Courtesy Reuters

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

To European elites, the United States has become a poster child for bad behavior at home and hegemonic hubris abroad. The director of Amnesty International France recently listed -- in this order -- his organization's most urgent challenges: "The corridors of death in America, decapitations in Saudi Arabia, mutilations in Sierra Leone, and political prisoners in China." French Education Minister Jack Lang labeled President George W. Bush a "serial assassin" for presiding over executions in Texas. Italian towns have adopted American death row inmates for whose clemency they lobby the State Department and members of Congress. British tabloids feature lengthy exposes of death row. Shareholders pressure European companies to divest from American states that allow executions.

It is not just the death penalty. Some Europeans see across the ocean a society plagued by guns and violence, gorging on genetically modified "Frankenfoods," and beholden to unchecked capitalism. Commentators on both sides warn of a new anti-Americanism that, in the words of British journalist Martin Kettle, "takes issue with the American way of life itself." Because these Europeans equate globalization with Americanization, they fear being overrun by values they abhor.

This distaste for American values is matched by concern that the United States acts like a bull in the global china shop, causing a strategic split with Europe over matters such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and national missile defense (NMD). To these Europeans, America's reluctance to join the global land-mines ban, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming evidences selfish unilateralism. Its fixation with "states of concern" (formerly known as "rogues") is at best naive, at worst -- in the case of sanctions against Iraq -- "genocidal." Europeans are skeptical of American support for European integration, especially in defense. And they fear that the United States and Europe are fated to economic warfare as trade disputes spiral out of control.

Together, the "values gap" and the "strategic split" form the core of a newly fashionable argument advanced by European elites -- and reflected by their American counterparts -- that the United States and Europe are growing apart. But a closer look shows that, far from diverging, the United States and Europe are converging culturally, economically, and with some effort, strategically. This false crisis makes it more difficult to deal with those differences that do exist and reap the potential of a partnership that can benefit Americans and Europeans far into the future.

THE VALUES GAP

Exhibit A in Europe's complaint about the United States is the death penalty. As former U.S. ambassador to France Felix Rohatyn has written, "no single issue evoked as much passion and as much protest" during his recent tenure in Paris as did capital punishment. One would think that the United States was the last of the world's barbarians. In fact, some 100 other countries permit executions, including large democracies such as India, Japan, and Turkey. International law allows the death penalty; the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed it constitutional; the 38 U.S. states that adopted it did so democratically. But more important is that Europeans fail to acknowledge that U.S. opinion is shifting. As it happens, nearly 40 percent of Americans do not support the death penalty -- up from 25 percent just four years ago. Illinois recently declared a moratorium on applying the death penalty; municipalities across the country have passed resolutions calling on their states to follow suit. Even in Texas, support for the death penalty has dropped from 86 percent in 1994 to 68 percent today. This shift has resulted from the high number of reversed verdicts in capital cases and evidence that the penalty is applied unfairly. Sixty-four percent of Americans favor a temporary halt to executions while steps are taken to ensure that the system works fairly. Far from embracing the death penalty, Americans are debating it.

Meanwhile, far more Europeans support capital punishment than their elites would let on. Fifty percent of Italians want the death penalty reinstated, about the same percentage as in France. In the United Kingdom, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the populace favors capital punishment. Significant majorities in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom say that the death penalty is an internal matter and that their governments should not exert pressure on the United States to abolish it.

These facts have not stopped the president of France's National Assembly from threatening to revoke U.S. observer status at the Council of Europe, which is formally committed to the death penalty's abolition. Yet the same government upholds a law that allows the state to jail suspects indefinitely without trial or bail -- with an average pretrial detention period of four months. Furthermore, conditions in France's jails are notoriously horrific, replete with overcrowded cells, deplorable sanitation, inedible food, rape, and inadequate health care. In 1999, 124 French prison inmates committed suicide -- almost the same number (134) of Americans put to death in Texas during George W. Bush's six-year tenure as governor. Yet there are no Americans picketing the Bastille.

Europeans also exaggerate America's love affair with guns and violence. A rash of tourist car-jackings in Miami and school shootings throughout the country has fed a frenzy of media hyperbole across the Atlantic. Some in the mainstream press have portrayed Americans as gun fanatics and their country as a travel destination as unsafe as Chechnya or Afghanistan. Yet these same reports fail to state how the United States is acting on its gun problem -- for example, by banning assault weapons and implementing the Brady Bill, which mandates background checks on buyers of handguns. Polls show that strong majorities of Americans in fact favor stricter gun control: 87 percent want background checks at gun shows, and 77 percent support raising the minimum age for purchasing handguns from 18 to 21. Moreover, violent crime in the United States (murder, rape, and assault) is at its lowest level since 1978. The murder rate is at a 35-year low.

Or take genetically modified organisms (GMOS). In this case, European opinion has actually influenced how Americans think. The European press criticizes Americans for consuming and promoting bioengineered foods, and polls now show that American and European views are beginning to converge. More and more Americans support mandatory labeling; one recent survey found that 58 percent of Americans would avoid bioengineered foods if labeled as such. American companies such as Frito-Lay, McDonald's, Heinz, and Gerber are moving away from the GMO business. Europeans are winning the argument on GMOS and winning American converts -- an ironic development, given that the food crises that have plagued Europe in recent months (e.g., mad-cow and foot-and-mouth diseases, and the dioxin scare) have involved "natural" rather than engineered foods.

A KINDER, GENTLER NATION?

Another oft-repeated but exaggerated charge by European elites is that America has sold its soul to savage capitalism and the military-industrial complex at the expense of the poor. In fact, with unemployment at four percent, inflation negligible, and home ownership at its highest level in U.S. history, America's economic success is wide as well as deep. The percentage of the federal budget dedicated to social spending (primarily Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare) went from about 42 percent to 50 percent over the past decade, and it will soon top 60 percent. Meanwhile, military spending has declined from about 23 percent of the budget in 1980 (4.9 percent of GDP) to about 16 percent (2.9 percent of GDP) this year. And a government in the pocket of corporate interests would hardly have tried to topple Microsoft, the very symbol of U.S. technological hegemony, or maintain the most expensive and expansive regulatory system in the world. Fifty-five federal agencies and some 130,000 staff workers develop, implement, and enforce rules that protect citizen and worker health, preserve the environment, and provide for corporate transparency.

European commentators like to point out that, for all America's prosperity, inequality has grown. That rise in inequality is both true and unacceptable, but these commentators fail to note that the gap has grown from the top, not the bottom. Family income and per capita income have increased for all Americans. Meanwhile, the poverty rate has dropped to its lowest level since 1979. In 1999, as a share of GDP, federal tax collection reached its highest level since 1944 -- primarily because in a booming economy, the rich were paying heavily into the system. Poorer Americans found relief from federal tax liability through the earned income tax credit, which President Ronald Reagan instituted and President Bill Clinton greatly expanded. The much-discussed estate tax is levied against the top two percent of the population. Yes, President Bush seeks its repeal. But now some of America's most "savage" capitalists, including Warren Buffet and George Soros, have signed an extraordinary petition calling for its retention, lest federal revenues and charitable giving suffer.

That said, there does remain a transatlantic difference in economic philosophy. Americans seek equal opportunity, which risks leaving some behind. Europeans preach equal outcome, which promises greater equality -- but from the bottom, not the top. In the 1990s, America adjusted to economic change by allowing inequality to rise, Europe by accepting higher unemployment. But even in this case, Europeans are coming around to Americans' way of doing business. At its "dot-com" summit last year, the European Union (EU) urged its member states to adopt flexible labor markets and policies that support innovation, further privatization, and economic deregulation. Throughout Europe, countries and businesses are following the U.S. lead in empowering shareholders, facilitating mergers and acquisitions, and providing greater corporate transparency.

Some European elites admit that the two sides are in fact converging, and therein lies the problem. In Europe, America is everywhere and everything is American, from movies to music, from McDonald's to Microsoft. Not only are the products American, so are their vehicles: the English language and the Internet. Meanwhile, the number of European workers, businesspeople, students, and tourists in the United States has reached record levels -- an unlikely development if the "values gap" were as wide as critics allege. America's power may be imperial, but its reach depends on the free will of those "conquered," not the force of the "conqueror." McDonald's did not expand from 17 to 800 outlets in France since 1984 via the tip of a sword.

Still, Americans must be sensitive to Europe's concerns lest they add fuel to the backlash fire. And both sides should acknowledge that, when it comes to globalization, the United States and Europe share anxieties and opportunities that outweigh their differences. Americans, too, worry about the downsides of globalization -- as demonstrated at the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle. Americans, too, fear being left behind in the global economy and are concerned about abdicating sovereignty to supranational institutions. At the same time, Europeans hold a strong hand in the supposedly U.S.-dominated globalization game. European multinational corporations such as Vivendi Universal and Bertelsmann are making their mark in America. A country like France -- the world's fourth leading exporter, with comparative advantages in telecommunications, transportation, and aerospace -- should welcome the new opportunities for trade and investment that globalization offers. Given their export-dependent economies, smaller natural-resource bases, and aging populations, European countries will need the global economy's open financial and commercial markets even more than Americans will.

Neither Europeans nor Americans can stop globalization, but they can pace and shape it by forging trade agreements, strengthening social safety nets, protecting the environment, setting labor standards, investing more in education, and improving access to technology. A fundamental question for Americans and Europeans is whether they will use their prominence and their partnership to spread the benefits and share the burdens of globalization. That challenge should unite the world's most fortunate societies.

THE STRATEGIC DIVIDE\

"France," says its foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, "cannot accept a politically unipolar world ... nor the unilateralism of a single hyperpower." His view resonates in the pages of Europe's newspapers and the minds of many other leaders. It is nothing personal, Europeans are quick to add. Any country that becomes as dominant as the United States starts taking its friends for granted and itself too seriously. But the resulting conflicts of interest are straining the transatlantic strategic entente.

European diplomats and journalists claim that the United States increasingly defines its security requirements in ways that are deleterious to those of Europe. As proof, they brandish the Senate's failure in 1999 to consent to the CTBT and the current U.S. pursuit of NMD. Both choices are certainly open to criticism -- and both are extremely controversial within the United States. But neither development should be cited as evidence that America has forsaken shared security. After all, the United States unilaterally declared a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992 -- three years before France's controversial decision to resume testing -- and continues to abide by it. Even more erroneous is the European argument that if an effective NMD is deployed, a more secure United States will become a less dependable ally. In fact, a more secure United States will likely prove an even stronger ally -- because it will be even more willing to counter aggression or end oppression if its troops and territory are shielded from harm.

Europeans should remember that when the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles placed Europe at risk in the 1980s, America put itself on the line by offering to deploy missiles in West Germany. Now, with the United States concerned about new missile threats to its security, Europeans have expressed reservations about sharing the risk. In any event, they increasingly seem to accept that some kind of missile defense is a fait accompli and even show guarded interest in cooperation with the United States on theater or boost-phase missile defense. And in the Balkans, where European interests were more immediately at stake than were Washington's, the United States led the way in ending war and building peace.

Europeans also charge that the United States talks up international norms and treaties -- the nuclear test ban, the land-mines ban, the ICC, global warming treaties, and U.N. dues payments -- only to flout them when they do not produce the results it wants. In fact, American activism launched each of these initiatives. Without Washington's leadership, the norms and treaties that Europeans cite to bash the United States might not exist. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy fathered the nuclear test ban; Americans were the first to promote the ICC and the land mines and climate change treaties; the United States helped launch the U.N. and remains its largest contributor. Europe's complaint also risks boomeranging into its own glass house, revealing a sorry record of abiding by WTO decisions (e.g., beef and bananas) or its failure to stand up for U.N. sanctions against Iraq.

Yes, the United States sometimes seeks exceptions from international treaties and norms -- precisely because of its enormous responsibilities to global security. Consider land mines. On the Korean Peninsula, 37,000 American troops serve in the name and under the mandate of the international community. They face one million North Korean troops across the border. Anti-personnel land mines, which are deployed where there are no villages or civilians, are a key part of the defense line. The Clinton administration sought an adequate transition period to phase out these mines and develop alternatives. When that was rejected, along with a minute change to a provision that banned America's self-destructing antitank mines but not those of other nations, the United States could not sign the treaty.

Even in the one area of real foreign policy friction -- dealing with "states of concern" -- crisis-mongers overstate the degree of discord. France, for example, shares America's disdain for Saddam Hussein and worries about missile proliferation. It just disagrees on what to do about them. Americans reflexively choose containment; Europeans, engagement. These tactical differences are important and, if they persist, could evolve into strategic divergence. But both sides are still far from that point. Hence the Bush administration should spare no effort to engage the Europeans in a strategic dialogue that would assess the threats that both sides face and then seek common ground.

This task would be easier to accomplish if European leaders listened to their own people. Two-thirds or more of those polled in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy -- and half in France -- expressed confidence that the United States would deal responsibly with world problems. Majorities believe that U.S. and European policies are compatible on European security, the Balkans, the Middle East, and even Iraq. Although majorities in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy think American power is growing, only small fractions (8, 17, 8, and 15 percent, respectively) see cause for concern. The transatlantic strategic split is largely in the minds of Europe's elite, not its people.

Unfortunately, that same elite sometimes tries to sell the people on the notion that the United States fears a stronger Europe and opposes its efforts at economic, political, and military integration. For example, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt have claimed that Washington supports EU enlargement only because a watered-down union would pose a less coherent opposition to the United States. In fact, American leaders of both political parties have staunchly advocated a broader and deeper Europe, from George H.W. Bush, who helped usher in German reunification, to Bill Clinton, who received the prestigious Charlemagne prize last year for his efforts to advance European unity.

American foreign-policy leaders believe that the prospect of joining the EU, NATO, and other Western institutions has encouraged countries on Europe's eastern and southern fringes to settle disputes over borders and ethnic minorities and to deepen their commitment to democracy and free markets. The result is a larger and stronger Europe. How Europe pursues integration (for example, through federation or reinforced cooperation) is a choice for Europeans to make. But most American policymakers support the full realization of a united Europe, with the express hope that it will make Europe a stronger partner for America.

Americans come to this view from the lessons of the twentieth century and the imperatives of the twenty-first. When Europe was divided, its people subjugated, and its nations at war, the United States also paid a price. Today, new problems defy borders: ethnic, racial, and religious conflict; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; networks of terror, crime, and drug trafficking; environmental degradation; and the spread of infectious disease. Hence the solutions are likely to be cheaper, safer, and more effective if pursued with allies rather than alone.

That is why Europe and the United States are in fact working more closely together, in ever-broader areas. Together, in the 1990s, they gave NATO new missions, members, and partners. They helped new democracies in central Europe and the Baltics join the transatlantic mainstream and turned the killing fields of the former Yugoslavia into a proving ground for new structures of cooperation: the Partnership for Peace, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and of course, the EU.

The last is perhaps the most promising development in the transatlantic partnership. In less than a decade, the EU has grown much further and faster than was once predicted, turning a free-trade club for western European democracies into a multifaceted economic, political, and security alliance that is expanding its membership. At President Clinton's first transatlantic summit in 1993, Americans and Europeans used the forum solely as a technocratic trade dialogue. By Clinton's fifteenth such summit last year, the agenda had expanded to encompass a broad range of security, transnational, and economic issues. These included rebuilding the Balkans, establishing regional environmental centers in the former Soviet states, funding the Korean Energy Development Organization, combating aids and other infectious diseases in Africa, expanding debt relief for the poorest countries, bringing China into the WTO, and cooperating in the fight against international crime and terrorism.

Although the U.S. relationship with the EU remains in its infancy, the Europeans finally have answered Henry Kissinger's famous gibe about there being no "Europe" for America to call in a crisis. Now there is, and depending on the problem, EU leaders such as Romano Prodi, Javier Solana, Chris Patten, or Pascal Lamy answer the phone. It is true, however, that while each has the receiver in one ear, he also has 15 European ministers whispering in the other. As a result, Brussels' executive decision-making authority is circumscribed -- just as (to a much lesser extent) the American Congress constrains the foreign policy ambitions of the president. Nevertheless, the ongoing construction of Europe's identity is giving the United States an increasingly valuable partner. With no other region of the world does the United States work so closely and so constantly to meet challenges within and beyond their borders.

One way to convince doubting Europeans that Americans actually do support their quest for identity would be to more actively encourage Europe's defense ambitions. The EU has vowed to build a 60,000-strong rapid-reaction force by 2003. If it makes good on this commitment -- which will require close coordination with NATO; downsizing, modernizing, and professionalizing Europe's militaries; and increased defense budgets -- the EU can better meet security challenges. Some of these may not engage NATO's interests (such as Albania's 1997 unrest or the recent crisis in Sierra Leone), whereas others (such as the Balkans) may need to be addressed in the event that NATO is otherwise occupied.

Despite wishful thinking by some Europeans and wolf-crying by some Americans, this force will not amount to a "European army" that threatens NATO. Europeans know that they will need NATO's unique capabilities for decades to come. What it could amount to is a more equitable sharing of the transatlantic defense burden, in which European members have the training, technology, and resources to act more on par with the United States. As Europe assumes greater responsibility for security on the continent and beyond, it should develop new perspectives on rules of international conduct that are more in line with American ones. In such a world, Europe and the United States are more likely to agree on the scope of an international criminal court, the sweep of a land mines treaty, or the sway of a U.N. mandate. The international system itself will emerge stronger as the U.S.-European consensus that underpins it grows broader and deeper.

Finally, many Cassandras are pointing to an increasingly antagonistic trade relationship. In the transatlantic lexicon, beef is indeed a four-letter word. So are bananas, GMOS, and foreign sales corporations. These commercial disputes bolster the impression that the United States and the EU are economic gladiators locked in a death match. In fact, such contentious cases account for less than two percent of trade and investment flows across the Atlantic, which total $36 billion a day. American investment in Europe has increased seven-fold over the past six years; U.S.-owned firms in Europe employ three million Europeans. European companies are the leading investors in 41 out of 50 U.S. states. One in 12 American factory workers is employed in one of the 4,000 European-owned businesses in the United States. This powerful economic partnership creates jobs, fuels growth, lowers prices, and increases choice in Europe and the United States. Yes, Washington needs to manage the disputes that do exist, lest they corrode relations. One way to do that would be to stop making the WTO -- which is good at deciding cases on the technical merits but bad at dealing with those that have heavy political content -- the court of first recourse for every transatlantic trade dispute. But the fact remains that transatlantic trade and investment ties, like the overall relationship, are overwhelmingly positive.

There is one trump card pessimists are prone to play: George W. Bush. "The United States now has a president who uniquely embodies many of the interests and assumptions that are helping to feed growing global alienation from American values and policy," writes Martin Kettle. French strategist Dominique Moisi sums up this line of argument with a nice geographic flourish:

Europe has more in common with California than Texas. ... Most Europeans are moved by the universal nature of Hollywood's message, in part because they have contributed to it. If they feel anything toward the Texan culture taking over the White House, it is alienation. Texas is another world, one most Europeans want nothing to do with.

What these writers fail to understand about contemporary America is that it is equal parts Massachusetts and Montana. On many of the specific issues that European elites cite as evidence of a disconnect with America -- the death penalty, guns, unchecked capitalism, and unilateralism -- most Americans express very "European" views. Besides, the Bush administration has already supported the EU rapid reaction force, pledged to consult closely with allies on missile defense, vowed not to withdraw troops precipitously or unilaterally from the Balkans, and begun to reconsider Iraq sanctions. All this is evidence that the reality of power often trumps the rhetoric of campaigns.

A PARTNERSHIP OF EQUALS

What is striking, then, is the extent to which the United States and Europe are converging with respect to both values and interests. The "crisis" in U.S.-European relations is largely a myth manufactured by elites -- politicians, intellectuals, and the media -- whose views clash with those of the people they purport to represent. The motives behind this mischief may include a desire to diminish America's global influence, to use the United States as a scapegoat for domestic political gain, or to sell newspapers. Or it may reflect the fact that, for all its strength, the transatlantic relationship is in a period of transition. The end of the Cold War buried America and Europe's existential interdependence. Into the vacuum surged two largely complementary but sometimes conflicting phenomena: American "hyperpower" and a new European identity forged by economic, political, and security integration. As a result, American and European elites focus less on common values and interests and more on their differences.

But this much is true: in the sharing of ideals and the search for partners in a more complex world, Europeans and Americans still look to each other before they look to anyone else. Their manifest and multiple affinities far outweigh their differences. Their partnership benefits them both. Now the task is to make that partnership even more effective for the future. As during its first 50 years, a continued transatlantic alliance would be good for the United States, good for Europe -- and good for the world.

  • Antony J. Blinken is Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 2001, most recently as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs.
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