Like all relationships, the one between Europe and the US needs constant attention

By Michael Howard

When was the last time relations between the US and its European allies were so fractious? Things seem to have got to the point where the very word “allies” may no longer be appropriate. With every new day some new issue seems to surface as a fresh source of division and dissent. Just as you think things can’t possibly get worse, they do.

What is happening to the Atlantic relationship that has seemed so strong for so long? Does it matter? And what, if anything, could or should be done about it?

It is surely the case that the list of issues on which Europe and America now hold seriously different views is longer than it has been for a generation. There is discord on defence, with growing irritation in Washington over what is seen as the pretentious posturing of European countries over their so-called European Defence Initiative. The Americans see falling European defence budgets accompanied by new and unnecessary command structures which seem to involve needless duplication of the command structure that already exists within Nato.

On the Middle East a difference in emphasis has become a yawning gulf. American attempts to pre-empt the outcome of Palestinian elections have evoked predictable European fury. Even Tony Blair has found it impossible to maintain the public support he has previously offered US Administrations.

As though these problems were not enough, deeper cultural divisions have become more intense. Many Europeans regard the use of capital punishment in the US as morally repugnant. Many Americans ascribe what they regard as a lack of total commitment to the anti-terrorism cause to latent European anti-Semitism. And Iraq is yet to come.

These divisive issues are all serious and important. But in one sense they are just surface manifestations of deeper forces and trends.

The truth is that Europe and North America are in serious danger of growing apart. The centre of gravity in North America is shifting westward. It is no accident that both Microsoft and Silicon Valley are on the West Coast. The attention of America’s policymakers will increasingly be drawn to the challenge of China, at once both a huge potential market for US goods and its only serious long-term rival for superpower status.

The ethnic balance in North America is changing. There are more and more Hispanics with more and more influence who look south rather than east. There are more Asiatic Americans. Neither group shares the traditional transatlantic ties with Europe.

And in Europe part of the impetus for European integration derives from a desire to establish a rival centre of power to the US, motivated in some quarters by explicit anti-Americanism. Does it matter? There are many of us who believe it does.

Most of the greatest challenges the world faces can best be overcome by Europeans and Americans working together. But if each of those challenges becomes a cockpit for transatlantic rivalry, an opportunity for one to score points off the other, the outlook is very gloomy. The challenges will be much more difficult to resolve.

A good example is to be seen in the contrasting outcome of the two most recent trade rounds. In Seattle, the US and the EU were on opposite sides. The talks ended in dissent. At Doha a genuine effort was made to work together to overcome the difficulties. Although many questions remain on the implementation of the agreement that was reached there, it was, at least, an agreement, with the potential for future progress.

What can be done to avert the dangers and promote and sustain the partnership? The key element must be a determination, on the part of all the governments involved, to manage these disagreements on specific issues within the overall context of preserving the partnership intact. The sound volume of dissent should be kept as low as possible. Points of friction must not be allowed to become points of fracture.

One specific measure would be the establishment of a standing conference of representatives from both sides of the Atlantic to try to identify likely causes of tension in advance and, where possible, take measures to resolve those issues before they caused real difficulty.

For it is clear that there will continue to be tensions. The question is whether their cumulative presence will be such that this great historic partnership will degenerate into rivalry or, even worse, hostility.

If it does, the world in which we live will become a much less safe and less prosperous planet to the great detriment of all its inhabitants.

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