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U.S.-Europe Division Runs Deeper Than Iraq

June 14, 2004|John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

There is a moment in all strained relationships when people simply have to acknowledge they are, for better or worse, fundamentally different. Something similar may slowly be happening with the transatlantic alliance.

This June was supposed to be a month of reconciliation. First, the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings recalled one of the romance's headiest moments: All across France, children waved the Stars and Stripes and grandparents tearfully recorded their gratitude. Then there was the G-8 meeting in Sea Island, Ga., designed to underline Europe and America's common interests in tackling proliferation, opening up markets, fighting terrorism and so on. And of course, there was the new resolution at the U.N. Security Council, belatedly giving Old Europe's blessing to the occupation of Iraq.

Optimists argue that this marks a return to normal. Iraq, they say, was the sort of horrendous row that happens once every now and again in many otherwise sound alliances. Things settled down after the last time that plates got hurled across the kitchen with this ferocity -- during the Suez crisis 50 years ago, when the British and French invaded an Arab country and the Americans objected.

Optimists argue that it is just a matter of personalities -- of Jacques Chirac's duplicity, Gerhard Schroeder's opportunism, George W. Bush's "Don't mess with Texas" pigheadedness.

In private, liberal internationalists on both sides of the Atlantic venture that Iraq, in its own ghastly way, will prove self-correcting. The bloody nose that America has received in the streets of Baghdad has re-taught Washington the value of alliances. Once the Toxic Texan, with his atypically conservative views, is removed in November and nice John Kerry is installed, things will return to normal.

This optimism is naive. There is mounting evidence that the division goes deeper than mere personalities, that there are fundamental differences in values between Europe and America that will continue to drive the continents apart.

Consider, for instance, the President Kerry whom Europe so yearns for. On most of the main areas of transatlantic disagreement, the presumed Democratic candidate is actually quite close to Bush.

On Iraq, Kerry certainly criticizes the White House's record, but he voted for the war and his current set of prescriptions is little different. As for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Europeans looking for a more "balanced" approach should remember that Kerry rapidly endorsed the Bush-Sharon peace plan. On Kyoto, he has shown no sign of wanting to take America into a global warming treaty the Senate rejected 98 to 0. His advisors are similarly dismissive of America joining the International Criminal Court.

Kerry is not straying from the American norm; he is simply a Democrat trying to get elected in a country where conservatives outnumber liberals 2 to 1. Even if he becomes president, he will still have to deal (probably) with a Republican Congress and (certainly) with a conservative movement that is vastly more powerful and organized than any in Europe.

This gives some clue to the biggest underlying difference gnawing away at the transatlantic alliance: America is simply a more right-wing place than Europe. That does not mean that all Americans are conservatives (you only have to go to Berkeley, Boulder or Brentwood to discover that), but the center of gravity is further to the right.

Look at any poll of attitudes toward the basic questions of politics -- the size of government, the role of capitalism, spending on defense, crime and punishment, attitudes to multinational institutions like the U.N. -- and America takes a more right-wing approach than any other developed country.

Even set alongside Britain, its nearest equivalent, America tolerates a far higher degree of inequality, with 1 in 6 households earning less than a third of median income (in Britain, the figure is closer to 1 in 20); its incarceration rate is five times that of Britain, Europe's toughest sentencer; America spends much less on government in general, but twice as much on defense per head; it brings religion into politics far more often.

The gap is more extreme if you compare America with France or Germany.

Does the fact that America is the only Western country to retain the death penalty explain why France and Germany didn't support the Iraq war? Of course not. But it does help explain why American policy seems so foreign to so many Europeans. The conservative parts of the country -- the South, much of the West, the suburbs -- are exactly the bits most Europeans never visit.

The decision to invade Iraq exaggerated the disagreements between Europe and America. But these had already begun to roil the transatlantic relationship more than it was at the end of the Cold War. When they shared the Soviet Union as a common enemy, America and Europe did not bother to study these basic differences too closely. Now they are much more obvious. Being different does not mean the alliance is impossible to run, but it makes the marriage harder -- no matter how many reconciliatory hands are shaken and toasts drunk this month.

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John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, writers for the Economist, are the coauthors of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" (Penguin Press, 2004).

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