Can the US and Europe overcome their differences?

By Daniel Dombey and Guy Dinmore

Financial Times

Published: November 15 2004

With George W. Bush back in the White House, the world's most successful alliance faces its most difficult period yet. During Mr Bush's first term, America's alliance with Europe's democracies, which had won the cold war and opened up much of the world for free trade, almost fell apart over the conflict in Iraq.

The president's second term and European reaction to it will reveal whether a lasting realignment is in store - and what that means for the common transatlantic agenda of security and prosperity. And while the desire for a closer transatlantic relationship has already emerged as a theme for the second Bush administration, Europe is pulling away from the US on some of the most sensitive subjects in international politics.

"The president is very clear," Colin Powell, US secretary of state, told the FT last week. "He will work with the international community to the greatest extent but even the most multilateral approach requires a leader."

Indeed, Mr Bush used the occasion of a visit by Tony Blair, the British prime minister, on Friday to stress that he would use his second term to "deepen transatlantic ties". He also expressed the intention to visit Europe soon after his January inauguration, "sending an early signal that we want to come and work with Europe", according to a senior White House official. The US was getting the same message from Europe, the official added, mentioning Brussels as a likely venue for discussions with Nato and the European Union.

The ambassadors to Washington of France and Germany, who have consistently sought to minimise the strains of the past two years, are now bearing messages of good will (see below). Both sides are fostering the idea that this is a moment to be seized. At the same time, the death of Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, creates room for manoeuvre for the US in the Arab- Israeli conflict, an issue that inflames passions on both sides of the Atlantic. But in Europe, where many officials had desperately wanted a victory for John Kerry, Mr Bush's Democrat challenger, doubts about the US leadership have never been so great.

On some of the most sensitive global questions, including Iraq, European countries are overcoming the divisions that emerged last year between "old" and "new" Europe. And on crucial pending issues, such as Iran's nuclear programme and European Union plans to lift an arms embargo on China, Britain - otherwise the US's closest ally - is working with France and Germany, despite barely veiled disapproval from Washington.

On Iraq itself, many Europeans fear that a continuation of current US policy will pull the two blocs even further apart. There are many in Washington, officials included, who remain cynical about the Bush administration's intentions and doubtful that circumstances will be as propitious for a rapprochement as the White House imagines.

In such circumstances, a difficult and strained accommodation, punctuated by crises, may be all that the transatlantic relationship can hope for.

"There are two temptations after the US election," Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, said in an interview last week. "One temptation is that in the US some neoconservatives may think this is the moment to break Europe. Another temptation is that in Europe some people say this is the moment to become a counterweight. But in fact a stronger Europe is a better partner for the Americans."

The most pressing issue is Iran, which both the Americans and Europeans warn could be the next source of strain in transatlantic relations. The EU's big three powers - France, Germany and the UK - have been negotiating a deal with Tehran over Iran's nuclear programme, despite criticism from the US, which has pushed for over a year for the issue to be referred to the United Nations. Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran's ambassador to Paris, said last night that a "general agreement" had been reached with the three European countries.

The EU believes that Iran will only give up its nuclear ambitions - which the US maintains include nuclear weapons - if the international community "engages" with Tehran. It warns, in the words of Jack Straw, Britain's foreign affairs minister, that military action against Iran is "inconceivable".

But Washington is deeply sceptical about any EU-brokered deal with Iran.

"It has to be an agreement that really does solve the problem and not another agreement that . . . gives the Iranians a chance to slip away from referral [to the UN] again," said Mr Powell. "Our judgment is they've been moving toward a nuclear weapon."

Washington and Brussels are also likely to be at odds soon over the EU's plans to lift its arms embargo on China, despite a furious round of US lobbying.

The EU maintains that the 1989 embargo is out of keeping with today's ties with Beijing and that other controls can be used to restrict the transfer of sensitive technologies to China. The EU is set to end the ban in the first half of next year. The US replies that lifting the embargo could make it easier for China to invade Taiwan.

On both Iran and China, Britain is forging a common line with France and Germany, in contrast with last year's clash over Iraq, which reverberated inside as well as outside Europe.

That leaves Mr Blair in an exposed position. His trip last week to the White House, the first such visit by a foreign leader after Mr Bush's re- election, was a reward for his loyalty over Iraq. What the British prime minister is more likely to appreciate, however, is a US policy that allows him to strike a common position with his EU allies without alienating the US when issues such as Iran and China come to the crunch.

Mr Blair has also called for France and Germany to take a more constructive attitude to the US.

"The real question is Tony Blair," says a senior European diplomat. "Tony Blair has a right to be repaid [by the US for his backing for the Iraq war]. But he has not been paid back. What Blair has done for Bush is tremendous. He has to have more room for manoeuvre to get closer to Europe." Brent Scowcroft, US national security adviser under Mr Bush's father, has argued in the Washington Post that the US should link the issues of Iran, Iraq and Israel-Palestine in a common policy worked out with Europe. But it appears the Bush administration is adopting what one US official described as the "diplomatic bazaar" approach: reaching out over Israel-Palestine in exchange for more assistance in Iraq, while not yielding any ground over Iran.

Meanwhile, EU countries are beginning to draw closer together, healing some of last year's wounds within the Union.

In the run-up to the war last year, Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, described France and Germany contemptuously as "old Europe", to be contrasted with the "new Europe" of new Nato members, such as Poland and the Baltic states. Richard Haass, then director of policy planning at the US State Department, described Washington's policy as "disaggregation".

It was an approach many Europeans saw as divide and rule, contrasting it with the broad US support that dated back to the Truman administration's encouragement for "the political and economic unification of Europe" in 1952. France and Germany lined up with Russia in a campaign against the war while pro-war leaders made declarations of support for Mr Bush.

Today, continuing unrest in Iraq is leading even the so-called "new" Euro pean countries to pull their troops out of the country. The perception that Iraq is a troubled enterprise, or indeed a failing venture, has increased the political cost for those European leaders who have supported Mr Bush and boosted the electoral returns for those that criticised US policy.

The Netherlands and Hungary have recently announced their intention to withdraw their troops from Iraq and Poland would like to do the same after the Iraqi elections, scheduled for January.

"We never accepted the way Mr Rumsfeld tried to divide Europe into the old and new parts," said Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, Polish foreign minister. He argues that there is now a greater consensus in Europe on helping the political process in Iraq.

The EU is planning to provide Iraq with police training and assistance with running the election, although some European diplomats say the move is little more than symbolic. "We want to help as much as possible as Europeans - with elections, with police," says Mr Solana. "If you need us to put a flag there, well, we are willing to do that."

At the same time, EU countries have united in opposition to the US on "values-based" issues, such as Washington's rejection of the Kyoto protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court - and on the US's detention and interrogation practices in Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

According to Francis Fukuyama of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, such transatlantic differences are "deep and abiding".

And while differences between the US and its European partners go back half a century to 1956, when the US forced Britain and France to give up their military intervention in Suez, the present rift is far greater.

Europe, the world's powerhouse until 1914 and the chief military theatre during both the world wars and the cold war, has lost its central strategic roleon the international stage. So has Nato, which was all but torn apart by the Iraq war. Both developments mean that Europe counts for less in Washington.

A difficult modus vivendi is emerging with the US. Walter Russell Mead of the US's Council on Foreign Relations, the influential foreign policy organisation, says the two sides will learn to live together "like a married couple who cannot afford to divorce".

The US has already toned down objections to an EU initiative to develop European defence co-operation, following the downgrading of plans for an independent European military planning centre. In any case, the EU often relies on the US and Nato: EU military spending, which stood at $180bn last year, is considerably less than half the US level.

Europeans see a hopeful sign in the prospect that Mr Powell may stay on as secretary of state in Mr Bush's second term. However, the limits of transatlantic co-operation are clear. Within Nato, a long-running, low intensity battle has raged between Nicholas Burns, US ambassador, and Benoit d'Aboville, his French counterpart, which eventually produced painful compromises.

Nato has not taken command of any sector in Iraq, as the US had hoped last year, but it is sending a military training mission to Baghdad. While the US has not been able to convince France and Germany that Nato's 8,500 troops in Afghanistan should go under the same command as the US-led forces in the country, Washington hopes to do so by the end of next year.

The EU and the US are also continuing their commercial co-operation, all too aware that the two blocs together account for 40 per cent of world trade and over 60 per cent of global gross domestic product. The two sides have worked closely in kicking off the current Doha round of trade negotiations.

But their alliance faces a stern test in the shape of a battle over subsidies to Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer, and Boeing, its US rival,the biggest such dispute to be referred to the World Trade Organisation.

And as Europe and Washington try to build a more constructive working relationship, the risk of serious differences lies ahead.

Mr Bush's relations with individual leaders, such as José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain, remain little short of poisonous. Yet even Mr Blair, whom Mr Zapatero had fiercely criticised, is improving his relations with Spain. On issues such as Iran, China and the need for more work on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, the EU is growing more united.

Such a common front in Europe has consequences for the relationship with the US. The next time a split appears in transatlantic relations, it may not be mirrored by a split inside Europe itself. The greater unity in the old continent underlines the new-found fragility of a transatlantic alliance that once carried all before it.

Fine words mask tensions with France

The Bush administration would not have been surprised to learn that most French voters wanted John Kerry, the Democrat candidate, to win the US presidency, writes John Thornhill. According to an opinion poll in Le Parisien newspaper, 65 per cent of French citizens considered George W. Bush’s re-election a “bad thing”.

The day after the US elections, French politicians from across the spectrum expressed their dismay at the result. Politicians on the right fretted about the continued unilateralism of the world’s sole hyperpuissance. Politicians on the left worried about what impact “Black Tuesday” would have on the global environment and multilateral institutions.

But some more reflective minds in Paris called for a degree of patience: US presidents often behaved very differently in their second terms than their first.

Moreover, Mr Bush’s re-election showed that he was not some “accidental” president - as many French commentators liked to believe - but an astute politician who genuinely reflected the views of the majority of US voters. It was time for France and other European countries to wake up to that fact.

One response has been to persuade French politicians of the need to strengthen Europe as a perceived counter-weight to the US.

Speaking to a group of young people in Marseilles yesterday, Mr Chirac called for a stronger Europe that could more forcefully project the values of peace, democracy and human rights. “A more united Europe will allow international law to be heard in a clearer fashion,” he said. If Europe had been more united on the question of Iraq “things would have evolved in a different way”.

But Michel Barnier, the French foreign minister, has been at pains to stress that a strengthened Europe would more often work with the US rather than against it. It was in Washington’s interests that Europe was a capable and responsible partner.

In an open letter to America, published in the Wall Street Journal and Le Monde, Mr Barnier said Paris was keen to re-engage with the US and to start a “new dialogue”.

“We have so much to do together: to promote democracy, justice and development; to fight against terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction; to prevent wars, to strengthen peace, and to act against the root causes of terrorism,” he said.

On a practical level, the two countries are already working closely together in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Africa, and parts of the Middle East. France’s actions in the Ivory Coast, in particular, highlight how it too is in the tricky game of peace-keeping and nation-building - as it has been in Africa (with questionable success) for decades.

However, French criticisms of US actions towards Iraq have not diminished.

Paris continues to believe the war was a tragic mistake that has unsettled the Middle East and aggravated the threat of terrorism. French officials say they will now do what they can to help promote the political and economic stability of Iraq by training local security forces (outside Iraq)or re-scheduling the country’s external debt. But Paris rules out ever sending troops - and privately French officials appear relieved that a President Kerry never had the chance to ask them to reconsider this position.

These differences with Washington over Iraq remain fundamental and bitter. There is no disguising the fact that - in spite of the fine words emanating from the French foreign ministry - the atmospherics between Washington and Paris remain atrocious.

There is a sense in Paris, though, that Franco-US relations over the next four years will be as good - or as bad - as the Bush administration wishes them to be. The French cannot unsay what has been said. The question is whether the Bush administration can - or even wants to - turn the page and work towards the goals they do have in common.