Comment December 2006

Coalition of the Waiting

The U.S.-European alliance is not on its last legs— and when Bush goes, it could emerge stronger than ever

Over coffee not long ago, a European diplomat, then completing his five-year tour in Washington, reflected on anti-Americanism. No, he said, it is nothing new. The European left, in particular, has indulged in it for years. But today? Today, he sighed, is different. Since the Iraq War, mistrust of America has penetrated further into the mainstream. It has found lodging with the man in the street.

Polls bear him out. “Ameri­ca’s glo­bal image has again slipped,” began the summary of a fifteen-nation survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, in June. September brought more of the same, this time from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, whose Transatlantic Trends poll surveyed the United States and twelve European countries. The proportion of Europeans “who view U.S. leadership in world affairs as desirable has reversed since 2002,” reported the survey, “from 64 percent positive to 37 percent this year, and from 31 percent negative to 57 percent.” What about Europe’s views of President Bush? Don’t ask. Well, all right: for the morbidly curious, his approval rating in Europe is a bottom-scraping 18 percent.

Yet here is something odd. Such overwhelmingly anti-U.S. sentiment, one might think, should translate into anti-U.S. politics. But it has not. A new generation of European leaders is moving into position, and it is surprisingly pro-American. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, has gone out of her way to restore transatlantic ties and to call for a strong United States–Europe partnership. From an American point of view, she is a big improvement over her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.

Tony Blair, the exiting British prime minister, is as solidly pro-American as they come, to the point of being ridiculed as an American lackey. Gordon Brown, Blair’s longtime heir apparent, was under pressure to distinguish himself from “Bush’s poodle” as he pitched his leadership to the Labour Party in September. Yet he pointedly staked Labour’s renewal “on that essential truth—the need for global cooperation in the fight against terrorism, never anti-Americanism.” The glamorously next-gen leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, gave a big foreign-policy speech declaring anti-Americanism “an intellectual and moral surrender,” and pronouncing himself and his party “instinctive friends of America and passionate supporters of the Atlantic alliance.”

No European leader has been a sharper thorn in the Bush administration’s side than France’s president, Jacques Chirac, and no country’s chattering class has spoken as openly of making Europe a counterbalance to American influence. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac’s interior minister and the man whom many consider most likely to succeed him, chose, as The Washington Post put it, to “kick off the campaign season in France by making a U.S. tour,” and by delivering, in Washington, an “unabashedly pro-American speech.” He called America “Europe’s obvious and natural partner,” described the transatlantic bond as “unique and irreplaceable,” and in case anyone missed the point, added, “My dedication to our relationship with America is well-known and has earned me substantial criticism in France.” Not enough criticism, apparently, to make him sing an anti-American tune.

European voters presumably choose leaders for much more than their posture toward the United States. At the very least, however, it seems clear that “Atlanticism,” as foreign-policy experts often call the idea of a robust U.S.-European partnership, is no kiss of death in European politics, and may indeed be a plus. Certainly some very prominent and savvy politicians are betting on it.

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Jonathan Rauch is an Atlantic correspondent and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

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