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A Marriage That Deserves Saving

June 23, 2002|JOSEPH S. NYE JR. | Joseph S. Nye Jr. is dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of "The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone" (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Last Sept. 11, just hours after the terrorist attacks on the United States, spontaneous expressions of solidarity with America broke out all over Europe. Marches, church services and candlelight vigils from London to Rome demonstrated an amazing unity between our two continents. Yet nine months later, those feelings have starkly changed. Old friends, longtime supporters of the United States, are openly critical of us.

According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, the majority of people in France, Germany and Italy think their partnership with the U.S. should not be as close as it has been.

Even the British are divided on the issue, with younger people leaning toward a more independent course. Their reaction is linked to a general feeling that President Bush has ignored allied interests in conducting the anti-terrorism war and in the Middle East.

Of course, Europeans and Americans have sniped at and admired each other for more than two centuries. But many of the policy differences today are significant. The list includes the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the International Criminal Court, trade issues and the Middle East--Iraq, Iran and Israel.

At a deeper level, the alliance is challenged by a changed world. Terrorism and the threat of instability in the Balkans do not provide the same glue that the Soviet Union did. The United States now trades more with Asia (though direct investment remains higher in Europe). And culturally, younger generations across the Atlantic have different views on issues such as capital punishment and genetically modified foods. Perhaps most interesting, many Europeans project their regional experience onto the global stage. They profess a greater devotion to multilateral approaches, even when using their numbers to vote as a bloc against the United States in international institutions.

Some Americans are returning the rhetorical volley, referring to Europe as an "axis of petulance" and professing disdain for "Euro-wimps." As Europe falls behind the U.S. in its expenditures on high-tech weaponry, some analysts see it becoming irrelevant.

Such American overreactions are shortsighted. Europe is the closest thing to an equal that the United States has. The economy of the European Union is roughly equal to that of the U.S.; its population is considerably larger, as is its share of world exports. Europe spends about two-thirds of what the United States does on defense, and includes two countries that possess nuclear arsenals.

Disdain for Europe is typical of those who measure American power primarily in military terms. But power in today's world is more like a three-dimensional chess game.

On the top military board, the world is indeed unipolar, with no country able to challenge the U.S. But on the middle economic board, the world is multipolar and the United States cannot achieve its objectives in areas including trade and financial stability without the cooperation of Europe, Japan and others. On the bottom board of transnational relations that cross borders outside the control of governments (including everything from bankers to terrorists), it makes no sense to talk of American hegemony. The U.S. cannot cope with these issues alone. We need help from Europe and others.

Our military may have defeated the weak Taliban government in Afghanistan, but it destroyed only a fraction of Al Qaeda, which has cells in 50 countries. Wrapping them up will take close cooperation in intelligence, policing and tracing financial flows.

Even militarily, our allies bolstered the political legitimacy of our position in Afghanistan and helped with special operations on the ground.

Similarly, the United States could decide to take on Saddam Hussein unilaterally, but the political and military costs will be lower if we include others. While the Pew poll shows European disapproval of a unilateral American attack on Iraq, majorities in Britain, Germany and France say evidence that Hussein is developing nuclear weapons would be a very important reason to take action against Baghdad.

The frictions that accompany U.S. unilateralism are more likely to lead to drifting apart than to a sharp divorce that would produce a hostile challenger, but the loss would nevertheless be great. Not only will Europeans conspire more often to frustrate American political objectives, but the United States will lose its best partner for promoting democracy and human rights.

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