The numbers speak for themselves: an overwhelming majority in four European countries – at least 73 percent of the public – believe that President Bush makes decisions based entirely on U.S interests without any consideration for his European allies. Whether the Americans like it or not, their president seems in loss of popularity. The results of the polls, conducted by the International Herald Tribune and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington, have not really surprised the observers of the political scene in Europe. It is not a secret that an important part of the media in the surveyed countries (France, Great Britain, Germany, and Italy), have never been acquired to Mr. Bush’s known ideas concerning sensitive matters, such as the Kyoto environmental treaty, and the eventual withdrawal from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty, not to speak of the death penalty or the Middle East non- intervention policy. But as long as the ” antipathetic” trend remained confined to some leftist and/or nationalistic journalists and intellectuals, Mr. Antony Blinken – a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration- could afford the luxury of thinking loudly that “the United States and Europe are actually converging”. Thus ” the crisis in US-European relations is largely a myth manufactured by elites”, he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.
Yet, if the recently published results of the polls show us something, it is well that the growing estrangement does no longer concern the sole elites. The European public is actually quite supporting the wave. More and more people disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling international policy. A lot of them, quite forgetful that Clinton also was a strong proponent of the death penalty, particularly when he was governor of Arkansas, and that he failed to submit the Kyoto accord for Senate ratification, declared that his policies were more convincing than Bush’s. A majority of the surveyed said that Mr. Bush understands less about Europe than other American Presidents, and that factors like the growing power of the European Union, the resentment created by the American multinational corporations, the increasingly different social and cultural values, and the end of the Cold War, are rather pushing Europe and the U.S. towards growing further apart.
Unilateralism, values gap, negative stereotypes, are the key words in the commentaries. How would the American administration deal with the poll results? That is the question, which deserves to be answered, for it concerns the next evolution of the relations. It is noteworthy that some observers in Europe, think that this is the first time since 1947 that ” a mutual decoupling of the United States from Europe is truly possible”. The end of the Cold War, the evolution of the European Union build up towards more a homogeneous defense and security system, and globalization, are necessarily causing a shift in the nature of the half-century relationship.
If these changes are to worry the ” atlantists”, they are likely to serve the Russian nostalgia to the lost grandeur under the ambitious President Putin. But let’s not quickly give up to the paranoia: the present state of the crumbly ex-empire does not indicate any ability to recovering soon from its chronic sickness, despite the pompous rhetoric that has flourished of late. China is indeed another problem, as well as the “rogues’ clubhouse”, as it has been labeled by Jeffrey W.Legro and Andrew Moravcsik, in Foreign Policy (: issue July-August 01/ Faux Realism). Yet, what rang the alert in the minds of these two American scholars, has more to do with the recent concerns about the increasing gap between Europe and the U.S., than it sounds. For them, the doctrine propagated by the Bush administration and known as “new realism” is neither new nor realist, if we may say. And the most tangible result it may lead to – either by the choice of the adversaries or by the absence of a global balance of power- can only unite ” the current administration and its predecessor against the only remaining pure ‘realists’ in America, who huddle around publications like The Weekly Standard and the National Review fearing that the United States will find itself militarily unprepared for a coming battle for global hegemony with great powers such as China and a united Europe “!
Indubitably, it is well the allies that any State needs to convince first, and that is why any observer must not fail to note that it is with its own allies that the U.S.A. is actually wrestling. However, the Europeans are not alone in their disapproval of Mr. Bush’s policies. If we are to believe the Christian Science Monitor (August 16), the US assistant secretary of State for the Middle East, William Burns, found in a recent swing through the Gulf region that many US friends were virtually obsessed with the Palestinian problem. ” My discussions with Gulf leaders focused almost exclusively on the Palestinian-Israeli situation”, Mr. Burns told a House panel last month. The reluctance to cooperate with the USA for more an active involvement in alternative policies as regards Iraq is the result of a growing popular pressure on these governments. The US is perceived more as the friend of the Israelis than as the “liberator” of Kuwait. Worse: there is a growing feeling among the Arabs that the Palestinians, the Iraqis, the Libyans, the Sudanese, the Syrians, the Iranians are all victims of the American emasculated policy, and that they are serving as scapegoats to the broad objectives of Uncle Sam in the region.
On this ground precisely, there is much to say about the US-European divergence. Some examples may highlight the differences in the positions held by Washington and Brussels:
1) On July 31 of this year, Mr. Chris Patten issued a statement saying that the European Commission regrets the congressional decision on 27 July to extend the Iran and Libya Sanctions (ILSA) for another five years. The document reminds us that at the EU-US Géteborg summit in June the European Union and the United States affirmed their commitment to pursue shared aims under the New Transatlantic Agenda. In particular, they agreed to work together to promote international security, peace and stability, and to pursue the fight against international terrorism and proliferation of weapons. Then the document emphasizes that the EU is concerned that this important joint effort could be damaged by continuing US attempts to promote the goal through unilateral extraterritorial laws.
More to the point, the precedent rhetoric means that the Europeans perceive the congressional decision as a threat against the open international trading system.
2) To understand what are the stakes, we ought to keep in mind that the European Union has extensive trade relations with Libya. Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and France ( the same countries surveyed by the poll) are Libya’s leading four suppliers of manufactures, energy and food products and raw materials, roughly 50% of its total imports. Italy, Germany, Spain, France and Greece are Libya’s top five export markets, absorbing about 70% of its manufactures, energy and food products and raw materials. Moreover, the European Union accounts for nine-tenths of Libya’s oil exports. Italy, Germany, Spain, France and Belgium are the leading five importers of Libyan oil; this oil covers 51% of Italy’s requirements, 13% of Germany’s and 5% of France’s.
As to Iran, the situation is a little different, but the importance accorded to the future cooperation is obvious. Following the election of Mr. Khatami as President in May 1997 and positive moves by Iran over a number of issues, a Comprehensive Dialogue in the form of semestrial troika meetings at the level of Under-secretary of State/Deputy Minister was established in 1998. The EU also decided to explore the possibilities for co-operation with Iran in the areas of energy, trade and investment, refugees and drugs control. Thus, on 7 February 2001, the Commission adopted a communication, setting out the perspectives and conditions for developing closer relations with Iran. This could lead to the conclusion of a Trade and Co-operation Agreement.
It must be noticed that EU is Iran’s main trading partner concerning both imports (around 40%) and exports (around 36%). Whereas more than 75% of EU imports from Iran consist of oil products, the exports to Iran are more diversified, with power generation plants, large machinery and electrical and mechanical appliances making-up about 45 percent of the total exports.
This is to show that on these two dossiers, the European reluctance to follow the USA is neither a matter of ideology or tight political maneuver, but really concerning economic interests and important assets of survival.
Hence, the misunderstanding that settled down between the two shores of the Atlantic. Besides, what the Europeans are unable to admit concerns that American propensity to handle international issues only on the ground of National Proud, which is quite costing even to the American companies suffering from some political decisions. What are actually the real threats of countries like Libya or Iran ? As J. W. Legro and A. Moravcsik put it , ” these picayune foes are targeted not because they are the most powerful- or even minimally powerful – but because they are the least democratic and propagate the most hostile ideologies”.
The least democratic? This is not sure. As a matter of fact, the last elections in Iran for instance, have not been denunciated as such by any competent international organism. And though we cannot say the same thing about Cuba or North Korea, it is noticeable however that the US keep a very cool relationship with some regimes that have never hidden their sinister unpopularity.
The factor that remains concerns the hostile ideologies. But here also the objection is important. Washington has always been able to put up with regimes like the former Soviet Union or the present China. So why does it seem unable to cope with Libya or Iran?
So, is it rather because of their position as regards the Arab- Israeli conflict? If this were the case, as many observers are prone to believe, then the United States would be sacrificing some of its interests with the Arabs and the Europeans only for the sake of the AIPAC’s views?
3) What remains incomprehensible as a source of continual distrust and polemic between Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Israelis, concern the incomplete role of the EU in the Middle East ; that role that has never been fully satisfying for any of the parties.
The Europeans claim that they are the largest donor of non-military aid to the Middle East peace process, and the first donor of financial and technical assistance to the Palestinian authority. Besides, they are the first trading partner and major economic, scientific and research partner of Israel. They are also well involved in economic and political partnership with Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt…
So, the minimum expected is that their role in the conflict or in the peace process does not be limited to sponsoring the negotiations from behind the curtains. The Arabs wish a more active intervention, but such a prospect has never pleased the Israelis. The reasons of such a stubborn rejection are known: The European Union’s basic position on the Middle East – which earned them the Israeli furor- was expressed in its Venice Declaration at the June 1980 European Council and was repeatedly reaffirmed by subsequent European Councils of Heads of State and Government (Berlin, Cologne and Helsinki in 1999; Feira; Biarritz and Nice in 2000) as well as by General Affairs Councils of Foreign Ministers. It is essentially based on the acceptation of the UN resolutions asking for Israel withdrawal from the 1967’s occupied territories.
In the present situation, neither the Americans nor the Europeans seem to agree about a common intervention able to put an end to the bloodshed. The deadlock is partly caused by this “inability” to cope over a regional issue whose stakes are the concerns of all the parties involved. Hence, the disappointment of the Arabs. For if the sponsors of the peace process fail to save it – or what remains of its hopes- who is to blame for that failure?
Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.