This spring's NATO summit in Bucharest marked the end of President George W. Bush's stewardship of the transatlantic alliance. This year, Germany, not the United States, played the role of NATO power broker. All the key NATO foreign ministers were huddled with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to determine the future of NATO enlargement. When their decision was announced, Georgia and Ukraine were stunned that the clout of the United States was not enough to put them on the path to NATO membership. The situation in Bucharest laid bare the underlying damage done to the United States' stature during the Bush era.

On the surface, transatlantic relations are in far better shape today than they were during the run-up to the Iraq war. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the depth of the wounds Washington's reputation has suffered. Today, the United States lacks concrete European support on vital issues, and European confidence in U.S. leadership has collapsed. Fortunately, both the Democratic and the Republican presidential candidates recognize how much harm has been done and have vowed to restore the United States' standing in the world. The 2008 presidential election provides an opportunity for a fresh start in U.S.-European relations. The new administration should capitalize on this moment by declaring that the era of U.S. unilateralism is over and that partnership with Europe is a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. Then, it should launch a diplomatic initiative to win closer cooperation from European allies in exchange for substantial changes in U.S. policies toward Afghanistan and Iran and on issues such as climate change and the war on terrorism.

President Bush's second term was unquestionably better than his first on a number of pressing issues -- especially Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and North Korea. Washington's emphasis on diplomacy over military force and its shift from belligerency to persuasion have had a salutary effect on U.S.-European relations. Key European countries have worked in harmony with the State Department to demand a halt to Iran's uranium-enrichment program and to secure UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran. Since the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007, European frustrations with Washington's hands-off stance in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have largely disappeared. And thanks to the Bush administration's about-face on negotiations with North Korea -- as well as the recent glimmerings of diplomatic progress with Pyongyang -- European leaders no longer feel compelled to send their own envoys to Kim Jong Il as peacemakers.

Likewise, decisions by the Supreme Court and Congress to rein in the Bush administration's extremist policy on the treatment of terrorist suspects and enemy combatants has helped quiet the outrage throughout Europe over the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. And although Europeans continue to be frustrated by what they see as Washington's selfishness on the subject of global warming, they are now at least hopeful about the future. The combination of former Vice President Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize and the fact that all three remaining presidential contenders have recognized the need for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has created a sense of optimism across the Atlantic that the United States is finally coming around to the global consensus.

Most important of all, however, has been the change of personalities. The electoral victories of Merkel in Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy in France have altered the political landscape in the two major countries that parted ways with the United States over the Iraq war. Merkel's pro-Americanism and Sarkozy's stated intention to improve France's prickly partnership with the United States stand in stark contrast to the policies of their predecessors, Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac, who teamed up with Russian President Vladimir Putin to challenge President Bush over the Iraq war. Both leaders have gone out of their way to avoid public spats with the Bush administration, making transatlantic relations far less strained than they were a few years ago.


Despite these bright spots, Washington continues to pay a heavy price for alienating its allies during Bush's first term. U.S. soldiers are fighting and dying in large numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some of the United States' closest military allies are offering only modest contributions. With the exception of the United Kingdom, whose contingent is shrinking, no allies have sent a significant number of combat troops to operate alongside the approximately 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, U.S. military commanders and NATO's secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, have all been frustrated by the relatively small number of NATO troops committed to the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Unlike in regard to Iraq, there is political and public support across Europe for the mission in Afghanistan, and it is largely a NATO operation. Although France has now added a battalion to its contingent, many NATO members continue to impose restrictions on those troops they have deployed. Whether European governments admit it or not, much of the problem stems from lingering European resentment of the first Bush administration's unilateralism and its arrogant dismissal of the need for NATO assistance in Afghanistan.

Building new partnerships with European governments will not be nearly enough to restore respect and admiration for the United States, for it is European publics, not European elites, that worry most about U.S. leadership. This is not simply a global popularity contest; the erosion of respect for the United States is a threat to U.S. national security. Without the support and cooperation of multiple governments, it will not be possible for Washington to confront the threats of a new era: climate change, the rise of China, the resurgence of Russian nationalism, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism.

Not too long ago, Washington could secure international support and legitimacy with relative ease for a mission such as ejecting Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. First, European and Japanese support would be obtained. A united Europe would then make Russia more amenable. With Russian acquiescence, China would likely abstain in the UN Security Council. And little attention had to be paid to Brazil, India, or South Africa. Now, there is a new power equation. Russia is more confrontational, China is an independent player, and other large powers matter.

As numerous studies and polling data have shown, and as any traveler outside the United States knows firsthand, the United States' popularity has declined dramatically. During Bush's first term, this slide in support was often summarized abroad as "We like Americans, we just hate the Bush administration." After voters in the United States reelected Bush in 2004, this explanation no longer made sense, and divisions deepened further.

Indeed, there is a growing values gap between Americans and Europeans. There has long been a divide between American and European views on a number of domestic policy issues, including the death penalty, religion, and the social safety net. It has grown dramatically in the last eight years, primarily as a result of Washington's declaration of independence from the constraints of multilateral diplomacy and its assault on a series of pending and existing international treaty regimes, such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Biological Weapons Convention.

Reports of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, "waterboarding," and CIA renditions and "black sites" have been even more devastating to the United States' image in Europe. Europeans across the political spectrum used to have a strong sense of shared values with Americans. Recent revelations have broken that bond. The growing values gap is also apparent when it comes to environmental policy. It is not just the Green Party in Germany that regards climate change as a planetary peril. From the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom to the Christian Democratic parties on the continent, thinking green has taken hold regardless of political ideology. With Washington now seen as dragging its feet in the face of such an awesome danger, the average European has come to doubt whether the United States is a responsible member of the international community. This perception is an unprecedented threat to the United States' role as a global leader. One notable exception was Washington's reaction to the 2005 Asian tsunami, which demonstrated that a dramatic U.S. response can have a real effect on world opinion and, crucially, on the attitudes of moderate Muslims.

The collapse in European public support for the United States creates a vicious circle for U.S. policymakers. For most of the last 50 years, the United States' friends and allies in Europe, as well as allies in Asia and moderate governments in the Middle East and the Islamic world, have regarded cooperation with Washington as more than just sensible diplomacy. Until now, striking an agreement with the United States was good domestic politics, too. That is no longer true. With foreign public opinion so anti-American, it has become harder and harder for U.S. diplomats to convince wavering governments to support U.S. policies. The fact that all of President Bush's key allies during the Iraq war -- John Howard in Australia, José María Aznar in Spain, and Tony Blair in the United Kingdom -- either were voted out of office or left under a cloud has not been lost on elected governments around the world.

Despite this grim reality, key European leaders and many in the public recognize that Washington's leadership is indispensable. In a series of meetings, high-level officials from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom told me candidly of their desire for new policies and renewed leadership from Washington. European governments have been criticizing Washington for its indifference to their interests, and a new administration should take this criticism to heart. At the same time, it should insist that with an increased role in decision-making comes greater responsibility. It is time for the United States to test its European allies -- to see if Europe can take yes for an answer.


Washington's first priority should be to begin closing the values gap. Closing this gap will take time. But much of it can be accomplished with early announcements by the new administration on prisoners and climate change. The White House should issue an executive order stating that all terrorist suspects will be treated in accordance with the U.S. Army Field Manual, which prohibits waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques." It should also order the Defense Department to close Guantánamo immediately and prosecute terrorist suspects under the Uniform Code of Military Justice as quickly as possible. Military courts appear to have substantial advantages over the criminal justice system when it comes to the speedy processing of detainees. These advantages should not be ignored simply because the Bush administration failed to pay, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" in setting up military tribunals. It may be difficult to prosecute some of those detainees for whose cases the evidence of criminal behavior is thin; indeed, some detainees may even have to be released. That is a risk that must be understood and accepted in the service of a greater goal: the United States' good name.

This should be followed by an affirmation of support for the Geneva Conventions and a public investigation of all charges of detainee abuse. A candid discussion of how to properly apply these conventions in contemporary circumstances and a high-profile inquiry modeled on the 9/11 Commission -- with the full support of the U.S. military -- could have a dramatic and long-lasting effect on the United States' reputation. If respected politicians -- former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Senator John Warner (R-Va.), for example -- were to lead such an investigation, the armed forces could be assured of fairness and respect for military traditions and practices, and top officials could be granted immunity in exchange for sworn testimony. By answering lingering questions about whether prisoner abuses were authorized at the highest levels, such a commission would show the United States at its finest. Collective guilt would be expunged, and individual responsibility assigned. Nothing would be a more powerful reminder to the world of the United States' strength and its commitment to human rights and the rule of law.

For their part, U.S. allies should support the establishment of new procedures and accepted practices in the area of capturing and detaining terrorist suspects. They should be as determined as Washington to undertake reforms in order to make international legal instruments effective in the fight against Islamist extremism. A legal conference should be organized to discuss policies on the long-term detention of enemy combatants, the streamlining of judicial procedures, and the gray area of rendition.

Compromising on climate change will require both the United States and Europe to discuss the promises and the limitations of treaties. For Europeans, international institutions and multilateral diplomacy are not a choice but a way of life. That is why they consider treaties to be the essential currency of international relations. And because they expect approval to be a mere formality, they negotiate treaties without giving much thought to the issue of ratification. In the United States, however, there are dozens of treaties still languishing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Europeans must recognize that it is unreasonable to expect to achieve critical objectives alongside the United States, such as reversing the threat of global warming, through international treaties. They must accept that U.S. laws are different and that small constituencies can scuttle treaties. In the United States, the new administration must therefore demonstrate its bona fides by passing domestic legislation instead.

After announcing its intention to seek congressional approval of binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions, representatives of the new administration should sit down with their counterparts from European governments (and from other key players, such as China, India, and Russia) to develop a new joint approach to the pressing challenge of climate change. An executive agreement between governments would bypass the thorny process of ratification, and European cooperation would be tremendously helpful in convincing China and India to impose more serious restrictions on their emissions.


November's election will constitute a national referendum on whether to stay the course in Iraq, as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has advocated, or begin a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops. Although it is certainly possible to encourage a greater European role in supporting the Iraqi government and a greater UN role in political reconciliation, it is unrealistic to expect much more in terms of troop contributions.

In Afghanistan, almost seven years after 9/11, the United States and its allies are still battling the Taliban for control of key parts of the country. This stalemate could continue for several years unless there is a dramatic change in strategy. Success, according to key policymakers in Europe, would require a "smart surge" of military forces, a new billion-dollar training program for Afghanistan's police force, and a new plan to centralize the coordination of security, economic, and political efforts.

As NATO celebrates its 60th birthday next year, the new administration will have a unique opportunity to strike a bargain with the French government and, in the process, strengthen NATO and ease the perennial bickering over European security institutions. President Sarkozy has told NATO officials that he is ready to resolve a decades-old anomaly in which France is a member of NATO but not part of NATO's military structure. France will either want a new command that is responsible for joint civilian-military missions, including police functions, or want to rotate with the United Kingdom in picking the European deputy to the NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, who is always an American. These are reasonable requests given the potential size of France's military contributions to the alliance. If successful, France's full integration into NATO would be a huge step toward a new Atlantic partnership. A renewed and strengthened NATO could undertake a sorely needed "surge" in Afghanistan. Unlike the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has direct links to 9/11. These clear ties should give the new administration a sufficient rationale to pressure European allies for assistance. One-third of the roughly 20,000-30,000 troops required should come from Europe. France, for one, has made its commitment to this mission clear; Sarkozy declared in March that "we cannot afford to lose Afghanistan."

Even under optimistic conditions, NATO forces will have to stay in Afghanistan for five to ten years. As part of a new bargain with the United States, European leaders should play a greater role in determining NATO's political strategy there. To secure European support, the United States may have to consider European prescriptions. After all, what is missing in Europe is not the capability to send troops to Afghanistan but the political will to do so. Germany is particularly problematic. Even if pro-U.S. German politicians wished Germany to play a greater role in Afghanistan, they would have to overcome strong public opposition. In the absence of a sea change in German public attitudes, the government in Berlin will have little room to maneuver. That is why the United States must make Germany its primary focus in rebuilding the NATO alliance.

As an implicit price for increasing their contributions, France and Germany will probably insist on a broader strategic outlook that takes into account the crucial role of Pakistan in any NATO approach to Afghanistan. When it comes to key questions, such as how to address the existence of Taliban resupply corridors originating in Pakistan, whether to make tactical alliances with former Taliban officials (as U.S. military commanders have done with Sunni insurgents in Iraq to such good effect), how best to handle drug-eradication programs, and how to improve civilian-military cooperation, European countries should be given a role in the decision-making commensurate with their military and financial contributions. Since establishing an effective Afghan police force is still a critical problem, that mission should be offered to the European Union. In taking it on, the EU could be asked to increase its contribution and would be required to show that it can function well alongside NATO.

By acknowledging European countries' concerns and granting them a greater role in Afghanistan, the United States would be in a better position to press for new resources from EU countries. That is what has been missing so far in Afghanistan. And it is what will make the difference in securing new troop contributions and sustained support over many years. A new commitment to success in Afghanistan would not only be beneficial for transatlantic relations; it could also assuage long-standing bitterness over Washington's condescending and dismissive treatment of NATO in the days and weeks after 9/11.


Even as European governments, especially Paris and Berlin, have signaled their desire to move beyond the rancor of the first Bush term, Russia under Putin has gone in the opposite direction. Moscow has become an increasingly bitter and defiant player in international affairs, and managing relations with Russia under Putin and his protégé president, Dmitry Medvedev, remains a formidable challenge. After 9/11, Moscow offered the United States partnership in the war on terrorism by accepting the existence of U.S. military bases in Central Asia and by sharing intelligence. When Washington failed to reciprocate -- by offering speedy support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, engaging in high-level consultations on Iraq, or showing sensitivity to Russian interests in former Soviet states -- Moscow complained bitterly. By Bush's second term, Russian policy had changed dramatically, and Putin adopted a much more confrontational stance toward the West. In the case of Kosovo, this has meant a promise to veto any UN Security Council resolution on independence and an offer of full support to Serbia in challenging the recognition of Kosovo by most Western governments. Likewise, rather than seeking solutions to difficulties in implementing arms control treaties, such as the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, Russia has simply stopped complying. Its reaction to U.S. plans to place missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, until recently, was to threaten to increase the size and capability of its strategic nuclear arsenal. And on those occasions when Moscow has decided that the West's support for states such as Georgia and Ukraine has gone too far, it has taken economic and military steps to intimidate those countries.

A strengthened partnership with Europe would help Washington deal with a defiant Russia. Indeed, the Bucharest summit was a reminder of how unity in NATO directly affects Moscow's willingness to challenge Washington's policies. For several years now, Russia has worked assiduously to divide European countries on the question of missile defense. But once NATO unified in support of missile defense, Moscow's posture suddenly changed, and Russia now appears willing to find common ground. By contrast, Russia has taken advantage of divisions in NATO over the proposed entry of Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance, denouncing the move and threatening to retaliate by recognizing Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The lesson is clear: to deal with the new Russia, Washington must maximize unity with Europe.

Meanwhile, the threat of a nuclear Iran looms. Yet the West is further away from convincing Tehran to forego its uranium-enrichment program than it was in 2003, when Washington and Europe were pursuing different policies. One reason is that Washington has had to settle for a lowest-common-denominator approach, in which the sanctions are weak and the incentives not strong enough to convince Iran to change course. The European countries (and Russia) have repeatedly refused to accept UN resolutions imposing stiff sanctions against Iran, as urged by the Bush administration. (European officials readily admit that their reluctance stems from a fear that Washington is preparing for another war in the Gulf.) When it comes to Iran, a certain amount of continuity between the old and the new administrations will be crucial. The new team must avoid the temptation to copy the early Bush administration's "anything but Clinton" approach to policymaking. Instead of launching a review, the new administration should build on the Bush administration's recent diplomatic efforts while seeking to establish stronger cooperation with Europe.

Washington should then go further by declaring that it is willing to open direct, unconditional negotiations with Tehran -- a step European officials have been urging for years. The new administration should also offer much stronger incentives, including technology for nuclear power, security assurances, and full participation in the international economy, in exchange for Iran's agreement to scale back its uranium-enrichment program. Meanwhile, European countries must overcome their reluctance to impose an escalating set of economic sanctions and enforcement mechanisms in the event that Tehran remains recalcitrant.

Such a policy would put Iran to the test. That is the only way to answer the critical question of whether it is possible to achieve a diplomatic solution before Iran's nuclear program reaches the point of no return. Most analysts agree that the West still has several years of breathing room. That is sufficient time to determine whether diplomacy can succeed. If diplomacy fails and Washington and its allies must choose between allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and taking military action, at least the West will be acting as one.

Likewise, even though the Bush administration's last-minute push for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians may not bear fruit, the next administration should continue this effort nonetheless. Without it, friends and allies of the United States will be frustrated that Washington is not using its unique leverage over the parties. They will also (fairly or unfairly) cite the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front as a reason to oppose other U.S. policies in the greater Middle East region.

The new administration's honeymoon period is likely to be short. With ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the constant threat of a terrorist attack, there will be little time to make up for lost ground before the next crisis hits. That is why a new partnership with Europe should be launched right away. The path to such a partnership is straightforward, and the benefits would be substantial. Most of the United States' leading politicians know that restoring lost respect and admiration for the United States is crucial, and both parties' candidates for president say such an effort is imperative. That political will must be translated into a new resolve to compromise with the United States' European allies. Although there are risks to any diplomatic enterprise of this kind, the costs of the United States' failing to win back the support of its allies would be far greater. Undoing the damage to the United States wrought by the Iraq war and other Bush administration policies is a tall order. Washington may never again achieve the kind of automatic solidarity with its European allies that it enjoyed during the Cold War, but progress is possible. And building a new partnership across the Atlantic is the place to start.

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
  • James P. Rubin is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs from 1997 to 2000.
  • More By James P. Rubin