America and Europe have clashed over Iraq, climate change and the Middle East. But it is in both parties’ interests to work together, says John Peet

Relations between America and Europe are always complex and difficult, with frequent trade disputes and differences on foreign policy matters. Yet for most of the past half-century the two sides at least appreciated that on really big issues, such as the promotion of democracy and the battle against communism, they shared the same interests. Indeed, the duo made up what was known as “the west”. Now, however, more and more voices are being raised against the common-sense proposition that America and Europe should, in general terms, always be on the same side.

The problem from Europe’s point of view can be summarized in two words: George Bush. It would be hard to exaggerate how badly the Europeans wanted John Kerry to win the presidential election last November. Even in countries such as Britain, Italy and Denmark, whose governments supported Bush over the war in Iraq, public opinion was strongly against. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the post-war mess in Iraq have intensified most Europeans’ feeling that the war was a blunder. Many also think it was motivated in good part by a desire for revenge after Saddam had defied and threatened Bush’s father, as well as by the interests of Big Oil.

The “hyperpower”

The perception is now widespread in Europe that Bush is a unilateralist who is bent on imposing America’s will on the rest of the world. It is also thought that he is uninterested not only in signing and abiding by international treaties, but even in consulting his supposedly most important allies, or paying attention to the United Nations. Bush’s repudiation of a string of arms-control agreements and, even worse, of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change still rankles with Europeans. And there is a broad resentment at what the French have christened the “hyperpower” – a term of abuse that nevertheless acknowledges that no other country can challenge the United States.

When he visits Europe in February, for the first time since his re-election, Bush will thus have much fence-mending to do. A little humility from the Texan would not come amiss; and he would do well to promise a more serious push for a peaceful settlement of the Israel/Palestine issue. But the Europeans too will have to change their tune. They might have hoped that Kerry would win the election, but this time, unlike in 2000, they cannot dispute the validity of Bush’s victory. Since they are now stuck with him for the next four years, they might as well try to get on with him better. After all, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Europeans were unanimous in offering Bush all the help and support they could muster.

Various events during 2005 should, as it happens, make it a bit easier for America and Europe to come together. Disagreements over Iraq ought to diminish after an election is held in that country and American, British and other troops are gradually withdrawn. Regarding Israel/Palestine, the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from Gaza, the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership and the new Likud/Labour coalition government under Ariel Sharon should all help to disguise the deep differences between Europe and America. Iran could prove more troublesome if the Bush administration loses patience with the Europeans’ efforts to persuade the mullahs to abandon their nuclear-weapons pretensions. But so far Washington has seemed content to let the Europeans take the lead on Iran.

The bear re-emerges

Meanwhile, Europe and America are likely to find a new area of common interest: taking a tougher line towards Russia. Events over the past 12 months have confirmed that the government of Vladimir Putin is not only more authoritarian and less democratic than many had hoped, but also much keener to assert Russia’s interests in its neighbourhood. First in Georgia and now in Ukraine, America and Europe have found themselves working together to protect democracy and to help the countries of the former Soviet Union to escape Russia’s influence. Here the impact of the eight new members of the European Union from central Europe, all of whom are naturally more pro-American and anti-Russian than most of western Europe, has been profound.

Yet none of this means that sweetness and light are about to break out across the Atlantic. One reason is that there has also been a shift in thinking about Europe within the administration. On one level this has manifested itself in the view that Europe, or at least western Europe, matters less than it did – an attitude illustrated by the dismissal two years ago by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, of what he called “old Europe”. Washington, like the rest of the world, also shows signs of being mesmerized by the transformation of China.

But the bigger problem for Europe is not that the Americans might have lost interest in the old continent. After all, NATO remains by far the most important foreign alliance to include the United States – and worries about stability in the Balkans, the Middle East and Russia are likely to make NATO more, not less important. No, the most significant change is that the Americans are no longer convinced their interests are best served by encouraging an ever-closer European Union. Influential players in Washington have begun to express doubts over the draft EU constitution, over plans to bulk up Europe’s nascent common foreign and security policy, and over a bigger EU role in defence.

The perception in America for most of the past 50 years has been that the building of the European Union has furthered American interests. It established a political and economic counterweight to the Soviet Union. Later, EU expansion to central Europe has gone with NATO expansion, and helped to ensure that former countries within the Russian orbit shifted westwards. America is a keen proponent of Turkish entry into the EU, and now maybe of Ukraine’s aspirations, for similar strategic reasons.

American fears of a stronger EU

Yet the Americans are also coming to fear that a stronger, bigger and more united EU could represent a challenge as much as a support. A common EU foreign policy might, for instance, run counter to US policy in the Middle East. A common EU defence policy could undermine NATO. And a successful EU economy and single currency could even begin to challenge the primacy of the American economic model and, perhaps even more quickly, of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

Whatever might be thought in some parts of Paris, it is not in Europe’s interests to encourage such suspicions. Both Europe’s economic revival and the EU owed much to benign support from the US. If Washington were to start seeing the EU as a rival as much as an ally, that would make the task of building a new Europe much harder. For one thing, the new EU countries want American backing as much as they do European. But for another, both the European project and Europe’s desire to play a bigger role on the world stage have depended heavily on not being seen as confronting the United States. If the EU is to succeed, it still needs the backing of its biggest trade partner and most important ally, the United States. That is a point that Europe’s leaders should remember as they prepare to greet Bush on his visit.

John Peet
John Peet is Europe editor of The Economist. Before joining the magazine, he was a UK civil servant between 1976 and 1986, working at the Treasury and the Foreign Office.