Ties that Bind-Or Not

Is a change in rhetoric (or a change in personnel) sufficient in re-focusing trans-Atlantic relations? This was one of the themes discussed at a forum on the future of U.S. policy held at Chatham House with speakers from both TheNational Interest and The Nixon Center, in advance of the trans-Atlantic editors' roundtable.

Some of the points our British (and larger European) audience wanted us to ensure are being heard in Washington:

-the next British prime minister (Gordon Brown) and even his possible Tory successor (David Cameron) will, of necessity, have to distance themselves fromTony Blair's tight embrace of the Bush Administration. In particular, any British leader will be under renewed pressure to show tangible benefits Britain receives from the "special relationship", as the perception is growing here that Blair, in return for his solid support for the United States in going into Iraq, received no real support from Washington for issues that mattered on his agenda (peace process, Africa, and climate change). That Latin phrase so often dreaded in Washington circles, especially those that maintain that all democracies share common interests, reared its ugly head: quid pro quo.

-Don't deliberately misinterpret Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Both are pro-American, but from a European perspective. Their first priority will be to re-invigorate the Franco-German axis at the heart of the EU (with some  collateral concerns about whether London will be marginalized in that process). They do envision Europe as a partner of the United States and share a number of Washington's concerns (including about disturbing trends in both domestic and foreign policy in Russia). But the operative word here is partner. They will have their own perspectives on policy and priorities and they will expect to work with Washington, not simply follow an American agenda. "Quid pro quo" was not mentioned explicitly in this context but the message was that Washington would still need to not simply inform and consult but actually negotiate if it wanted to forge a true and enduring trans-Atlantic policy.

-Don't minimize the climate change issue. Could climate change be the next decade's "Iraq" which divides the Atlantic alliance, or at least produces deep fissures within it? This was a clear concern-and Democrats should not assume that rhetorical flourishes alone are sufficient, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's comments while in Germany were described by members of the audience as vague and unclear. Others noted that whenever there is a clash between domestic and foreign policy priorities in U.S. policy, domestic ones win out, arguing that climate change will become a major irritant in trans-Atlantic relations.

Let me conclude by saying the overall mood was cautious. There is a desire for improved relations and for the United States to continue its leadership role, but concern that the extended 2008 presidential campaign will prevent candidates from articulating an effective vision for the future of trans-Atlantic relations (beyond comforting banalities), and that too many in Washington are still looking "back" to a pre-2002 situation rather than taking into account changes in both Europe and the global environment. But hope springs eternal.