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Easing a Transatlantic Chill

November 16, 2002

The day after 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde published the memorable headline, "We are all Americans." A year later, it's nearly impossible to imagine that phrase on French lips -- or in much of Europe.

The French government prolonged the United Nations debate on Iraq for weeks. Germany, still host to more than 70,000 U.S. troops and once home to nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviet Union, recently ended a national election campaign that turned on who could deliver the sharpest denunciation of Washington's possible invasion of Iraq.

The lightning rod for these sharp cross-Atlantic divisions is Iraq, but the underlying reason is deeper: a fundamental concern about U.S. power and how it will be used.

American foreign policy writer Robert Kagan, viewing the United States from his base in Belgium, argues that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus," a divide he thinks will endure. Kagan writes in the magazine Policy Review that Americans generally split the world into good and evil, friends and enemies. Europeans see a more complex picture. Kagan says U.S. military strength produces a propensity to use that strength, while Europe's military weakness produces an aversion to using power.

America is a "behemoth with a conscience," Kagan says, a believer that its power must be a means of promoting a liberal world order. But at least some Europeans believe that their continent's postwar integration of nations, especially the linking of historical enemies France and Germany in the European Union, shows that the rule of law can trump sheer power.

The foreign affairs commissioner of the European Union, Chris Patten, recognizes the differences between Europe and the United States but emphasizes the bonds.

Patten said in an address to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that Europe and the U.S. were simultaneous "cousins and strangers" trying to overcome differences that derived from history and geography. The cross-Atlantic partners were unified in the Cold War; more recently they have worked closely on peacekeeping in Afghanistan and freezing terrorists' bank accounts. But Patten said Europeans might not have understood "the extent of the U.S. trauma" caused by 9/11. To them, the "war on terror" is a metaphor; to Americans it's actual combat against those who exposed U.S. vulnerability at home. Still, Patten chided Americans for branding as appeasers Europeans who tried to discern causes for alienation and hatred that led to terrorism.

Tensions between allies are not new. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not see eye to eye on every aspect of their partnership in waging World War II. The Bush administration has gained a reputation for unilateralism and a willingness to go it alone, but it accepted European advice to seek support at the United Nations for its campaign to disarm Iraq.

The two sides need to understand the roots of each other's positions. Both U.S. military "hard power" and Europe's "soft power" of peacekeeping and foreign aid have a necessary place in the world. This adds up to more than America making dinner and Europe doing the dishes.

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