the world, its disputes and its evils, and the grievances that some nurtured against America, insignificant though they may have seemed before?

Moreover, the very modus operandi of the mass murderers who attacked New York and Washington was a lesson in the meaning of globalization. The terrorist strike demonstrated the extent to which societies have become intertwined and cross-border travel restrictions eased. It showed how difficult it is in today's open world for law enforcement agencies to keep track of evildoers, especially when they are fluent in English and familiar with American ways.

Of course, it could not be expected that this same administration would, all of a sudden, speak another language and do the exact opposite of what it had been doing for eight months. But what happened was worse.

After a few days of emotion, the U.S. government was back to an arrogant tone toward Europe. Instead of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, was dispatched to a meeting with NATO members in Brussels. The allies were merely notified of what the United States intended to do, and not invited to share in either information or deliberation.

When action began in Afghanistan, Britain was symbolically given the right to fire missiles from a submarine, and that was all the United States accepted as military help from its allies. The Pentagon made it clear that it would not accommodate allied forces on the ground, even if this war was supposed to be waged by a "coalition," the military representatives of which were gathered at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.

The United States needed the political support and civilian help (exchange of intelligence, disruption of finance networks) of its allies and of other countries to fight Osama Bin Laden's network and other related terrorist organizations. Mr. Bush got this help easily, but he chose not to reward it with any sharing of power.

The main European countries used different tactics to be admitted as partners in what was branded "America's new war." Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair played "first and best." The fact that the war was beginning with Afghanistan, in a part of the world where Britain had historical memories and kept some ties, was an additional reason to show that the old companionship, originally sealed by Roosevelt and Churchill sixty years ago, was as alive as ever.

France drew on a more recent experience - De Gaulle's unhesitating support for Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As he might have been expected to do as a Gaullist President, Jacques Chirac honored that precedent and offered Mr. Bush French military assistance. He did so with plain approval from his Socialist Prime Minister and presidential rival, Lionel Jospin.

Most remarkable was the decision of the Socialist German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, with Mr. Fischer's support, to seek a majority in the Bundestag for military participation in Afghanistan. Only a generation ago in Germany, defiant socialists and pacifists, who were soon to form Mr. Fischer's Green Party, were fighting the deployment of American Pershing missiles in response to the threat of the Soviet SS-20!

The attitude of the U.S. Administration subsequently changed. Allied forces were asked to help in fighting the remnants of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. On March 11, six months after the attacks, President Bush invited representatives of the "coalition" to a commemoration at the White House. He gave a speech in which he thanked the European allies, something he had omitted to do in the State of the Union message.

The President and his government appear to be paying more attention to European leaders and public opinion than they are credited for by most of the media in Europe and in America. The best example of this is the shift in the administration's stand on the Middle East, which has led Mr. Bush to take a seemingly tougher line with Israel and to seek more actively to renew the peace process.

The change was caused partly by the risk of destabilization of governments presumed to be friendly in the Arab world, but also by European condemnation of U.S. passivity and of Washington's support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his military tactics.

Further proof of the fact that even a "unilateralist" administration cannot totally ignore criticism from the outside world, and especially from Europe, was provided by Mr. Bush's announcement of a $5 billion increase in U.S. aid to developing countries at the UN conference on financing development at Monterrey, Mexico. Even if the American aid effort still lags behind Europe's, the increase at least shows willingness to admit that fighting terrorism also requires fighting the poverty that terrorism uses as its motive or excuse.

The period since September 11 has demonstrated the deeply contradictory nature of U.S.-European relations. Basically, the United States is responding to the attacks it endured by trying to reassert its leadership and to enhance its stature, at a time when Europe is seeking to exert political power appropriate to its economic size.

In this competition for power and in§uence, neither Europe nor America can claim, by virtue of some kind of divine mission or of the historic record, to be the sole representative of democracy and justice. Both must accept the fact that while their fates are linked, their ideas and their interests may often conflict, and will continue to do so.


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

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