For all the Republican rhetoric about a more "Americanist" approach to foreign policy, the United States needs partners in global diplomacy. Unilateral decisions carry costs. Even if they are successfully imposed on foreign states, they build up resistance to cooperation in other areas where U.S. interests are at stake. Multilateral leadership requires negotiation and compromise with partners who respect American leadership and whose contributions American policymakers respect.

America's most dependable partners are the democracies in Europe, collectively organized through the European Union (EU) and NATO. With economic and political reform in Japan still blocked, and with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations weakened by the 1997 financial crisis and incomplete democratization, Europe remains the indispensable partner without which American global leadership becomes unilateral.

Transatlantic relations in the last decade have centered on redefining the U.S.-European partnership for the post-Cold War world. The most striking characteristic of the relationship today, however, is continuity rather than change. The gloomy predictions of American realists—that Europe without the two controlling superpowers would dissolve into anarchy—have proven entirely mistaken. NATO not only has survived but has developed new tasks and attracted new members. The EU has expanded its mandate and its membership and is now negotiating with 12 more applicant states.

Transatlantic relations are embedded in a dense network of multilateral links, including annual meetings of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations, semiannual consultations among top officials, and shared membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The transatlantic relationship's central organization, NATO, holds biennial summits, frequent meetings of foreign and defense ministers, and regular consultations among permanent national delegations based in Brussels. The partnership is supplemented by extensive cooperation among U.S. and European law enforcement agencies for combatting money laundering, drug trafficking, and illegal-refugee smuggling.

Most of the time, this multilateral dialogue works well, driven by the mutual interest of all participants in maintaining free flows of goods, services, and information. For all the advances in transatlantic cooperation, however, the common perception is of an increasingly fraught relationship. Those policymakers who recognize the overriding imperatives of shared interests in an open economy and a stable international order struggle against a tide of hostile comment in the media and in national legislatures. Five reasons can explain this gap between perception and reality.

First, having struck an implicit bargain in the late 1940s that underpinned their relations in the postwar era, Americans and Europeans now define burden sharing and partnership differently.

Second, an American overemphasis on political and military issues, and in particular a search for new potential enemies, has met a European overemphasis on economics. Hence perceptions of threats have diverged sharply.

Third, a widening disjuncture over values has opened. European elites criticize aspects of American society, and American elites vigorously reject such criticism. Assertions of American exceptionalism particularly irritate Europeans.

Fourth, policymaking on both sides has become more unwieldy. Divided centers of authority and multiple veto-wielders complicate multilateral cooperation. Yet there is a mutual unwillingness to recognize the structural weaknesses within one's own system while criticizing problems on the opposite shore.

Finally, a gap increasingly separates transgovernmental cooperation from domestic debate. Legislatures and publics are largely uninformed about the multilateral bargaining and the delicate compromises that characterize transatlantic relations. Senior officials survive politically by playing to domestic audiences interested primarily in domestic issues. The media on both sides of the Atlantic have followed popular preferences by paying less attention to international affairs. The result is a mutual democratic deficit, with publics mistrusting the multilateral deals that their governments strike behind closed doors in foreign countries.

The Bush administration, like its predecessors, will be frustrated by the indirection, even incoherence, of its European allies. Policy outcomes in Brussels emerge out of compromises among national governments, which in turn respond to pressures from domestic politics and from Europe-wide lobbies. The EU's institutional structures are complex and opaque. In December 2000, member governments concluded their fourth revision of the EU treaties in 15 years without ironing out many anomalies. They postponed many of the most difficult issues of institutional reform to another intergovernmental conference scheduled for 2004. European voices are often discordant, as governments compete with each other in pursuing their own "special relationships."

Nevertheless, European governments are collectively moving forward on a number of issues that affect transatlantic relations. The euro will replace national notes and coins in January 2002. Negotiations on EU membership with 12 states from central and eastern Europe are now well under way. Meanwhile, the initiative on a common European defense policy, launched in 1998, has passed the first test of bargaining among defense ministers on contributions of troops and equipment to meet the target of a deployable force of 15 brigades by 2003. Sweden, which chairs the EU Council of Ministers through the first six months of 2001, is focusing on the EU's relationship with Russia, including the future of Kaliningrad, which could become an enclave surrounded by EU member states if the EU expands to the Baltics. Negotiations with Cyprus on EU membership are going well, although the problem of Turkish "North Cyprus" still festers. The Turkish government has blocked NATO-EU agreement on the European defense proposals and may well provoke a crisis over Cyprus' joining the EU in two to three years' time.


Successive incoming U.S. administrations have called for a new "partnership" that invariably features the United States as the alliance's agenda-setter and leader while calling on Europe to shoulder a greater share of the common (U.S.-defined) burden. Such a structural imbalance may have been acceptable in the Cold War, but the Soviet Union's collapse removed its justification. The first Bush administration and its Democratic successor contrasted the superior dynamism of the U.S. economy with "sclerotic" European growth. They nevertheless complained bitterly about the costs of world leadership and their allies' perceived unwillingness to pay more to support U.S. priorities. The European allies have seen this not as a partnership but as alliance leadership with strong unilateralist tendencies. One can only hope that the foreign policy "humility" that George W. Bush called for as a presidential candidate will inspire the new administration to seek a fuller partnership rather than roundly reasserting American leadership.

To be sure, such divergent perceptions go back to the Marshall Plan. For the United States, generous economic assistance and commitment of ground forces were intended to allow time for its European allies to rebuild their shattered economies. The Kennedy administration's "Grand Design" for an Atlantic partnership similarly rested on the assumption that the European allies would share America's perception of Western objectives and contribute their fair share to pursuing them. But that premise foundered on Charles de Gaulle's refusal to accept American leadership on those terms.

The tensions reemerged in Henry Kissinger's "Year of Europe" initiative in 1973-74, which attempted to rein in French-led attempts to develop independent Western European consultations on foreign policy by insisting on full U.S. access to such talks. Kissinger also reminded the allies—in blunt realist language—that they owed the United States economic cooperation in return for U.S. military protection. Sixteen years later, the first Bush administration decisively and effectively led its partnership with Bonn in negotiating German reunification, while French and British political leaders hesitated. But Washington also made clear in spring 1989 that economic assistance to eastern Europe should come primarily from the European Community. "Last time we paid for you," was the administration's blunt message. "This time you pay for them."

The end of the Cold War has done little to change this American presumption. Each forward step toward European defense and foreign-policy autonomy has met an American warning: recall Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's 1998 warning against the Franco-British defense initiative and Secretary of Defense William Cohen's speech to the NATO defense ministers' meeting in October 2000, admonishing that the alliance was not to become a "relic." First signals from the Bush administration have been contradictory, with Secretary of State Colin Powell relaxed about a greater degree of European autonomy and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld concerned that this may weaken American leadership within NATO.

The underlying and constant American presupposition is that the United States is a benign hegemon—and that the Western alliance can work well if Europe accepts this hegemon's leadership. The United States now acknowledges the EU as an economic partner, but the idea of sharing leadership in political and military matters has yet to gain acceptance in Washington. American policymakers thus continue to give their partners contradictory signals, calling on them to shoulder more global economic responsibility while refusing to trust them to develop an autonomous political and military capacity or to pursue different foreign policy priorities. The congressional testimony of former White House official Peter Rodman in November 1999 on the European defense initiative summed up this assumption: "Rather than joyfully falling in step behind our global leadership, [European governments] are looking for ways to counter our predominance."

The idealists and optimists who managed U.S. foreign policy after World War II did not anticipate the contradiction between American leadership and Atlantic partnership. Rather, they implicitly assumed that democratic European states would share America's goals and see the world from the same rational and benevolent perspective. The bitterness that later developed between the United States and France under de Gaulle made it easy to dismiss proposals for greater European autonomy as anti-American. But the premise of a more equal relationship was always embedded in the American sponsorship of European integration. Thus whereas American unilateralists easily dismiss the possibility of partnership, American internationalists face a more difficult challenge. They have to make the intellectual leap from American hegemony to a multilateral concert of powers and explain to their domestic audiences that constructive cooperation requires compromise from the United States as well as from others. They must understand that the United States cannot continue to call on its allies to share the burdens unless it is prepared to share its decision-making as well.


Transatlantic disputes over burden sharing follow from assumptions in the United States that its allies should naturally share its values and objectives. In turn, American resentment grows when the allies fail to contribute fully to such goals. For example, Franco-American differences over the role of the dollar as a reserve currency in the 1960s revolved around the U.S. perception that the American deficit stemmed largely from the U.S. contribution to maintaining world order, and therefore no action was needed to lower it. Meanwhile, the French asserted that the deficit allowed American companies to buy dominant advantages in Europe. Washington's resentment at Europe's refusal to fully support the U.S. commitment in Vietnam—by buying enough dollars to sustain the deficit—helped to justify its unilateral decoupling of the dollar from gold in August 1971. In the late 1980s, when the American mood was of incipient decline due to overcommitment, European allies were depicted as "living in luxury behind an American shield," as the New York Times columnist Flora Lewis memorably put it.

After the Cold War, with U.S. troops in Europe reduced to a third of their previous strength and the U.S. economy surging ahead, this sense of grievance should have disappeared. Yet European and American perceptions still diverge most widely over burden sharing. This tension re-emerged during the Western involvement in the Balkans, when the European commitment to put U.N. ground troops in harm's way contrasted with the American determination to use its predominant airpower and criticize its European allies for their airpower shortcomings. U.S. perceptions of European hesitation in the conflict's early stages were matched by European perceptions of American intervention from the sidelines, most significantly in Washington's undermining of the Vance-Owen plan in 1993 to end the war in Bosnia, followed by Richard Holbrooke's abrasive and unilateral imposition of the Dayton accord in 1995. Most recently, George W. Bush's demand during the presidential campaign that European governments should "do more" in Kosovo touched a raw nerve in European elite opinion—even in the United Kingdom, traditionally America's most loyal European ally. The United States did provide most of the airpower over Bosnia and Serbia. But since the wars there ended, Europe has supplied 80 percent of the peacekeeping ground forces and more than 70 percent of the funds for civil reconstruction.

American complaints over unequal burden sharing also ignore Europe's far greater contribution to the United Nations budget—37 percent of the overall budget, and 39 percent of the peacekeeping budget, and not in arrears. Also unmatched is European assistance to the economic reconstruction of central and eastern Europe, development assistance in Africa and Asia, and aid to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority for an Arab-Israeli peace process defined and controlled by the United States. For Europeans, shared burdens and shared responsibilities ought to go together. An American stance that defines strategy in terms of American leadership but fails to pay for that privilege risks losing the respect and support of U.S. allies.


"The United States," Kissinger declared in 1973, "is a global power, while Europe is a regional power." But the European Commission and West German and Italian political leaders at that time saw transatlantic attitudes about projecting power from a different perspective. For them, the United States was a military power that provided global security, whereas Western Europe was a civilian power that pursued influence through trade agreements, economic assistance, and the promotion of international development. Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the mutual caricatures live on. Europeans see an America unhealthily preoccupied with identifying enemies who require a military response while it refuses to invest in encouraging political accommodation or transition within authoritarian regimes. Americans see Europeans as pursuing economic advantage through trade with America's enemies (such as Iran or Libya) while refusing to invest in the military forces needed to confront hostile regimes. Members of Congress talk of "rogue states" and retribution; European members of parliament focus on "failed states" and assistance for their reconstruction.

Differences over "Western" strategy are widest in the Middle East, where European governments have become increasingly uneasy about American policy. But they are blocked by Washington's insistence that Middle East diplomacy is an American preserve and by the attention that U.S. policymakers pay to domestic audiences on the subject. (Assumptions also differ on priorities in Central Asia, the Caucasus, East Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but wide differences in levels of commitment to these regions limit the space for active disagreement.) Most problematic for European governments is the underlying contradiction emerging between American commitments to Israel and to Saudi Arabia. The United States tends to depict Islam as a fundamentalist and fundamentally hostile force—but its Saudi ally is the defender of Islam's holy places. Concerned that maintaining U.S. ground troops in Saudi Arabia will undermine the current Saudi regime's stability, European officials question the rationality of American policy.

European policymakers have followed the twists and turns of U.S. policy toward the Middle East and Central Asia with increasing skepticism. The United States first supported Iran in the 1970s as a pillar against communism, then backed Iraq in its war against Iran, then went to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991; it first aided Islamist fighters in Afghanistan against godless communism, then identified Islamic fundamentalism as a global terrorist threat. At each juncture, the conviction of U.S. policymakers that their approach deserved allied support failed to persuade. European governments were very familiar themselves with "rogue" regimes and the threats they posed; Libya, for instance, had fired a missile in 1986 at the Italian island of Lampedusa—the only direct attack on NATO territory in the alliance's existence. And European responses to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait strongly supported the American lead, with the British and French providing both air and ground forces. But a divergence of attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict has prompted European doubts about the rationality of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Even the most internationalist Americans seem to have projected domestic perceptions, as conveyed by the alliance between fundamentalist Christians and conservative Jews, onto the complexities of this dispute.

European domestic politics respond to different domestic pressures and assumptions—and over the past 40 years, these have changed to include influence from the Muslim world. Between 12 million and 15 million Muslims now live in the EU, including rich expatriates from the Persian Gulf states, poor Algerians and Moroccans working in Paris and Brussels, Germans of Turkish parentage building luxury cars, and South Asians from Bengal and the Punjab running British shops and restaurants. Prominent mosques mark the skylines in London, Paris, and Malaga. Schools and businesses have learned to adjust to people fasting during Ramadan and feasting for Eid. Islam has become a familiar—and largely unthreatening—presence in urban Europe, in contrast to the external threat still conjured up within the United States. Meanwhile, the rhetoric of "Islamic fundamentalism" and "Arab terrorism" still runs through Washington. Its underlying assumption is a clash of civilizations in which—as one American Enterprise Institute staff member put it to European audiences last autumn—the Israelis are a "civilized country," whereas the Arabs are "barbarians." This just does not ring true for Europeans.

Transatlantic differences on Middle East policy overlap with different assumptions about energy policy, conservation, and taxation. American officials argue that U.S. Middle East policy protects the West's oil security, with Europe particularly vulnerable to an Arab oil squeeze. But the United States, with its population of 280 million, now accounts for nearly 26 percent of world oil imports, whereas the 507 million Europeans living west of the former Soviet Union account for less than 24 percent. Energy consumption per head in the United States is now twice as high as in Europe, where a combination of policy changes and price rises has held consumption down. Europeans, concentrated in cities with good public transport and active environmental groups, see energy priorities from a very different angle than do Americans, with their sprawling suburbs, rolling highways, and powerful energy lobby. American efforts at modifying the terms of global warming agreements—relying more on buying tradable "pollution permits" from other states rather than reducing domestic consumption—look to Europeans like the projection of domestic difficulties and vested interests onto the global stage.

Terrorism is another good example of where perceptions are diverging. European governments do not underestimate the threat of terrorism; they have suffered more incidents of terrorism on their soil over the past 30 years—from Irish Republicans, left-wing revolutionaries in Germany and Italy, Kurdish and Algerian militants, Basques, Corsicans, fundamentalist Muslims, and Sikhs—than the United States has. But rather than overestimating the threat, Europeans recognize that a political response must accompany counterterrorism and preventive measures. No European government has initiated programs comparable to U.S. ones; the marginal risks of biological or chemical weapons being deployed in European cities are just not seen as great enough to justify such a response. National missile defense (NMD) also appears to Europeans as a disproportionate response to a distant potential threat, driven by domestic psychology, entrenched economic interests, and policymakers whose underlying agenda is confrontation with China rather than North Korea.

American leadership of the Western alliance depends on its ability to persuade its partners to accept its foreign policy rationale. After all, now that the Cold War is past, the United States needs NATO as much as its European allies do. The global projection of U.S. power by long-range bombers flying from U.S. home bases depends on intermediate bases in Europe for refueling. Aircraft-carrier groups benefit from forward bases; U.S. forces in Europe now serve as the basis for potential deployment across Eurasia and the Middle East. But the impression that U.S. commanders and officials have given, whether in Somalia, Bosnia, or Kosovo, is that they see no need to listen to the knowledge of their allies or of locals in assessing situations. Combined with an unwillingness to accept casualties while ordering others to take greater risks (as in the Balkans), a preoccupation with media opportunities, and a preference for high-level bombing over commitment on the ground, these traits have undermined Europeans' respect for their alliance partner.

The "revolution in military affairs" has also widened the transatlantic rift. Washington's pursuit of the RMA has seemed to most European observers a domestic matter, driven by American industrial and defense lobbies rather than by any clear external threat. European governments have been pursuing a different tack, preparing to fight limited wars, contain disorder, and if necessary invest in the "nation-building" activities that George W. Bush decried in last year's presidential campaign. Shared experiences on the ground in Bosnia provided the foundation for the Franco-British defense initiative, while collaborative European engagement in Kosovo has provided a further impetus for an autonomous capability in military planning and deployment. Although no other European state has so far joined the United Kingdom in its limited peacekeeping commitment in Sierra Leone, European military planners are uncomfortably aware that restoring order within failed states, in Africa as well as southeastern Europe, is a likely contingency for which they must all prepare. Along with the 60,000 European troops being assembled for a deployable peacekeeping force, Europe is working on a reserve force of military and civilian police to take over the task of re-establishing domestic order within fragile societies as the front-line troops withdraw. The Bush administration's approach to military reform will therefore be a test case of strategic assumptions and force requirements. Greater U.S. emphasis on space and NMD, armored divisions, and large-scale carrier groups would widen the transatlantic strategic gap; more flexible forces with lighter equipment would bring American and European thinking closer together.

Finally, the American preoccupation with the military dimension of international politics—and the European focus on the economic and social sides—has led to a failure on both sides to coordinate the development of NATO and the EU. Both NATO and the EU are committed to further enlargement, with former socialist states clamoring to join both organizations. But Paris still retains political hang-ups about its role in NATO, while Washington persistently downplays the importance of Europe's institutional integration. The Clinton administration's approach to the first round of NATO enlargement was driven more by Polish-American lobbying (and Washington's determination that Europe's future shape should be defined by NATO) than by any strategic view of the future of European order. Enlargement is on the agenda for the NATO summit in 2002, as EU enlargement negotiations reach their end. A carefully constructed transatlantic bargain remains possible: EU enlargement to the Baltic states would be counterbalanced by NATO enlargement to Romania and perhaps Bulgaria, two states with economies and administrative structures too weak to cope with full EU membership. Without such a deal, transatlantic rivalry and different domestic pressures could lead to competitive approaches, damage Europe's delicate relations across its long common border with Russia, and leave southeastern Europe in the cold.


In the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom's wealth and assumed moral superiority irritated its continental colleagues—and fueled great schadenfreude when the British became bogged down in the moral ambiguities of the Boer War. Today, the proponents of American exceptionalism arouse similar sentiments among their European allies—for similar reasons. American triumphalism does owe something to the country's economic dynamism. But it also has deep roots in the American national myth, the moral rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy, and U.S. attitudes toward international law.

Here again American postures vary, from the confident assumption of internationalists that America's allies will accept the self-evident authority of U.S. leadership to the strident assertions of unilateralists that the United States is right and its allies must follow. But the impression generally conveyed is that the United States is the only country entitled to promote democracy, and that the American model is the only valid model of democracy.

Americans and Europeans do share political and social values. The American investment in building postwar Western Europe paid off as it spread common beliefs about the rule of law, political accountability, market rules, and limited government. This success was greatly assisted by the immense prestige of American democracy and the U.S. market economy. Significant transatlantic differences did persist, mainly over European commitments to higher levels of public spending, social welfare, and corporatist patterns of consultations between employers and organized labor. But the contrast with authoritarian socialist regimes provided a solid foundation for shared Western values.

Liberalism's triumph in the 1990s, however, has brought into the open different interpretations of the liberal tradition. For example, American criticism of European "continental corporatism" has really just extended domestic political debates onto the international plane. The "Anglo-Saxon" political right has been determined to demonstrate the superiority of its preferred market model over that of social democracy. Free-market criticism was made all the more plausible as the U.S. economy boomed while the economic burden of German unification—and its tightening impact on European interest rates—threw the European economy into recession. But the stridency of American criticism, together with the critics' unwillingness to face the failings of the American model, has recently provoked a response from the European press and political elite. Europeans have pointed to their lower crime rates and far lower prison populations, the smaller income gap, safer cities, and better-protected countryside. American capital punishment, especially its disproportionate use on black prisoners, has become for Europeans a symbol of the weaknesses of American domestic society and law. Meanwhile, America's higher levels of violent crime and wider gun availability have further fueled European disrespect for the American model.

The result has been a growing divergence between America's perception of its moral leadership and European perceptions of the United States as a flawed superpower. The loss of American prestige and authority as the alliance leader has been compounded by the growing bitterness of partisan politics in Washington. American unilateralists may not worry about this loss, but for internationalist Americans, such declining respect among allies represents a real cost. The United States needs, at the least, the acquiescence of its allies. For that, its foreign policy leadership requires a degree of sympathy and a broader base of support among European publics. A more humble approach to foreign policy, with a less strident tone in addressing America's allies, would help.

Competing claims to superior social and economic models could well deteriorate into competing anti-European and anti-American rhetoric. The recovery of the euro against the dollar last year prompted some European central bankers and finance ministers to claim vindication of Europe's approach to economic and social change. A further shift in the euro-dollar rate, combined with further rises in employment and economic growth within the EU, may well provoke outbursts of European triumphalism and claims of victory for the social market over the free-market approach.

Transatlantic relations would benefit from a process of moral disarmament, in which both sides moderate their rhetoric and their attacks on each other's failings. There are good reasons for differences in their approaches to market regulation, social security, and international cooperation. Five hundred million Europeans crowded into a half-continent smaller than the United States east of the Mississippi need a different approach to urban life and social cohesion. American mistrust of international constraints is fed by a sense of distance from the outside world, just as mistrust of government is fed by the sense of distance from Washington in the American West and South. In contrast, European governments, aware since the Chernobyl nuclear leak that environmental accidents in Russia and Ukraine directly affect their citizens, are preoccupied with tying the former socialist states into a web of multilateral agreements.

European and American attitudes toward law and litigation, toward the state and interstate cooperation, flow from the two sides' different histories, political traditions, and geographical positions. The density of European regulation and intergovernmental cooperation follows from the density of Europe's population, the vulnerability of its ecology, and the penetrability of its frontiers. The lighter approach of governance in the United States follows from its open spaces and its continental position. Neither model would transfer entirely or easily to the other side of the Atlantic. Transatlantic relations under the Bush administration will be easier to manage if U.S. leaders climb down from their bully pulpit, and Europeans resist the temptation to climb up.


Americans often like to compare the image of an efficient, strategically oriented U.S. government with that of an incoherent, slow-moving European caucus. This contrast is still largely accurate in the limited context of security issues. But between crises—and with the exception of the deployment of military forces—the similarities between Washington and Brussels are greater than the differences. Both suffer from dispersed sources of authority and multiple veto points; both are sufficiently absorbed in the complexities of domestic tradeoffs to disregard the external consequences; both tend to impose costs on third parties while distributing benefits to themselves.

The long and sad history of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, the hesitant treatment of postsocialist regimes pressing for early enlargement, and the setbacks in the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty all have their counterparts in U.S. policy. American administration officials propose grand initiatives to their European partners, but they cannot guarantee carrying any multilateral outcome through Congress. The entrenched representation of small-town, southern, and western America in the Senate, offsetting the cities on the East and West Coasts that are home to America's internationalist elite, has compounded the problem. To Europeans, congressional assertiveness masks executive weakness and an inability to provide the leadership at home that U.S. administrations claim abroad. The entrenched representation of small European states in Brussels policymaking builds in similar obstacles to coherent European foreign policy: the Greek government blocked recognition of Macedonia for more than a year; the Danes raise repeated objections about the legal status of EU international diplomacy.

So far, the Brussels policy process has attracted only a limited number of lobbies and think tanks, even though extensive traffic flows between national capitals and Brussels consultations. Washington policymaking, however, takes place in a free market of ideas, a competition for agenda-setting and influence in which money and intellect struggle for advantage. Jockeying among think tanks for donors and administration positions breeds exaggeration of trends and threats, which are often written up in headlines or op-eds. The overlap between (allegedly) neutral institutes and lobbies, along with corporate funding of front organizations to support business interests, blurs public debate and advocacy. The power of money throughout Washington is very evident to European governments in trade disputes: Chiquita, a U.S. company that buys influence in both parties, has transformed a minor issue into a transatlantic confrontation. Meanwhile, the vigor and multiple access points of the Washington policy debate neglect the interests of outsiders, so the United States appears to its partners as much an absent-minded power as a deliberately unilateralist one.

Both Americans and Europeans expect their partners to accommodate their own peculiar arrangements while complaining about the demands of their allies. American negotiators thought it absurd that European demands for common EU representation during the multilateral stages of the last Middle East peace process led to a common delegation accompanied by 15 national delegations; European governments thought it excessive for the United States to bring an "observer" delegation of 18 U.S. senators to the recent NATO summit in Madrid. U.S. officials have justified the "Echelon" intelligence network (which intercepts European commercial and governmental communications) on the grounds that it enables them to check whether European companies offer bribes to foreign governments for contracts. Yet the same officials refuse to acknowledge the same potential for structural corruption in the U.S. political system, which has politicians at all levels depending on corporations for campaign finance. American negotiators decry European insistence on the precautionary principle in testing and licensing genetically modified foods. Europeans see the American ban on blood donations from citizens who have spent long periods of time in Europe, ostensibly a preventive measure against the importation of "mad-cow" disease, as the precautionary principle carried to its extreme limit.

Hegemonic powers have a natural tendency to neglect the views of their subordinate partners and impose their own perspectives. The EU stance toward its neighbors to the east and south conveys many of the same hegemonic pitfalls: setting conditions on human rights, the status of minorities, public administration, and border controls that are far stricter than those for the EU. American unilateralism is not outside this structural tendency but is an exaggerated version of it, reinforced by an aggressive interpretation of American exceptionalism.


Both the United States and Europe need multilateral cooperation to manage their intricate web of economic interdependence. And the two sides do cooperate, actively and on a wide range of issues. But much of that cooperation—too technically detailed and complicated to make good copy for the press—is invisible to politicians and the public. It is only when disputes flare up, or when failures in coordination break management down, that parliaments and the press pay attention with cries of betrayal and accusations of foreign interference.

The gap between transgovernmental cooperation and domestic understanding is as wide within Europe as within the United States. The United Kingdom, Denmark, Austria, and other peripheral member states see the EU as a threat to national autonomy, a bureaucratic monstrosity bent on destroying their cultural distinctiveness and political sovereignty. The predominance of parliamentary systems in Europe, where governments are more secure in their executive authority, limits the ability of opposition parties to block multilateral engagement. Indeed, national parliaments have been largely left aside in this evolving process of transnational governance, as their members concentrate on domestic and constituency politics. Populist revolts against the transfer of authority from nationally accountable institutions to remote intergovernmental organizations take a different shape in Europe than in the United States; they see the EU, not the U.N., as the enemy. But this frustration stems from a similar sense of lost autonomy amid uncontrollable change, a similar reaction against globalization.

American and European political leaders face difficult choices in pursuing mutually advantageous cooperation while responding to public anxieties about democratic accountability. The temptation to tell one story to the public and another to colleagues from other governments behind closed doors is hard to resist. So too is the temptation to demand that others recognize the imperatives of one's own domestic difficulties without pleading to their own publics in return. Neither Europe nor the United States has been blessed with strong foreign-policy leadership in recent years, a problem worsened by the mutual drift toward nationalist reassertion and fears of international entanglements.

The United States differs from Europe in a number of ways. America's size and its distance from other continents make for a deeper reluctance to acknowledge global interdependence. Its exceptionalist tradition in foreign policy has been neither broken by foreign occupation nor modified by realization of the limits of national autonomy. Its economic dynamism and unchallenged military superiority make it easy to deny the necessity of multilateral compromise and to call instead for a more Americanist approach to world politics.

In other ways, however, Europe and the United States share the same dilemmas and suffer from the same structural deformations. A Polish observer could criticize the EU for its unilateralist approach to European international negotiations, and a Moroccan observer would vigorously attack its hegemonic pretensions. Reconciling the demands of democracy with the imperatives of multilateral cooperation requires a high quality of leadership from governments and foreign-policy elites. That quality has not always been in evidence, on either side of the Atlantic, since the end of the Cold War.

The United States and Europe need each other. Neither can handle the problems of Russia on its own, or those of the unstable Mediterranean, Caucasus, and greater Middle East. The United States wants European governments to play a more active role in diplomacy in Asia; Europe wants the United States to be more active in sub-Saharan Africa. The rising tide of asylum-seekers and smuggled migrants washes up on both American and European shores. Transnational organized crime, drug smuggling, and money laundering threaten public order on both sides of the Atlantic—problems best met through a coordinated response. Scientific advances, feeding into commercially exploitable form, pose ethical dilemmas in the marketplace that require an open transatlantic debate. The world's two largest integrated economies need to monitor shifts in the global economic balance and work together to smooth out the bumps.

The transatlantic partnership under American leadership promoted for the last half-century an open world economy and a relatively stable global order. That partnership again needs redefinition to accommodate the EU's strengthening capabilities, the imminent prospect of an expanded EU, the enlargement of NATO, and the distinctive foreign policy interests of North American and European states. Humility on both sides about defining the terms of partnership, political leadership at home and abroad, and mutual toleration of each others' institutional weaknesses will be required. Before distracted politicians on both sides rehearse their mutual complaints again, political leaders must seize the opportunity to explain to each other—and to each other's public—why a more balanced partnership is necessary. Not only is this in their own national interests, it is crucial for the stability and prosperity of the post-Cold War world.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • William Wallace is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Liberal Democrat Spokesman on Defense in the House of Lords.
  • More By William Wallace