Time to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable

March 10, 2003 • Commentary
This article was published in the Financial Times, March 10, 2003.

George W. Bush’s administration now confronts the shocking possibility that France will this week join with Russia in vetoing a new UN Security Council resolution authorising force against Iraq, and that Germany will vote against the resolution too. Such a feud between Washington and its major allies over a key US policy initiative would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

The disagreement over Iraq has brought the divergence of perspectives into sharp relief, but there have been many other sources of tension. Washington and several of its key allies have adopted different views on such issues as the Kyoto protocol on the environment, the International Criminal Court, ballistic missile defence and the Israeli‐​Palestinian conflict.

Neither side in these controversies is likely to win any awards for maturity. European critics of the Bush administration routinely deride the president as a trigger‐​happy cowboy and a closet isolationist, although he could scarcely be guilty of both offences simultaneously. The US record is worse. Bush administration officials have responded to Franco‐​German opposition to its Iraq policies with the foreign policy equivalent of a temper tantrum. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, dismissed the opposition as coming from “old Europe”, and invited the nations of central and eastern Europe to follow US leadership. Members of Congress followed by proposing economic sanctions against France and Germany.

Neither side wants to admit the obvious: that American and European interests and perspectives are diverging on an array of issues. With the demise of the Soviet Union, there is no longer a focal point of unity in the Western alliance. It has taken more than a decade, but transatlantic relations are beginning to return to their normal pattern — the pattern that existed during the century or so before the second world war and the cold war. US and European interests may still overlap on some issues, but we are likely to find more and more instances where they do not coincide.

Both the US and the leading European powers need to adopt a more realistic and mature attitude about these developments. Too often, Europeans want an activist US that will be responsible for global security and take a leading role in resolving Europe’s specific security problems, such as the Balkan crises of the 1990s. At the same time, many of those same Europeans want the US to follow the wishes of its allies passively on key policy issues. They seek a US that is powerful enough to be a hegemon, but humble enough not to exercise that awesome power unilaterally.

In essence, the European allies want the US to be a tethered hegemon. But that is an inherently contradictory and unrealistic concept. If the European countries want to be taken seriously by Washington, they must forge a cohesive foreign and security policy and back it up with serious military resources. And, if necessary, they must be willing to challenge US policy and not back down. Beyond those steps, they must ask the US to do less in the security arena while demonstrating their willingness to do more.

US policymakers and opinion leaders harbour their own illusions about the country’s allies. They expect the prosperous and proud European countries to act as obedient clients of the US whenever Washington pursues an initiative. They apparently expect such deference even when the Europeans disagree with the substance of US policy and when European interests may not be served by that policy. Such expectations may have been plausible at the dawn of Nato, when a war‐​ravaged western Europe faced a powerful threat to its security and desperately needed the US as a protector. They are, however, woefully out of touch with reality in the 21st century.

In short, there is an urgent need for greater realism as well as greater calm on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans and Europeans could continue the unproductive and demeaning spectacle of transatlantic name‐​calling until bitterness grows to the point that there is little hope of effective co‐​operation even on those issues where there are common interests.

It would be far better for both sides to acknowledge that the US and Europe are two regions with overlapping but frequently different interests and perspectives, and that the divergence is likely to grow rather than diminish. In the future, America and its traditional allies may have to agree to disagree on some important issues. Above all, they must learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable.

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