Can the U.S. and Europe renew their relationship? Or will deep-seated differences be too much to overcome?
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In his first European trip as president of the United States, Barack Obama traveled to Strasbourg, France, in early April 2009. His goal was to improve his nation’s reputation abroad, which has been heavily damaged in recent years. He sought to engage European leaders in mending the economic woes plaguing the world and obtain Europe’s support for a new strategy in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
During his 25-minute speech to a crowd of 4,000 French and German citizens, the president discussed some of the central, hot-button issues affecting European-American relations, outlining a number of his administration’s new policies. He introduced a dramatic goal of “a world without nuclear weapons,” stating that the United States would reduce its stockpile; vowed that the U.S. would adequately address climate change; and expounded his decision to permanently close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, adding, “Without equivocation that the United States does not and will not torture.”
Each point received enthusiastic applause from the European audience.
Pacing the stage, Mr. Obama said, “We must be honest with ourselves. In recent years, we’ve allowed our alliance to drift.” He said the world united following the attacks on 9/11, but then “we got sidetracked by Iraq.”
The president blames both sides for the schism.
“In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world,” and “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.”
“But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what’s bad.”
The president added, “On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated. They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America.”
Perhaps best summarizing the purpose of his trip to France, President Obama said, “So I’ve come to Europe this week to renew our partnership, one in which America listens and learns from our friends and allies, but where our friends and allies bear their share of the burden. Together, we must forge common solutions to our common problems.”
America has been called the “melting pot of the world,” and many of its “ingredients” have come from Europe. The foundation of the U.S. population emigrated from Europe, beginning in the late 1700s. Since then, the two “nations” have had much in common and have worked together to achieve common goals.
Recently, however, relations have taken a turn for the worse, prompting Mr. Obama’s trip abroad.
Can the U.S. and Europe renew their relationship? Or will deep-seated differences be too much to overcome—and eventually lead to the unthinkable?
The close relationship between the United States and Europe began in the early to mid-20th century, when America dramatically intervened and saved the continent from obliteration and economic meltdown. During that time, Europe was battered by two devastating wars. World War II brought the most destruction, with fighting having occurred throughout most of the continent.
The majority of large cities sustained enormous damage from daily aerial bombardment, and industrial zones were hit especially hard. Transportation infrastructure—roads, bridges and railways—were also highly targeted. Warsaw and Berlin lay in absolute ruin, while London and Rotterdam fared only slightly better. Europe’s economic situation was dire, with small towns left isolated and millions of people homeless.
The problems were grand and numerous. Many countries were unable to remedy the situation, as the war effort had drained their treasuries of the funds necessary to bring back economic stability.
Enter the United States of America and the plan of Secretary of State George Marshall.
Established in July 1947, the European Recover Program (the “Marshall Plan”) was an aggressive attempt by the U.S. to rebuild and bring stability to Western Europe. Over the next four years, America gave $13 billion in assistance, resulting in the fastest period of growth in the history of Europe.
Historians debate how much should be credited to the Marshall Plan; nonetheless, during the next two decades, agricultural production surpassed pre-war levels, industrial production rose 35 percent, starvation disappeared, and the average European’s standard of living surpassed anything previously seen.
Perhaps just as important were the political effects of the Marshall Plan. Food rationing and other austerity measures were scaled back, which reduced discontent among the continent’s citizens. Communist influence diminished greatly in Western Europe. Trade relations improved and led to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. NATO would later bind the U.S. and Europe together during the Cold War against a common enemy—the communist Soviet Union.
A new form of European integration began to take shape. Both America and Europe realized the importance of European nations coming together to secure peace and prosperity. Each nation, left to its own devices, could accomplish only so much. But cooperation among many brought great economic power to the region. The underpinnings were laid for the eventual formation of the European Union decades later.
U.S.-European relations remained relatively stable, even with the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Some wondered whether the absence of America’s and Europe’s common enemy would strain relations, but it did not. Rather, instability resulting from the dissolving of Yugoslavia provided NATO with a clear reason to remain unified. It engaged in its first war in Kosovo in 1999.
In the late 1990s, with the Cold War a thing of the past, NATO found opportunities to expand its influence and bring economic and political benefits, as well as security, to nations in Eastern Europe. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic aligned with the organization in 1999, with a number of others joining in 2004 and beyond.
The only real tension during this time was Europe’s concern that the U.S. might return to isolationism, and America’s irritation that Europe did not invest enough in defense. But in all, both held a favorable view of each other.
Following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, the relationship between the United States and Europe grew even stronger. Nations around the world extended an outpouring of sympathy. Europe, which lost citizens in the attack, was outraged and stood firmly behind America. For the first time in its history, on Sept. 12, 2001, NATO invoked Article V, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all.
When the U.S. decided to track down Osama bin Laden and associated terrorists in Afghanistan, all of Europe agreed. European nations viewed the response as appropriate and constrained. After all, it was well-known that al-Qaeda was training its followers in camps throughout the country, and that the Taliban government supported bin Laden. Both powers recognized a very real threat emanating from Afghanistan and were determined to fully cooperate in dealing with it.
Then, in early 2003, America decided to invade Iraq, on the basis of ridding the rogue nation of weapons of mass destruction. (Of course, it was later discovered that Iraq did not possess such an arsenal.)
However, a number of European nations disapproved of the military action, namely France, Germany and Belgium, who wanted to allow the inspection process to run its due course.
Britain, though, sided with the U.S. After failing to receive unanimous support from other nations on the UN Security Council, the two powers decided to use previous resolutions on Iraq as authority to go to war. There was strong support from a handful of other European nations. At the end of 2003, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland signed a joint document expressing their agreement with the war.
Still, a failure to achieve unanimous support from the European Union was diplomatically costly for the United States in terms of transatlantic relations. It was the beginning of much tension and division.
Recently, U.S. foreign policy has become offensive to many Europeans because of what they believe is America’s unnecessary use of raw, preemptive power. Many have viewed the U.S. as thumbing its nose on international agreements, namely the Kyoto Protocol, the International Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. coined the war against terrorism the “war on terror,” a phrase that has been oft repeated. Europeans grew to firmly dislike the term and the offensive operations conducted within it. They became increasingly concerned with the direction and actions of the most powerful nation in the world. America’s new strategy to preemptively strike what it deems to be terrorist threats anywhere in the world flew in the face of Europe’s idea of international norms, the importance of exhausting all diplomatic options before military intervention and the necessity of the global community reaching decisions collectively, rather than single nations acting unilaterally as they see fit. (Since entering office, Mr. Obama has dropped the term.)
Overall, following the end of both World Wars, Europe has moved toward a position of diplomacy and a willingness to live with threats. Its combined defense budget is hundreds of billions of dollars less than that of the United States.
On the other hand, America has become more militaristic in its approach to engage what are perceived as threats to its national and economic security. The superpower is often thought of as a “big brother,” policing the world and protecting nations that are incapable of warding off enemies.
In his book The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, Jeremy Rifkin writes, “The American Dream is wedded to love of country and patriotism. The European Dream is more cosmopolitan and less territorial. Americans are more willing to employ military force in the world, if necessary, to protect what we perceive to be our vital self-interests. Europeans are more reluctant to use military force, and, instead, they favor diplomacy, economic assistance, and aid to avert conflict and prefer peacekeeping operations to maintain order.”
Robert Kagan, a U.S. historian and prominent scholar on European-American relations, believes the two powers share nearly polar opposite values and world views. In his June 2002 Policy Review essay, titled “Power and Weakness,” Mr. Kagan wrote, “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.”
Mr. Kagan explains that “on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus: They agree on little and understand one another less and less…European intellectuals are nearly unanimous in the conviction that Americans and Europeans no longer share a common “strategic culture”…The United States, they argue, resorts to force more quickly, and compared with Europe, is less patient with diplomacy. Americans generally see the world divided between good and evil, between friends and enemies, while Europeans see a more complex picture.”
“On the all-important question of power—the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power—American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation.”
Mr. Kagan continues: “Today’s transatlantic problem, in short, is…a power problem. American military strength has produced a propensity to use that strength. Europe’s military weakness has produced a perfectly understandable aversion to the exercise of military power. Indeed, it has produced a powerful European interest in inhabiting a world where strength doesn’t matter, where international law and institutions predominate, where unilateral action by powerful nations is forbidden, where all nations regardless of their strength have equal rights and are equally protected by commonly agreed-upon international rules of behavior…This natural and historic disagreement between the stronger and the weaker manifests itself in today’s transatlantic dispute over the question of unilateralism.”
In the book The End of the West? – Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order, foreign policy expert Charles Kupchan states, “A Europe at peace and a deeper and wider European Union (EU) have diminished European dependence on US power.”
“Europeans have accordingly grown more ready to assert their autonomy and chart their own course, upon occasion breaking with the United States on key policy issues.”
The U.S. is hopeful that President Obama’s trip to Strasbourg, France, will signal a shift in transatlantic relations, and that the decades-old allies can reunite to address the monumental global issues of our time. With a new president at the helm, and a new foreign policy, America is optimistic that the two powers can return to a similar relationship of the 20th century.
Yet signs point toward Europe continuing its march toward self-sufficiency and reliance on its own rapidly increasing economic and political power.
Could an unthinkable scenario develop in the not too distant future? Could it be possible that a military confrontation looms over the horizon? Many scoff at the idea, especially in light of Europe’s view of military action. Yet, a source long ago foretold of such a scenario. To learn more about how this could unfold, read our two-part series, “The European Counterweight – Part 1: A Leaderless Superpower” and “The European Counterweight – Part 2: Will a Strongman Fill the Void?”