Rebuilding Trans-Atlantic Ties

By David A. Harris

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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Call me hopelessly, irredeemably naive, but I remain convinced that Americans and Europeans are umbilically bound by common fundamental values and common existential threats, and thus, ipso facto, a common agenda.

This was not necessarily obvious in 2003, with demonstrators filling the streets of Europe to protest George W. Bush’s, and to a lesser extent Tony Blair’s, decision to go to war in Iraq. There were clashes over American steel tariffs, the U.S. dollar policy and the demand that foreign airlines place armed air marshals on some flights using U.S. airspace, just to name a few.

But these events and issues do not erase, or even erode, the common principles that bind us — democracy, the rule of law, respect for the dignity of the individual — and our need for each other in the face of global threats. Just as the survival of democratic nations was at risk during World War II and again during the cold war, today these nations are in the cross hairs of the radical Islamic terrorist network.

True, some European countries initially convinced themselves that this threat concerned America (and Israel) but not them. But as Islamist terrorist cells have been uncovered in Britain, Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, there needs to be a recognition that we are all in this together. The targets are not merely specific countries; they are the fundamental values of democratic societies: freedom, separation of religion and state, religious tolerance, pluralism and women’s rights.

Moreover, at the risk of stating the painfully obvious, the threat from terrorist groups and their supporters operating in nearly every Western country is heightened by the prospect, the Libyan turnaround notwithstanding, of increasingly available weapons of mass destruction.

In the face of this global, long-term menace, the United States and Europe must maintain full cooperation in the gathering and sharing of intelligence and countless other fields if we are to win this daunting conflict.

We have to do a better job of coordinating policy, not only when it comes to fighting the terrorist groups themselves, but also in confronting those nations that help and harbor these groups. We cannot afford to let such nations play us off against each other, as they so often have in the past.

In the final analysis, the struggle against the radicals also entails strengthening the moderates in the Islamic world. Here again, the United States and Europe can increase the odds for success by working together.

Those of us living on both sides of the Atlantic have a profound stake in finding constructive ways to encourage greater openness in countries that by and large have been remarkably resistant to the political and economic revolutions of recent times. Otherwise, further regression is inevitable, with a still greater disparity between their world and ours, and all the attendant implications for conflict, terrorism and the spread of fundamentalism.

Imagine for a moment the catastrophic global consequences if nuclear Pakistan — a turbulent country of 150 million, with 40% of its population under the age of 15 — descended into civil war or fell into the hands of the Islamists. The unraveling of Pakistan would have staggering geopolitical, strategic and economic implications for both Europe and the United States.

The United States and Europe share an interest in extending the reach of some modicum of democracy and pluralism, especially to the Arab world, much of which is located at Europe’s doorstep. There’s room for collaboration driven by the common overall objective of stabilizing the region and increasing prospects for peaceful conflict resolution and human development.

To be sure, there inevitably will be serious differences between Europe and the United States that are rooted in political rivalry, economic competition or divergent assessments. But in a broader framework, these differences, given good will, should be quite manageable and must in any case never be permitted to overshadow the commonalities. Frankly, too much hangs in the balance when it comes to global security issues.

A powerful European Union of 15 nations, soon to be 25, cannot easily be ignored or dismissed, even when Americans don’t like what they see, no more than Europe can ever afford to ignore or dismiss the United States. Each side must engage the other with skill, sophistication and sensitivity, with ever more points of contact established.

One such contact point will be the Transatlantic Institute, the latest diplomatic initiative of the American Jewish Committee, which opens this week in Brussels. Today, surprisingly, there are not nearly as many nongovernmental organizations devoted specifically to the trans-Atlantic relationship as one might think. Thus, the Transatlantic Institute will seek to make a difference in rebuilding and strengthening ties between Europe and the United States, guided by the belief that dialogue and cooperation on the core issues confronting democratic nations are essential for the world’s future.

David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

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