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

The polls point one way, the politics another. Why? The German Marshall Fund’s survey suggested an answer. In foreign policy, popularity (or lack of it, in America’s case) does not, by itself, determine polarity. Interest trumps it. And, to a surprising extent, the broad publics of America and Europe view their interests the same way.

Both publics share an overwhelming consensus that international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, and “violence and instability in Iraq” are important threats. Europe is a degree less alarmed about security than the United States, but the two publics share the same general worries and priorities. Both publics believe the European Union should “exert strong leadership in world affairs.” Both believe NATO is essential and view the United Nations favorably. Both agree that economic power is more important than military power. Both agree, overwhelmingly, that “when our country acts on a national security issue, it is critical that we do so together with our closest allies.” (A surprise: Americans are more sold on multilateralism than are Europeans.)

Both publics, by almost five-to-one majorities, want to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. They also share a marked reluctance to use military force to that end. But pluralities on both sides favor force if nonmilitary means fail to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. In fact, Europeans are more hawkish on Iran than are American Democrats.

Those numbers suggest a strong U.S.-European affinity—perhaps, indeed, stronger than ever. What, then, gives rise to the unpopularity of America in Europe? Why is it that, as the German Marshall Fund poll finds, Americans want closer transatlantic ties and embrace European leadership, whereas Europeans want more independence from America and mistrust U.S. leadership?

One reason, of course, is the Iraq War, which caused a European crisis of confidence in America’s leadership. Another reason is George W. Bush, whom Europeans have made up their minds to loathe. A more enduring difference is Europe’s pacifist streak. Europeans and Americans agree that, as a practical matter, military force may eventually be needed to cope with Iran, but they disagree on whether, as a matter of principle, war is ever “necessary to obtain justice,” with Europeans taking the dovish side. Europeans’ belief that there is no such thing as a good war will make them more reluctant than Americans to pull the trigger in a confrontation with, say, Iran.

Scrubbing the numbers suggests one more reason, perhaps the most intriguing: European opinion has much more in common with the views of U.S. Democrats and independents than with Republicans. For example, most Europeans, U.S. Democrats, and U.S. political independents oppose using military force to remove authoritarian regimes, but a majority of Republicans favor it. Substantial majorities of Europeans and U.S. Democrats and independents view the UN favorably, but Republicans take a dim view of it. In some respects, the wider divide is across the partisan aisle, not across the Atlantic Ocean.

Republican partisans (“Bush’s base,” in the political jargon) have single- handedly run the U.S. government for the past four years. For better or worse, one-party rule in America placed in charge the U.S. faction—a minority of the population, and at best a razor-thin majority of the electorate—that has no counterpart in Europe’s political mainstream.

It may turn out, then, that Europe has soured on American leadership for many years to come. That would not paralyze the alliance (and has not), but it would raise the frictional costs of doing routine transatlantic business on everything from NATO to trade, and it would increase the odds of dangerous ruptures in times of confrontation with outside threats or adversaries: Iran, most obviously, but also, potentially, China, Russia, Hamas or Hezbollah, or even—heaven forbid—al-Qaeda itself.

But it is also possible that the elements of a renewed transatlantic alliance—centrist majorities, shared priorities, like-minded leaders—are already falling into place, waiting to be activated by a United States governed from the center of the country, rather than from the center of the Republican Party. To borrow Robert Kagan’s evocative metaphor, Europe’s left is from Venus and America’s right is from Mars, but perhaps Earth is in sight.

Presented by

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

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