Europe's priorities after Powell

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: November 18 2004

The resignation of Colin Powell as US secretary of state was scarcely a surprise. Many of those who met him in recent months told of a man who seemed tired of the job and the interminable infighting in the administration of George W. Bush.

Mr Powell was a good soldier who served his commander-in-chief loyally. He may have disagreed with the more blatantly unilateralist actions of his government, but he was not going to quit before he finished his tour of duty.

He was also Europe's best friend in Washington, even if he seemed to lose most of the struggle for the president's ear to Dick Cheney, the vice-president, and Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

That there were battles was no secret. One high-level European visitor recalled a lengthy meeting on the Middle East at the State Department that Mr Powell had to leave for more talks on the same subject at the White House. "Thanks for the ammunition," he declared as he shook hands to go. His departure is bad news for Europe. There will be less sympathy in high places for European concerns on key questions such as the Israeli- Palestinian peace process and engaging Iran. The only good news is that, with Condoleezza Rice taking over, US foreign policy should be more coherent. She is utterly loyal to Mr Bush. They see eye-to-eye on the "war" on terror.

Ms Rice is inheriting a department on the defensive. The past four years saw a dramatic drop in support for the US and its policies around the world, especially in Europe and the Middle East. That was apparent even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The war in Iraq had the greatest effect on opinion polls, but they were already showing signs of the disaffection to come when Mr Bush refused to sign the Kyoto treaty on global warming and unilaterally scrapped the anti-ballistic missile treaty.

Some saw the international reaction as anti-Americanism, but in Europe it was really anti-Bushism. Opinion polls showed voters making a clear distinction between nation and administration. The danger of the election outcome is that dislike for the president will turn into a more general anti-Americanism.

Yet the outcome was not a landslide. Mr Bush won by 51 to 48 per cent of the popular vote. For a president at war that was a distinctly lukewarm endorsement. Moreover, there has seldom been such a division in attitudes between supporters and opponents. For those outside the US who remain alarmed by the policies of Mr Bush, there is no reason to blame America at large.

But the Bush victory confirms the view in Europe that the transatlantic divide has seldom been wider. Core values such as belief in democracy may be shared, but social attitudes, religious observance, the perception of threat and priorities for international action differ markedly.

Transatlantic Trends 2004, the German Marshall Fund opinion survey published in September, reported that "European support for strong American leadership has declined significantly over the past two years". Above all, Americans and Europeans are divided on the use of force: 82 per cent of Americans said war might sometimes be necessary to achieve "justice", against only 41 per cent of Europeans. There lies the divide in attitudes over Iraq and any future military intervention.

When dedicated Atlanticists meet these days, the mood is bordering on suicidal. In Rome last weekend, the Aspen Institute Italia hosted a seminar at which most participants seemed to agree that the differences between America and Europe were profound and structural, not merely a phase. They also feared that the main institution binding the two sides - Nato - was moribund and fading. "After four more years of Bush, will there be much Atlantic partnership left?" asked Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, former director for European affairs at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton.

Nato has been sorely weakened on three fronts. It has lost its Soviet enemy and its integrated military structures are ill-suited to the "war" on terror. Enlargement to take in many former Warsaw Pact members has made the organisation cumbersome and US commitment to "coalitions of the willing" for its wars has undermined the alliance's solidarity.

The alternative to Nato as an institutional glue to bind the two sides of the Atlantic should be the relationship between Washington and Brussels: the EU-US partnership. It is relatively robust as far as trade relations are concerned. It is getting increasingly close in terms of competition policy - regulating mergers and monopolies. But the overall framework remains feeble.

Six-monthly summits between the US and the country in the EU chair (currently the Netherlands), plus the European Commission, are often an embarrassment for their lack of substance. Until the EU has a genuine common foreign and defence policy, this seems likely to persist.

If the transatlantic partnership is to survive its crisis, a new framework is needed. It needs to be looser than Nato but closer than the present links. Michel Barnier, the French foreign minister, is calling for such a rethink. In Washington, the Center for Strategic and International Studies is proposing a new "Atlantic Compact". But the desire to keep the old order alive detracts from attempts to create a new one. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," seems the UK and US governments' view. But it is broke. The old glue has dissolved. If we do not find a new glue, President Jacques Chirac's vision of an "inevitable" drift into a multi-polar world may become reality, in spite of Tony Blair's attempt to keep balance on a high wire over the Atlantic.