Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Grasping for the Past in Europe?

Steven Meyer


November 18, 2002

Is the United States headed for a divorce from Europe? Is it possible that a fundamental split is well under way between the U.S. and some of our staunchest, most faithful allies?

The French criticize the U.S. as a "hyper-power" and lead the opposition to American policy on Iraq. German Chancellor Schroeder turns around a failing reelection campaign by attacking the U.S. position on Iraq—a campaign in which one member of Schroeder's Social Democratic Party compared President Bush's tactics to those of Hitler. Even before the latest Iraq crisis, serious divisions were emerging. European governments and Washington have long had vastly different views on such matters as the environment and the Kyoto Treaty, the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, support for the new International Criminal Court, and access to each other's markets. Military cooperation—except at the rhetorical level—has been deteriorating for years because the technological gap between the U.S. and Europe grows wider by the month. More importantly, a philosophical gulf has emerged between the U.S. and Europe on when, where, and how to use military force.

Behind these—and many other—examples lives a deep and probably permanent split between the U.S. and its traditional European allies on a broad array of issues. With the unifying threat of the Soviet Union gone and the growing hegemonic and unilateral proclivities of the current Bush administration, a new world is emerging—a world that finds the U.S. and most of Europe going in different directions. It is not a world in which our shared respect for democratic values has diminished, but it is one in which our interests are diverging. Sadly, Washington (and some Europeans) continue to assume that European and American democratic values and interests are identical as was true during the Cold War.

Yet this assumption has led to an increasingly convoluted, even surreal, relationship between the Europeans and us. At one level we cling irrationally to policies and institutions of a bygone era. Next week, for example, at the NATO Summit in Prague we will expand the alliance—the linchpin of that bygone era—yet again, adding seven Central European countries to the 19 current members. More importantly, NATO will once again try to "transform" itself to become relevant to the contemporary environment by trying to create a new rapid reaction force that can be deployed anywhere in the world on short notice.

But, "transformation" has been tried several times during the 1990s and, like those past efforts, the new rapid reaction force is one more gimmick designed to prop up an alliance that became obsolete with the collapse of the Communist threat. Clinging to the detritus of a bygone era denies the reality of the world that is emerging, glosses over the emerging differences in interests between the Europeans and the United States, and stands in the way of establishing relations with the Europeans that speak to our true interests.

Instead of clinging to policies, structures, and relationships held over from the Cold War, we should engage in action fit for a world dominated by issues, such as terrorism, environmental degradation, and international crime. Failing this, the coming American-European divorce may do more damage than we can now imagine to both our interests and our democratic values.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professof of Political Science
    National Defense University
    (The views expressed here are those of the author alone.)

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”