The Iraq war marked a low point for the trans-Atlantic alliance. One year later, the rift between America and Europe remains wide. Some observers have ascribed the tensions that erupted during the Iraq crisis to the aggressive foreign policy of the Bush administration or the difficult behavior of European leaders. But in reality the roots of the current trans-Atlantic crisis go much deeper. The war in Iraq was merely the trigger that brought these tensions to the surface.
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Europeans reflexively identified with Americans. Le Monde’s headline of September 12, “We are all Americans,” captured this feeling. For most Europeans, 9/11 meant that the United States now confronted a terrorist threat similar to, though more extreme than, the one faced by Europe for the past 20 years. For Americans, however, the September 11 attacks were not seen as an extreme manifestation of an existing phenomenon but rather as the beginning of a new era in international relations. The world could not function according to traditional rules, since these had proven to be ineffective.
Europeans, schooled in the traditions of diplomacy, tend to value international stability, even at the expense of justice. Americans, especially after 9/11, have tended to fall back on their nation’s idealistic traditions, which call for remaking the world in America’s image and aggressively promoting the spread of democracy to defuse threats abroad.
The Clinton administration also believed in promoting democracy abroad, but its actions created little serious friction with Europe because it did not claim that democracy could be spread by force. The combination of the more muscular language of the Bush administration and the trauma felt by all Americans after 9/11, which allowed the Bush team to implement its ideas with real public support, changed the situation greatly. But the roots of the disagreement on the desirable aims of foreign action were present before the current administration.
As a result of this historic idealism and the changed international situation, the United States, for the moment at least, has ceased to be a power interested in maintaining the status quo, and has instead embarked upon a transformative course of action. We see this manifested in the Bush administration’s “Greater Middle East” initiative to promote democracy in the Arab world. An international system where the most powerful player is also a revisionist power becomes a fragile one.
Moreover, it is not easy for any power, particularly one with as wide-ranging interests as the United States, to be entirely consistent in its foreign policy. The result is that American policy is alternately revolutionary and conservative. The Bush administration is determined to reshape the Arab world, but this revolutionary fervor is conspicuously absent when it comes to resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Hence, many Europeans, including those in countries whose governments had supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, feel that American foreign policy is not only hypocritical, but also erratic and therefore dangerous.
European and American views of the use of force in the international system are also at odds. Europeans continue to believe that force is only legitimate when sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, representing the world community as it is. To Americans, especially after 9/11, this view has become hard to accept: For them, legitimacy can only come from bodies that do not reflect the world’s failings. During the negotiations among Security Council members in the run-up to the Iraq war, it was a matter of puzzlement to many Americans that they had to request the support of states such as Syria, Angola and others if toppling Saddam Hussein was of benefit to mankind.
Today, the ongoing chaos in Iraq has led many in the United States to take a more pragmatic attitude toward intervention abroad. The value of the United Nations’ blessing is more widely recognized, on practical grounds, than it was a year ago. Conversely, now that Iraq is under occupation, all Europeans — including those most opposed to last year’s war, see that failure would spell disaster for Europe and are prepared to support reconstruction and state-building.
But the differences in the American and European conceptions of the world remain. Europe and America will continue to have different instinctive attitudes toward crises, and NATO, at present the main trans-Atlantic institution, based on the cold war principle of unity of purpose, is ill-equipped to handle this reality. NATO must become much more flexible so that it can be allowed to function even when all its members do not agree. Accepting that we are different is the only way that Americans and Europeans will be able to continue to work together in the future.
Guillaume Parmentier is the director of the French Center on the United States at the French Institute of International Relations and the co-author, with Michael Brenner, of “Reconcilable Differences: U.S.-French Relations in the New Era” (Brookings Institution Press, 2002).