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The U.S. and the EU: Drifting Apart?

This topic seems as dead as the dodo. Thousands of editorials, op-eds and books on this subject have been written on both sides of the Atlantic, exploring all and sundry aspects. Anyone adding another voice to this powerful chorus is likely to be either irrelevant or ridiculous, or both. Therefore, let's try once more.

The Empire and the Unruly Tribes

Very often, the U.S. position in today's world has been likened to that of the Roman empire during the centuries of its widest expansion, being surrounded by a multitude of non-Roman peoples and tribes that were potentially hostile and needed to be controlled either politically by means of treaties and economic relationships or militarily by field campaigns or defence walls.

Superficially, there is some beauty in this analogy. At closer look, however, there are flaws. Europe, for instance, although traditionally a bunch of unruly tribes, has two characteristics that set it out from the rest

* it is still the mother continent of the U.S. in a way how Greece gave birth to Rome

* it is making a brave attempt at integrating some regions and sectors of its life in an institution called European Union, similar to a pan-Hellenic league.

Adding to this the fact that the EU is demographically and economically roughly the equivalent of the U.S., imparts a duocratic flavor to the empire-satellite model and, hence, justifies asking the thematic question. Given Japan's and Russia's recent decline and China's immaturity, the relative U.S.-EU duocracy has become a global fact, expressed in a multitude of daily trivialities.

* There are only two measurement standards existing in the world: the European metric system and the U.S. regular system. Contrary to intuition, the regular system seems to be gaining ground in Latin America and Asia because of America's economic strength.

* Most industrial standards are European, but some U.S. standards have also been adopted worldwide.

* English is rapidly progressing as the world language because of U.S. influence although the Commonwealth is probably the largest English language community.

The European Union ? What's That?

Analyzing the U.S.-EU duocracy requires, first of all, a thorough understanding of the EU. Most Europeans — and indeed some European politicians — do not fully grasp the role and significance of the EU. How can Americans and others be expected to have a clear view of an institution or a phenomenon that is fuzzy in the European mind?

To obtain a current snapshot of EU perception among Europeans would require holding a conference with dozens of papers and a substantial report. Very little can be said here:

* There are clear signs of a nascent European nationalism based on a proud perception of joint economic and political clout; on the common currency; on the joint fight against illegal immigration; and on widespread opposition to American policies, ideologies and lifestyle.

* "Brussels" is increasingly showing the same "world capital" syndrome typical of Washington, D.C., and is similarly exposed to criticism from the "provinces" for its centralism.

* Some state governments have launched a fight against "Brussels" for survival of their traditional political and economic sovereignty. It is, in short, a fight of the unruly tribes against the league.

* Lack of understanding of the new institutions and regulations is exemplified by the Maastricht debate in which some politicians and governments are trying to break the stability pact shackles, apparently convinced that they can have the cake of the common currency, and eat it, not realizing that budget deficit-induced inflation might kill the euro in a few years' time and force a return to the old national currencies, or dollarization.

This lack of equilibrium makes is difficult to deal with Europe. The EU partly constitutes a kaleidoscope of unruly tribes, and partly a global power hub, with unclear and shifting borders between the two. The influence of single politicians and individual state parties can spring surprises at any moment, not only for outsiders but for Europeans, as well.

Europe's View of the U.S. ? America's View of the EU

This subject which has been discussed ad nauseam by the media. Suffice it so say that it is amazing how little even educated people on either side of the pond know of the other, despite decades of trans-Atlantic travel, military, economic and cultural integration.

Given this level of ignorance, myths easily prevail over knowledge and facts, even among politicians and other decision-makers. Often, existing individual trans-Atlantic knowledge is of a highly specialized nature, and hence supplemented by a general set of myths and clichés mostly based on media reporting and some superficial travel experience. Long-term expatriates on both sides of the pond tend to lose grip on the reality at home. The continued existence of scores of "experts on Europe" in America and "experts on the U.S." in Europe is proof of a dangerous dearth of knowledge.

Taking account of this situation there is one basic difference in mutual perception:

* The EU sees the U.S. essentially as its equal in all sectors except the military.

* The U.S. generally sees the EU as one among several secondary powers, with a ranking only slightly above Japan, Russia and China.

Hence, the concept of American-European duocracy reflects a European more than an American view. The U.S. currently tends to underestimate Europe's power. In public perception, the euro currency is not rated much higher than the yen; it is not fully understood that the low EU ranking in a comparison of per capita GDP would improve with rising euro exchange rates.

Also, it is still not fully understood in America that Europe makes up for some of its military weakness by an uncanny ability to influence world opinion against the U.S. The European countries, being unruly tribes themselves, find more resonance among other unruly tribes than Washington. The current world power structure can therefore be considered more duocratic than if seen from a Washington perspective.

Duocratic Games

Saving the World

Currently, the U.S.-EU relationship is characterized by relatively harmless duocratic games. The Europeans, for example, are pushing the Kyoto protocol which is anathema to Washington. On the subject of the International Criminal Court, the Bush Administration is using sly tactics of bilateral agreements to undo the UN decision in practice. In both cases there seems to be more stubbornness at work than common sense. The Kyoto protocol is not likely to save Europe from a climate predicament, and the International Criminal Court is unlikely to infringe on U.S. sovereignty and jurisdiction.

These games, however, illustrate the super power syndrome. Brussels and its national capitals are, for instance, deeply convinced that European environmental, economic and legal strategies are required to save the world. How this can border on the ridiculous is illustrated by European energy policies:

Europe decided decades ago that world oil reserves are finite and consumption must be reduced to make them last longer while promoting alternative sources of energy. To this end, European gasoline prices were raised to roughly fourfold their level in the U.S. and elsewhere. While, on the positive side, this has led to the development of 80 miles per gallon cars and megawatt wind turbines, it also meant that Europeans, by paying exorbitant prices at the pump, are subsidizing American consumers and the U.S. economy.

Washington is even more accustomed to playing the "world capital" game. As someone joked during the Clinton years: "The world does not need a United Nations. If you want to know what's right or wrong, just ask the U.S. President."

....and the World

Washington's game would not be possible without broad popular agreement within the country which finds expression, for instance, in innocent commercial hype. A company could boast of being, say, "the largest producer of cocktail sausages in the U.S. and the world." Hardly anyone will bother to check if the affix "and the world" is justified. In many instances it will, in fact, be correct.

A European company might claim that they are the largest producer of seamless macaroni in Italy but it is very unlikely for them to claim to be the market leader "in Europe and the world."

Causes of Current Friction

On the American side there is a groundswell of annoyance caused by a development which, in principle, the U.S. finds highly praiseworthy: European integration. Brussels blocks a GE-Honeywell merger; Brussels objects to U.S. trade policies; Brussels wants to de-Americanize the Internet; Brussels bans imports of genetically engineered seeds and foodstuffs from the U.S., and so on.

A new economic power is raising its ugly head, making trouble, rocking the boat. That's different from French traditional concerns about their cheese exports, and German efforts to market their cars. Who are these people in Brussels? Do we really have to deal with them?

It will take a few years until more Americans have become accustomed to the facts and foibles of the Brussels bureaucracy, just as it took Europeans decades to learn the ins and outs of the U.S. Congress. But more American decision makers will learn to understand the intricate Brussels power structure just as surely as they learned to deal with Kremlin astrology during the Cold War.

From the Washington perspective there exist, in conclusion, two basic difficulties in understanding Europe:

* the nontransparent and unpredictable nature of the European state-union relationships;

* the Brussels/Strasbourg power structure and policies.

Both difficulties are of a transitional nature and should disappear once European integration is either fully achieved or abandoned.

The Relevance of Current Issues

At any moment there exists a spate of issues on which the U.S. and the EU disagree. These issues range from short-term to long-term, from trade to politics to environment. Some are of low priority such as agricultural protection policies or steel import duties. Others are, temporarily, of top priority and tempers flare up. The Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and the Iraq campaign are in the top category.

However, most of these issues have one aspect in common: they have arisen more because of differences in perception than in substance.

Let us take a look at the Iraq issue as it presented itself in November 2002.


The American government and most of the public understand the need for an Iraq campaign essentially as a defensive measure whereas many if not most Europeans see it as an offensive action. Why can Europeans not share and understand America's concern to defend itself?

Western Europe has lived for half a century with the threat of nuclear devices and missiles next door, not to speak of the presence of a huge potential invasion force just behind a wall and an artificial border. Mostly home-made terrorism from Algerians in France, Basques in Spain, Red Brigades in Italy, IRA in Ulster and Britain, and RAF in Germany has also dulled the senses. Europeans hence fail to grasp that the events of September 11 and their sequel shattered the glass cupola over Shangri-La, a country that had not seen enemy action on its mainland since the Civil War. September 11 caused a deep trauma likely to persist for years, perhaps decades. Also, September 11 happened in New York, not in Paris or Berlin. Let's not underestimate this simple fact.

Many Americans observe the hesitation of several European countries in supporting an Iraq campaign or outright opposition to it and feel deeply betrayed and hurt. In two world wars they helped to save the Europeans, and now? It is difficult for Americans to understand that you can live within reach of enemy weapons, drink your café au lait, be happy and expect others to be similarly relaxed.

A situation like this clearly calls for much better information on both sides of the pond. On the substance of the issue there is not much disagreement, anyway. Let U.S. forces find stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons in occupied Iraq, and the Pentagon will be universally praised for its foresight.

In conclusion: some of the issues that temporarily cloud the U.S-EU relationship are of a transitional and psychological rather than substantive nature, calling for stronger efforts to close perception gaps that persist despite strong interaction and daily reciprocal media coverage.


Another set of issues seems to result from differences in timing rather than substance. Much of the European excitement about the U.S. attitude toward the Kyoto Protocol has arisen because Europeans failed to understand that America simply needs more time to understand and face the climate problem.

There are a number of reasons for the American time lag in recognizing the issue, among them the size of the country, resistance by powerful lobbies, and a general attitude of suspicion toward the environmental frenzy so typical of Europe (what ever happened to the waldsterben that obsessed Germans more than a decade ago?).

The idea that there might indeed something be wrong, i.e. man-made, with global warming, is slowly working its way through American academia and into administration and legislation. It is not unrealistic to predict that the U.S will become a leader of the climate movement once the threshold is passed that defines "climate policies" as supportive rather than detrimental to the American Way of Life,


The anti-globalization movement is not a specific U.S.-EU issue but a worldwide campaign within both industrial and developing countries. Some people in Europe and elsewhere equate globalization with Americanization. Americans could just as well complain about Europeanization given the fact that Europe's capital investments in the States are three times the level of U.S. investments in Europe, and that espresso coffee shops are mushrooming all over the nation. In fact, in 1997 and 1998, Europe was the source of 80 percent of all U.S. capital imports. Also, among the world's multinational companies there are more of European than American origin.

Europeans should realize that the strong coverage their media extend to anything American promotes "Americanization" while most Americans remain blissfully unaware of trends and events in Europe because of the traditional focus of their media on domestic affairs.


In conclusion, there are few truly substantive issues currently being disputed between the U.S. and the EU. Most of them are of a transitory, psychological or timing nature and should be considered normal for a duocratic relationship. On the basis of this analysis, the relationship between the two powers should be considered stable and friendly, with space for improvement mainly through better information of broader audiences.

The Future

There is no reason to doubt that the U.S.-EU relationship will continue being friendly as long as circumstances persist that are not too different from those prevailing in the past. In other words: the relationship will be good as long as fair weather prevails. But what is going to happen under bad weather conditions? What if disaster strikes,

* affecting one partner only, or

* affecting both partners similarly and simultaneously?

A disaster could be defined as an event that thoroughly and permanently changes the external set of conditions on which the economic and social equilibrium is based.

Imagining different types of disasters and challenges such as sudden global shortages of energy or raw materials, and developing strategies for effective joint responses that prevent wasteful rivalry and enmity between the two powers, should be high on the agenda of the numerous existing trans-Atlantic think tanks.

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—— John Wantock
Randall Jarrell, in his 1954 novel "Pictures from an Institution," introduces Gertrude Johnson, a famous American writer who arrives at Benton College, a "progressive" college for women not far from New York City, and has this to say:

"Gertrude thought Europe overrated, too; she voyaged there, voyaged back, and told her friends; they listened, awed, uneasy somehow. She had a wonderful theory that Europeans are mere children to us Americans, who are the oldest of men — why I once knew: because our political institutions are older, or because Europeans skipped some stage of their development, or because Gertrude was an American?- I forget."

"Where the Stress Falls? The novel as self-portrait" by Susan Sontag, New Yorker, l8-25 June, 2001, p 152. (selected by TMP)