Challenges to the Transatlantic Relationship

March 12, 2003

Challenges to the Transatlantic Relationship

 The ongoing discussion of transatlantic relations, especially as it has unfolded in the pages of In the National Interest, is particularly disturbing to those of us who believe that the transatlantic relationship remains vitally important to both th

 The ongoing discussion of transatlantic relations, especially as it has unfolded in the pages of In the National Interest , is particularly disturbing to those of us who believe that the transatlantic relationship remains vitally important to both the United States and to Europe.  Some shortsighted Americans say France and Germany are no longer U.S. allies, but in fact are now enemies of the United States.  Meanwhile, some equally myopic Europeans say they have more in common with Russia than with the United States.  On both sides of the Atlantic, observers proclaim that NATO is dead, and paint dire projections for the future.  (See, in particular, the contributions made by Hungarian Foreign Minister Kovacs, at, of Bruno Tertrais, at, and Nikolas Gvosdev, at  

There is a crisis in transatlantic relations, and that crisis is the result of careless U.S. unilateralism combined with toothless European autonomy.  The Bush Administration has managed through its careless unilateral behavior to throw away most of the good will generated by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.  It has put in jeopardy the hard-won consensus to expand NATO's global role as agreed in Prague last November.   In response, the government of France called for a united EU front against the U.S. approach to Iraq, and argued against a formal NATO role in Afghanistan, indulging in hollow "autonomous" behavior-perhaps understandable, but not helpful.           

Which United States ? 

The United States has since World War II been the dominant force in U.S.-European relations, but the type of power it has projected has changed over the years.  During the Cold War, U.S. power deterred military adventurism by the Soviet Union.  Europeans, with the notable exception of France, tolerated the increasingly hegemonic role of the United States.  Soviet power made it clear to most European countries that the largely benevolent U.S. hegemony was a small price to pay for a reliable security guarantee.    

The United States, for its part, knew that democratic Europe was not only a critical strategic asset in its superpower competition with the Soviet Union but was also the main "prize" in the Cold War ideological competition.  

In the 1990s, the United States had the power and prestige to exert substantial influence on most international events or issues, but its leaders were not sure whether they wanted to exploit that position actively or to use it as a shield behind which the country could retreat and deal with its domestic issues.  Bill Clinton rode into office on a "domestic economy first" platform.  But Clinton's administration found itself unavoidably leading the international community in the Balkans and, from time to time, falling into the exceptionalism trap - for example when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed that the United States "stands taller and therefore can see further" than other countries.   

It was with the advent of the Bush Administration, however, that the United States began more actively to assert its hegemonic position.  Candidate Bush had cautioned that the United States should pursue a "modest" foreign policy.  Once in office, however, his administration moved unilaterally with a vengeance.  On a wide range of issues, from ballistic missile defense to ecological protection, it boldly rejected international agreements when they did not fit administration interpretations of U.S. interests.  

Following the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001, the administration appreciated the outpouring of international sympathy and support but then adopted a strongly unilateral posture, telling the rest of the world "you are either with us or against us" in the war on terror.  In 2002, the administration began marching alone down the road toward war against Iraq before realizing that neither the American people nor U.S. allies would easily embrace war against Iraq unless it were sanctioned by the international community. It was so clear to most observers (and to all our allies) that the administration was going to go to war with Iraq, no matter what.  The administration's eventual recourse to the UN Security Council has therefore done little to build American international credibility. 

Will the United States - under George W. Bush or his eventual successor -- find a tolerable balance between unilateral defense of U.S. interests on the one hand and constructive collaboration with international friends and institutions on the other?  Or will Washington simply push its way through future international issues, perhaps sacrificing much of the moral authority that George W. Bush's father and other presidents have worked hard to sustain.   

Which Europe?           

Just as there is a question about what kind of United States will occupy the American seat at the U.S.-European table, it is unclear what kind of Europe will be available to sit across the way.   

In 1981, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, frustrated by the fact that nobody and yet everybody spoke for Europe, asked half-seriously "What is Europe's telephone number?" Some would argue Kissinger's question has now been answered.  The European Union has a "High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy," Javier Solana, who in theory is the voice and face of the EU toward the outside world.  However, if the outside world wants to talk about trade or economic and monetary issues, it had better not talk to Solana.  Authority in this area is in the hands of the supranational EU commission.   

And, if you want to influence the actions of the members of the EU, you might make some progress dealing with the capable Mr. Solana, but you had better also talk to the governments of France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and others, without whose initiative and support the EU does nothing.   

Europe remains a mixed media presentation, part supranational organization, part united Europe, and very much still run by national governments, most of whose roots and political power are sunk deeply into their domestic power bases first and only secondarily in the "European idea." 

Particularly since the advent of the George W. Bush Administration, growing numbers of Europeans have suggested that the unilateral behavior of the United States should stimulate the process of European political unification.  In fact, however, recent events have demonstrated how far the European Union is from being "Europe." 

And so, just as there are questions about whether the United States will be a benevolent hegemon or a unilateralist bully in its relationship with Europe, it is uncertain what mix of supra-nationalism and nationalism will govern Europe, and whether the "old" or "new" European attitudes will dominate.  

What now?  

In these equations both the United States and its friends and allies in Europe face important choices.  

The United States faces the challenge of using its power in ways that reflect U.S. values and draws on the American public's desire to cooperate with other countries while not inspiring opposition by being too domineering.  In other words, the  United States has to learn how to be a hegemon without acting like one.    

If U.S. allies still believe that U.S. leadership is essential on many international issues, as they apparently do, then their challenge is to express their criticism of U.S. leadership style in terms that are appropriate for frank and honest discussions among friends, and in ways that will promote U.S.-European cooperation, not make it more difficult.