Time for a Europe/US patch-up

By Wolfgang Munchau

Financial Times

Published: January 24 2005

Just suppose that George W. Bush, speaking from the banks of the Danube river in Bratislava during his scheduled visit to Europe next month, announces his intention to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol. It would be a powerful way to revive transatlantic relations. But dream on. It is not going to happen.

Instead we will see a revival of old-fashioned transatlantic travel diplomacy. Next month, Mr Bush will stop by in Brussels and Mainz before his meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Bratislava, where he will most certainly not announce a change of US climate policy. Expect a lot of idle talk about Europeans and Americans sharing the same interests, facing the same terrorist threat, and that the tsunami disaster brought us all closer together. Even the French have become increasingly pragmatic. On the surface it looks as though the political leaderships in the US and Europe are serious in their intent to put their disagreement over Iraq to rest and move on.

The trouble is that the causes of the transatlantic disagreement are not diplomatic, but political. On this score, both sides continue to move apart at great speed. In his second inaugural speech last week Mr Bush stated the foreign-policy objectives of his second term as supporting "the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world". His foreign-policy doctrine alienates Europeans to the core, both in style and content. The president's missionary rhetoric and his religious allusions sit ill with European secularism and relativism. Europe's criticism of Mr Bush's speech was succinctly expressed by Reinhard Butikofer, leader of Germany's Green party, which is part of the coalition government of Gerhard Schröder, the chancellor. "The big ideal of freedom is being hijacked by a policy that produces less freedom in the end," he said.

Americans never tire of pointing out that Europeans underestimate the effect September 11 had on US politics. They are right. But likewise, Americans tend to underestimate the effect the war against Iraq had on European politics. In Europe, a seminal event was the German election in 2002. The importance of that election lies in the fact that anti-Americanism turned into a viable political agenda for the first time. The political reality is that neither in the US nor in Germany nor in France can you win an election on a predominantly pro-transatlantic ticket any longer.

The decline of the pro-transatlantic lobby in Europe is one of the most important political developments in the past few years. Transatlanticists used to have enormous influence in governments and parliaments, in the military and in the diplomatic service. Transatlantic relations remain a favourite on the conference circuit. But the tone is becoming increasingly anguished and desperate. So desperate in fact that commentators these days are delighted by the sheer fact that Mr Bush and Mr Schröder, the political leaders of the world's largest and third largest economies, are back on speaking terms. They are so enthralled by this fact that they no longer seem to care what the two actually have to say to each other.

What will drive them apart is politics. US neo-conservatives are right in predicting that European political integration poses a potential long-term threat to US hegemony. This year, a large number of EU countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, will take a big step towards further integration when they ratify the European constitutional treaty. The war against Iraq may have split the Europeans into two camps. But US military action against Iran, if and when it happens, is far more likely to unify Europeans in opposition to the US. Meanwhile, the Europeans will eventually go ahead with lifting the arms embargo on China, another source of transatlantic conflict.

In the US, the hardliners in the Bush administration have cemented their position. Mr Schröder's term runs until 2006 while that of Jacques Chirac, the French president, runs until 2007. This is not a constellation under which political change is likely to happen. To get transatlantic relations back on track requires more than a renewed diplomatic effort. The disagreement needs to be solved politically if it is to be solved at all.