April 30, 2004 | Commentary on International Organizations

A Fine Romance

It is so very tempting to resort to the metaphors of domestic life when discussing the state of Trans-Atlantic relations. Throughout 2003, Americans and Europeans behaved like dysfunctional family members, who just don't seem to be able to agree on anything. Or like an old married couple who generally could not stand the sight of each other.

Taking the temperature of the Trans-Atlantic relationship has become quite a growth industry; as we all know, unhappy families are far more fascinating than happy one. One such exercise in the frank exchange of views across the Atlantic took place over the weekend in Venice, Italy, organized by the Council for the United States and Italy. You have to grant the Italians this: Whatever the tenor of the policy debate, the Italians produce the most beautiful and congenial venues on the face of the earth.

And there are signs that the atmosphere across the Atlantic may be warming a bit. The Spanish elections on March 14 were a wake-up call for both Europeans and Americans that Al Qaeda's strategy of "divide and conquer" might just succeed in driving the West apart if leaders do not take some efforts to mend fences. That would be a huge strategic victory for the terrorists.

President Bush will have the opportunity to meet with European leaders no less than 3 times within a few weeks in June: At the NATO summit in Istanbul; at the G-8 summit on Sea Island, Georgia and at the EU-U.S. summit in Brussels, which follows the 60th anniversary D-Day celebrations in France. If there is an inclination to patch things up, we will see the evidence then. Meetings with Germans and French leaders are planned, so Mr. Bush must be determined to grin a bear it.

This warming trend will probably - hopefully - persist no matter who wins the presidential election in November. But there is no doubt that the majority of Europeans are anti-Bush and believe that John Kerry would be more to their liking, much like Bill Clinton. This is true even in a country like Italy, whose government remains a steadfast ally of the United States in Iraq and in the war against terrorism.

One American diplomat told me, "the Italians left is deeply envious of the American Democrats because they wish they had as strong, charismatic and dynamic leader as John Kerry." To which I must confess that my reply was -- "Uh?" Europeans don't like it too much when reminded Americans elect the American president, no one else.

Nor do they like it when told that despite a greater emphasis on multilateralism, John Kerry would not pull America troops out of Iraq and would ask for more NATO participation; that he is as supportive of Israel as George Bush; and that he would probably be more protectionist on trade issues.

There are several reasons for qualified optimism. The United States and Europe very much need each other in the fight against terrorism, drug smuggling and the numerous diffuse threats of the 21st century. In fact, in terms of intelligence sharing some of our most important international partners are in Europe. With their greater Muslim populations, Europeans have better human intelligence assets than the United States.

Together Europe and the United States represent 40 percent of the world's Gross Domestic Product; one third of world trade and have $500 billion in annual foreign direct investment each way. We have $400 billion in annual trade between us. That economic foundation remains solid, even as political differences between the United States and some European leaders have grown shriller.

This is not to say that there are not profound differences, which sometimes create a dialogue of the deaf. As the European Union enlarges to 26 members of May 1 and continues to debate its new constitution, Europeans have become absorbed in their own affairs. Many Europeans believe they have moved into a post-modern paradise, in which the use of force has become obsolete. The American experience has been very different. Nowhere is this truer than in the war against terrorism.

Still, as was noted by a high-ranking Italian official, Trans-Atlantic cooperation is key to a cohesive Europe, preventing divisions within Europe. And areas where burden sharing will be particularly important are NATO cooperation in Afghanistan and Iraq, peacekeeping (which Europeans often do better than Americans), a long-term commitment to cooperation in the Middle East.

And even if there is still some bitterness, at least we are still talking. When it comes to family members, there is no doubt that talking is better than frosty silence.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations

First appeared in The Washington Times