Mending the Transatlantic Rift

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Matt Squeri

Engineering 297a

Professor Lusignan

Final Paper (4 units)


Mending the Transatlantic Rift

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 ushered in an era of dramatic change for foreign policy and the international system. Most obviously, the United States’ sense of invulnerability eroded as an acute awareness to the perils of terrorism gripped the American public. In American foreign policy, the dominant paradigms evolved. Whereas the Cold War notion of the centrality of powerful nation-states had helped order the Bush administration’s outlook before the attacks, the new paradigms explicitly accounted for the importance of non-state actors and rogue regimes as the salient elements of American foreign policy. In emphasizing rogue states, President George W. Bush focused on regime change in Iraq and ultimately decided to invade Iraq despite the opposition of important allies and the lack of authorization from the United Nations Security Council. The war in Iraq, along with an array of diplomatic and policy differences between the United States and its European allies, ultimately produced notable divisions in the transatlantic relationship. An analysis of the events and conceptual divergences that contributed to this rift renders a portrait of U.S.-European relations in which real rather than cosmetic differences separate the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Nonetheless, enduring commonalities and the realities of the present geopolitical situation leave hope for improvements in the relationship. In the end, mending the transatlantic rift will require the United States to exhibit a genuine commitment to diplomacy with Europe and engagement with the world’s most pressing issues.


Historically, the relationship between the United States and its European allies has been the closest in all of American diplomacy. Most basically, the U.S.-Europe alliance retains a formal manifestation in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, that serves as “America’s most important alliance and a benchmark by which a president’s foreign policy skill is measured.” (Asmus) Consequently, the foreign policy of American presidents becomes inextricably linked with the status of the transatlantic relationship between the United States and its NATO allies. Established as a Cold War-era counterweight to Soviet power, NATO is characterized by its “commitment to democratic values and practices that, along with its unique, integrated military structure, sustains it even at times when its members’ short-term strategic calculations diverge.” (Hunter) In theory, then, the bonds between the United States and Europe should be close and enduring. Indeed, the interests of the two entities have largely converged throughout NATO’s half century history despite occasional differences.

A rift has emerged in this alliance in the aftermath of the attacks of September11, 2002 that analysts characterize as “unprecedented in its scope, intensity, and, at times, pettiness.” (Asmus) Immediately after the attacks, Europe coalesced in support for the United States as sympathy for Americans dominated public opinion. The goodwill evaporated quickly, however, when it became clear that the United States planned to use the altered geopolitical landscape as one of the justifications for a preemptive war to displace Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime in Iraq. According to Elizabeth Pond in her article “European Shock and Awe,” “by the eve of war, favorable opinion in France about the United States had plunged from 63 percent in mid-2002 to 31 percent in late March [2003], from 61 percent to 25 percent in Germany, and from 70 percent to 34 percent in Italy.” (Pond) It seems undeniable, then, that European sentiment shifted markedly from sympathetic support for the American people and government to a strong suspicion of U.S. policy mobilized primarily by strong opposition to the war in Iraq. The anti-Iraq war sentiment extended to the leaders of Europe as well. Aside from Tony Blair’s commitment of British support for the U.S. engagement in Iraq, most of the other traditional U.S. allies in Europe opposed the war. This opposition proved striking for two reasons. For one, the intensity of opposition compelled some traditional U.S. allies to adopt strident rhetoric aimed at inhibiting the United States’ march toward war. France and Germany proved especially adamant in their opposition to the war, damaging the relations between President Bush and the leaders of those nations. (Pond) The opposition was also striking for its breadth. Of the United States’ important allies, only Great Britain, Poland, and Spain joined in the “coalition of the willing” to remove Hussein from power. Most problematically for the Atlantic Alliance, the Iraq war seemed to activate latent opposition to the United States that extended beyond an isolated policy dispute. As Pond points out, “this transatlantic damage is far more than just a minor side effect of the war on Iraq. With astounding swiftness, much of the remarkable mutual trust that NATO allies had developed over half a century has now dissipated.” (Pond)

Relations between the United States and its NATO allies were not perfect, however, before the Iraq war. President Bush’s first year in office included a number of policy disputes that led him to “get off on the wrong foot with Europe.” (Asmus) In particular, U.S. government opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court caused considerable resentment in Europe. Many Europeans viewed the new administration in America as too willing to “go it alone” and ignore its role in helping solve collective action problems like the environment. Charges of unilateralism against the United States pervaded European media while elite opinion and public opinion in Europe entertained the notion that Bush was an uncouth cowboy. While these attitudes enjoyed some prevalence in Europe, however, they did not poison the transatlantic relationship. Instead, the events of September 11 intervened to dampen anti-American rhetoric and sentiment. The day after the attacks, Le Monde, a French newspaper, even ran a pro-American article under the headline “We Are All Americans.” (World Press Review) The willingness of a liberal newspaper in a nation that would later stridently oppose U.S. policy clearly demonstrates the extent to which sympathy for the United States as a result of September 11 compelled Europeans to rally around the United States and set aside disputes over the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court.

It is clear, then, that the transatlantic alliance was not in disrepair before the Iraq war. Despite serious policy differences over specific issues like the responsibilities of nations in addressing global warming and broader schisms over the role of international institutions, Americans and Europeans were still fundamentally linked as partners in the international community. On that level, the rift that emerged at the beginning of the Iraq war seems significant because it was so unpredictable. Serious policy disputes had never previously obscured the profound common values and interests shared by the United States and its European allies. The fact that disagreement over the Iraq war produced overwhelmingly negative opinion of Americans in Europe despite the goodwill afforded Americans after the national tragedy of September 11 further highlights the salience of the Iraq issue in assessing the deterioration in the transatlantic rift.

In the year and a half since the United States invaded Iraq, two other issues related to peace in the Middle East contributed to tensions in the transatlantic relationship. First, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a source of consternation across American presidential administrations, has subtly intensified transatlantic tensions. In general terms, European nations tend to be more directly engaged with the parties in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Prior to Yasir Arafat’s death in late 2004, the United States refused to even meet with the Palestinian leadership. By contrast, the United States’ NATO allies are typically “much more persuaded than the United States of the need for advance planning and for nudging the protagonists to deescalate the violence.” (Pond) Secondly, Europe is also much more engaged than the United States in negotiations with Iran over that country’s apparent nuclear ambitions. Working in coordination with one another, Britain, Germany, and France persuaded Iran to agree to a suspension of its uranium enrichment capabilities. Instead of joining in these negotiations, the United States pushed for the referral of Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. Clearly, the European nations have exhibited tendencies toward pacific engagement with the pressing issues for peace in the Middle East while the United States has opted for non-engagement with the Palestinian leadership and confrontation with Iran. The subtle differences between these approaches to peace in the Middle East have combined with the explosive issue of the war in Iraq to badly damage the transatlantic relationship.


In assessing the deteriorating relationship between the United States and its most important traditional allies, it becomes important to evaluate the causal mechanisms underlying the tensions. My analysis thus turns to that inquiry for the next section of the paper. A three-pronged conceptual framework emerges from the examination of the causal element of the transatlantic rift.
Conceptually, divergent views of U.S. power serves as the first underlying cause of the transatlantic rift. On the most basic level, the American government aims to perpetuate American preponderance and primacy while European governments are far more likely to prefer constraints on American power. Descriptively, both Americans and Europeans acknowledge that “the United States has no rival in any critical dimension of power.” (Brooks and Wohlforth) While nations working together, like the European Union for instance, can match the United States’ economic might, no single country comes close to the United States in military power, economic leverage, or technological development. This virtually unquestioned preponderance endows the United States with significant political authority as well, a reality accepted by the Europeans:

With varying degrees of comfort, the Europeans have in fact accepted the indispensability of leadership by the world’s sole remaining superpower. Either Washington leads, or no one does…Given U.S. military, economic, and agenda-setting supremacy, no one else can substitute for the United States in directing world events. (Pond)

Given this unrivaled dominance in each dimension of power, the United States enjoys substantial freedom in the crafting of policy because “U.S. foreign policy operates in the realm of choice rather than necessity.” (Brooks and Wohlforth) Because the United States maintains such prominence in international politics, misguided policy decisions do not significantly threaten the nation’s position in the world community. Instead, the United States enjoys considerable autonomy in the setting of policy preferences.

While the United States clearly retains more power than any other nation in the world, significant constraints do apply to U.S. foreign policy. First, the conventional wisdom regarding U.S. supremacy overstates the case. Rather than two dozen separate and competing nation-states, Europe is increasingly reconstituting itself within the European Union in a form that rivals the United States in some dimensions of power. Indeed, the European Union now claims 25 nations, 455 million people, and an $11 trillion economy, giving it a larger population than the United States and slightly bigger economy. Although the United States retains unquestioned military superiority, the economic comparison renders a much more complicated picture in which the U.S. claims a higher per capita GDP while Europe claims much higher standards of living. (O’Hehir) Therefore, the notion of the United States as the world’s only super-power, or hyper-power even, exaggerates the extent to which the United States leads the pack. American foreign policy is not an unconstrained game of choice for the U.S. government.

Moreover, as Joseph S. Nye, Jr. elaborates in his article “U.S. Power and Strategy in Iraq,” globalization and democratization constrain U.S. foreign policy:

The problem for U.S. power in the twenty-first century is that more and more continues to fall outside the control of even the most powerful state. Although the United States does well on the traditional measures of hard power, these measures fail to capture the ongoing transformation of world politics brought about by globalization and the democratization of technology. The paradox of American power is that world politics is changing in a way that makes it impossible for the strongest world power since Rome to achieve some of its most crucial international goals alone. (Nye)

As Nye elucidates, American preponderance does not guarantee American independence from alliance partnerships. Even as the most powerful nation since the Roman Empire, America must work with its allies in order to enact certain policies or solve collective action problems. Ultimately, then, the United States’ foreign policymaking apparatus operates in a realm of highly constrained choice rather than the freedom suggested by Brooks and Wohlforth.

These crucial constraints on American power do not satisfy Europeans, who “resent” that America “could not be constrained” in Iraq “even by its closest friends. (Kagan) European complaints of American unilateralism therefore reflect the European anxiety that the NATO allies cannot influence U.S. policy. This anxiety compels efforts to balance against U.S. preponderance and otherwise constrain U.S. action. Philosophically, many Europeans are offended by the thought of unrestrained state power. Pragmatically, many Europeans want more authority in foreign policy outcomes. (Kagan) In both cases, Europeans yearn for a more constrained super-power across the Atlantic. To that effect, the proposed constitution for the European Union even makes clear that Europe should work to limit American power. (Cimbalo)

As one might expect, the impulse to limit American power does not apply to American leaders. Strikingly, the new “grand strategy” of American foreign policy in the wake of September 11 strives for the antithesis of the European ambition, an America

less bound to its partners and to global rules and institutions while it steps forward to play a more unilateral and anticipatory role in attacking terrorist threats and confronting rogue states seeking weapons of mass destruction. The United States will use its unrivaled military power to manage the global order. (Ikenberry)

The contrast between the American vision of U.S. power and the European view could hardly be more unambiguous. Europe views preponderant American power as a moderately offensive and threatening reality of the international system that should be constrained by an ascendant European Union. The U.S. conceives of an ascendant American power that should be preserved and perpetuated, even at the expense of traditional alliances and international institutions. Even before September 11, 2001, the policymakers that control the apparatuses of foreign policy decision making in the Bush administration explicitly expressed their belief in this concept of ascendant American leadership. The Project for the New American Century, a group dedicated to the articulation of conservative foreign policy, was launched in 1997. Since the group includes Jeb Bush, President Bush’s younger brother and the governor of Florida, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and a half dozen other conservatives known to advise President Bush on foreign policy, it seems reasonable to assume that the group’s philosophy enjoys prominence in the president’s foreign policy thinking. Significantly, the group’s advocacy of preponderant, aggressive U.S. power corresponds with the grand strategy cited by Ikenberry. In the view of the Project for the New American Century, American foreign policy should advance “American global leadership,” “boldly and purposefully promote American principles abroad,” and “accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.” (Project for a New American Century) Consequently, the neoconservative policymakers who currently operate American foreign policy forcefully advocate the ascendant, aggressive, and ambitious American foreign policy that makes Europeans profoundly skeptical and resentful of the American government under the leadership of President Bush. The clear distinction between the way the American leadership conceives of U.S. power and the way European leadership conceives of U.S. power serves as the first conceptual explanation for the emerging rift between the United States and its European allies.

Similarly, the Americans and the Europeans also conceive of collective action problems, alliances, and international institutions in starkly divergent ways, a conceptual difference that provides the second explanation for the transatlantic rift. Europeans view alliances as crucially and inherently important in addressing collective action problems. They view unilateralism as unseemly and inappropriate. Unsurprisingly, they sanctify multilateralism and the maintenance of traditional alliances and international institutions. Contrastingly, Americans, especially the foreign policy leaders of the Bush administration, conceive of alliances and international institutions as a toolbox from which the U.S. should pick and choose willing partners based on the circumstances and issue. This approach, while pragmatic, degrades the inherent value of alliances by demeaning them to an instrumental role. Just as conceptual differences over the role of U.S. power has contributed to a rift between the U.S. and Europe, so too has the difference over the role of alliances.

The official rhetoric of the United States does emphasize the importance of alliances. In the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” released by the White House a year after the attacks of September 11, the government says that “we are also guided by the conviction that no nation can build a safer, better world alone. Alliances and multilateral institutions can multiply the strength of freedom-loving nations.” (National Security Strategy of the United States of America) U.S. official policy, then, does not seem to deviate from the European reverence for diplomacy, multilateralism, and alliance-building. The practical rhetoric and policies of the government, however, clearly repudiate the European notion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, has clarified President Bush’s policies in a number of statements that emphasize the distinctions between the American approach and the European approach. Predictably, Rumsfeld’s brand of diplomacy offends many Europeans and has widened the rift. First, Rumsfeld often uses the term “coalitions of the willing,” President Bush’s phrase to describe the new kind of partnerships America now values. This rhetoric reinforces the European anxiety regarding America’s “toolbox diplomacy” by emphasizing America’s desire to prioritize ad hoc coalitions over enduring traditional alliances. In Europe’s view, this approach signals America’s opinion of them as “subordinates rather than consulted partners.” (Pond) The offense felt by Europeans in reaction to this supposed indignity may be particularly acute among proponents of NATO, who revere NATO’s unique integrated military structure. The elevation of ad hoc coalitions over traditional alliances seems to run counter to NATO’s convictions that military costs should be shared and that the alliance retains inherent rather than instrumental value. Secondly, Rumsfeld reaffirmed the United States’ preference for toolbox diplomacy shortly after September 11, 2001, when he argued that “the mission must determine the coalition, the coalition must not determine the mission,” a formulation often repeated by Rumsfeld and other foreign policy officials in the years since. ( That affirmation showed less reverence for alliances than Europe typically exhibits and painfully reminded Europeans that the United States viewed the accomplishment of its policy goals as more important than the maintenance of its partnerships with Europe. Finally, Rumsfeld famously dismissed the countries that opposed the war in Iraq, including France and Germany, two of the biggest, richest, and most militarily powerful allies the United States has in the entire world, as “Old Europe.” The implication that opponents of U.S. policy were obsolete and irrelevant for U.S. foreign policy deeply offended the people and leaders of these countries who value their role in the West and their contributions to the international system.

In these ways, the toolbox diplomacy of the United States, best evidenced by the decidedly undiplomatic comments of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, contributed to the deteriorating transatlantic relationship by rejecting the European notions regarding collective action problems and alliances. Additionally, the United States’ decision to invade Iraq despite the objections of longtime allies and the lack of authorization from the United Nations Security Council further undermined traditional alliances and international institutions. Therefore, there are significant attitudinal and philosophical divergences in the foreign policy approaches taken by America and Europe in reaction to pressing problems. Since the United States’ approach leading up to the war in Iraq ran counter to Europe’s accepted principles of diplomacy, these conceptual differences helped produce the dramatic division between the two sides of the Atlantic.

The third and final element of the conceptual framework explaining the transatlantic rift identifies two deep-seated cultural differences between America and Europe. First, the connection between politics and religion in America is fundamentally inconsistent with the thoroughly secular European approach. Although the United States’ government formally separates church and state and constitutionally codifies religious freedom, politicians in America openly embrace religion. Indeed, President Bush, more than perhaps any other president in America history, acknowledges that his policies are informed by his faith. In “European Shock and Awe,” Elizabeth Pond explains how this approach distinguishes President Bush from his European counterparts:

An uneasiness about the Bush administration’s tendency to perceive its own policy as the dictum of deity was first aroused among European leaders when they streamed through the White House after the attacks of September 11 and were taken aback by Bush’s strong conviction that he was sent by God to lead the United States in its hour of need. These leaders feared that such certainty, combined with a black-and-white perception of good and evil, could easily slip over into self-righteousness and permanent warfare. (Pond)

Fundamentally, the European instinct for “healthy liberal skepticism” leaves little room for mixing willful certainty with public policy. On that level, the instinct of the current American president to reach absolute moral conclusions and mix religious fervor with public policy runs counter to the cultural norms of Europe. Tension in the transatlantic relationship thus seems natural given such fundamental cultural divisions. Secondly, Europeans are suspicious of the “secular version of missionary zeal they see in the vast social and political engineering project of democratizing the Muslim world that Bush has now put at the center of the Iraq war.” (Pond) Europeans are naturally skeptical of supposed utopias and are similarly averse to the ambitious and aggressive foreign policy of the Bush administration. It would seem that they would prefer more calibrated policies based on the maintenance of stability in the international system rather than the United States’ more messianic approach of exporting the values of democracy and secularism to hostile areas. On these levels, then, deep-seated cultural divisions combine with the conceptual differences between the U.S. and Europe in causing the transatlantic rift.


This paper has set out to assess the relationship between the United States and Europe. A historically important and close relationship has become more antagonistic than at any point in its history, ostensibly because of the transformative influence of September 11, 2001 and the United States’ subsequent preventive war against Iraq in 2003. These explanations provide a useful events-based account, but do not prove sufficient in offering a causal explanation for the deterioration of the relationship. This paper begins to address the underlying conceptual causes of this transatlantic rift by emphasizing the convergence of three factors. First, America and Europe currently have incompatible conceptions of U.S. power and the desirability of its continued preeminence in the international system. Secondly, the United States has adopted an approach to diplomacy that rejects the dominant conceptions of alliances and international institutions that inform the European worldview. Finally, various cultural factors largely specific to the current administration of George W. Bush offend the sensibilities of Europeans, further accentuating the two more conceptually relevant divergences discussed above.

In this context, it becomes possible to recommend a future course for U.S. foreign policy aimed at mending the damaged transatlantic relationship. On the most fundamental level, repairing the rift is possible because of the long history of common interests and values shared by the United States and Europe. While real, important differences exist, they do not prevent the adoption of a foreign policy that can lessen the tension and return the United States and Europe to their previous relationship in which they allied in common purpose despite occasionally divergent perspectives.

While it is incumbent upon both sides to work on the relationship, this paper focuses on the United States’ role in the rift. Two overarching principles should structure the United States’ approach to improving its valuable alliance relationship with the countries and institutions of Europe. First, the United States must abandon the toolbox diplomacy adopted by the Bush administration after September 11 because it is both detrimental to the cohesiveness of the transatlantic alliance and unnecessary for the pursuit of the United States’ principal foreign policy objectives. The U.S. focus on the stabilization of Iraq and non-proliferation in Iran and North Korea need not be comprised by simple changes in the tone the American government uses in diplomacy. Simply by reaffirming the United States’ respect for international institutions and the important role European countries and NATO plays in the solution of important collective action problems, the U.S. will begin repairing the considerable damage wrought in the last few years. Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth point out the dangers for American foreign policy if it maintains its present course:

Washington needs to be concerned about the level of resentment that an aggressive unilateral course would engender among its allies…The further one looks beyond the immediate short term, the clearer become the many issues – the environment, disease, migration, and the stability of the global economy, to name a few – that the United States cannot solve on its own. Such issues entail repeated dealings with many partners over many years. Straining relationships now will lead only to a more challenging policy environment later on. (Brooks and Wohlforth)
As Brooks and Wohlforth explain, returning to the European notions of multilateralism and respect for international institutions would not only help mend the transatlantic rift, it would also be beneficial for the U.S. in the long term. Even as the most powerful country in the world, the United States is constrained in its actions insofar as it cannot solve collective problems like those mentioned and even terrorism unless it works with others. A return to multilateralism would therefore make it easier to solve collective action problems, which would benefit America. It would also allow the U.S. to “incur fewer casualties, spend less money, and gain more political support” if it shared the costs and benefits of its policies with its ally partners. (Hunter) Hence, a modification in the tone employed by American foreign policymakers and a rejection of the current toolbox approach will benefit American foreign policy by strengthening the transatlantic alliance and by facilitating other important benefits.

While a change in tone and approach would accomplish much in the mending of the transatlantic rift, fully repairing the relationship depends on whether the United States implements my second recommendation. While core U.S. objectives like the stabilization of Iraq and non-proliferation in Iran and North Korea should remain the same, the U.S. should nonetheless subtly alter the content of its foreign policy by being more sensitive to the concerns of its European allies. In practice, this impulse would encourage two specific alterations to U.S. policy. The United States should be more robust in its engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and in the negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear ambitions. These alterations can be pursued while maintaining the core U.S. objectives in the Middle East, namely peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prevention of Iran’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, but they also provide the important and necessary benefit of accelerating the repair of the transatlantic relationship. Given the historical strategic importance of the relationship, the recommendations outlined in this paper are deserving of serious consideration. Fortunately for the United States and the world, prospects for improvement in the transatlantic relationship seem positive as long as the United States exhibits a genuine commitment to diplomacy. In particular, the emergence of new leadership in Palestine opens the door for deep U.S. engagement in the peace process while the suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities signals a potential turning point in that crisis. In the end, it is up to the United States how it plans to address these pressing issues and the significant rift in its relationship with its European allies. Fortunately, the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy objectives and progress on all of these fronts are not mutually exclusive outcomes.

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Ikenberry, G. John. “America’s Imperial Ambition,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2002.
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Project for the New American Century

World Press Review. “We Are All Americans,” November 2001.


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