[VIEWPOINT]A new, old alliance in the WestA recent BBC public opinion survey demonstrates the depth of the gap between George W. Bush’s America and its main allies. Evidently France is by no means the only country to believe that the world has become a more dangerous place in the last four years, or to believe, rightly or wrongly, that Washington has some responsibility for this sad state of affairs.
Judging from the early public presentations from the new Bush administration, it looks as though there may be an emerging sense in Washington that America may have isolated herself too much during the last four years. Could this awareness be translated into a new and better trans-Atlantic relationship?
In reality, even if the emotional divide between the two sides of the Atlantic remains as wide as ever, a succession of new and spectacular developments have transformed the context within which these suspicions manifested themselves. From the tsunami to the coming of a “cold peace” with Putin’s Russia in the wake of the democratic triumphs in Georgia and Ukraine, from the death of Arafat to the sorry state of affairs in Iraq, events have multiplied to convince Americans and Europeans not only that they are on the same side in diplomatic and humanitarian terms, but that both would be better off if they were to resume a more normal relationship and act jointly.
Confronted with the unique brutality of nature in what will remain the first major catastrophe of the global age, Americans and Europeans have almost given the impression of trying to outperform one another in a game of competitive generosity. Each side has used the tragedy to reaffirm its comparative advantages ― America as a military power, whose helicopters were the first ones to reach Banda Aceh in Indonesia, and Europe as a generous civilian and humanitarian power. As the tsunami forced us to think of ourselves as citizens of the planet, it relativized the minor and thereby indecent nature of our divisions in a time of urgency and grief.
In a more classically diplomatic manner, what we are witnessing in our relations with Russia is not the return of the Cold War. Bipolarity presupposes a balance of terror between two adversaries of roughly the same weight. The “cold peace” emerging between Russia and the West is the product of the convergence of recent humiliation, past Russian glory and the poor management of “Soviet men.” If Vladimir Putin were trying to resuscitate the geography of values that once bound the West together, he would not behave differently than he has. He has confirmed Central European apprehension about their frustrated “imperial neighbor.” More than ever, the “new Europe,” which is now a full part of the European Union, will refuse to choose between her “two parents,” Europe and the United States.
In the Middle East, could the key to undoing the damage done in Baghdad to the trans-Atlantic relationship, and the key to limiting the costs incurred upon the region by a failed war, be found in Jerusalem? To “relativize” Iraq, and to try to modify the world’s perception of them, Americans, with European help, have to reinvest themselves massively in the core Middle Eastern conflict. If pursued seriously, the opportunity created by the death of Arafat is a real one, given the fatigue of the two peoples. To encourage Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon to demonstrate courage in the face of their respective extremists, Europe and the United States have to act together and use their influence on their respective favorite partners, i.e., Washington on Israel, Europe on the Palestinians. Mr. Abbas has to demonstrate to the fundamentalists in his camp that, unlike Arafat, he has the will and the means to oppose them. And Mr. Sharon has to show the Palestinians, by opposing his own “settlers,” that negotiations, unlike violence, can deliver results.
But it will take more than Putin or the Middle East’s various quagmires to “reinvent the West.” The clear re-election of Bush in America may have bolstered his internal and external legitimacy. It has also confirmed for many Europeans, the French in particular, the conviction that the United States is indeed a strange country, whose choices are difficult to understand. Europe’s reinforced and contradictory obsession with America has as its counterpart in Washington a combination of continued neglect and general irritation. When the future is in Asia, and the most urgent present challenges are in the Middle East, why worry about the continent that is no longer, given the evolution of America’s demography, the “land of their fathers”?
A hybrid America, more radical at home and more moderate abroad, will not completely alleviate trans-Atlantic tensions, for it will only confirm Europeans in their perception that America’s problem is linked as much to her essence as to her performance. The negative and sometimes passionate emotions exacerbated by the Iraq crisis will abate, but the climate of trust and collaboration between the two continents will not be restored. Bush II cannot achieve what even John Kerry would not have been able to accomplish.
* The writer is a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations.
by Dominique Moisi