United States and Europe Experience Continental Drift

By Peter Howard


The distance between the United States and Europe is slowly growing wider--about an inch each year, geologists estimate, due to the expansion of the Atlantic Ocean. Politically, the Atlantic Ocean has been a much less stable barrier between the United States and Europe. The first U.S. president, George Washington, viewed the Atlantic's vast distance as America's ultimate protection from the power politics of European monarchs and warned future presidents to avoid entangling alliances. Following World War II, U.S. leaders such as President Harry S. Truman and Secretaries of State George Marshall and Dean Acheson saw Europe and America as part of the same region, the compact North Atlantic, giving rise to the NATO and the Marshall Plan. Most recently, in the diplomacy prior to the Iraq war, a new rift developed between the United States and its European allies, culminating in U.S. recriminations against France and Germany, members of "Old Europe," effectively blocking any UN authorization for the U.S.- and U.K.-led war. Now that the war is over, how much distance is there between the United States and Europe?

The answer is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the present post-war environment is not nearly as bad as many had feared it would be:

§ The combat phase of the war defied all but the most optimistic expectations.

§ The UN did not completely collapse after the frustrating and ultimately failed Security Council diplomacy to prevent or authorize the war.

§ There was no consequential eruption of anti-U.S. politics in the world. While there were large demonstrations against the war, no governments have fallen as a result of the war.

§ The United States and Europe are continuing to work to improve their relationship in other critical areas.

On the other hand, substantial policy differences remain, and they are slowly dividing the United States and Europe:

§ While the immediate trans-Atlantic tiff has receded, the recriminations are far from over. France has achieved a new status in pop culture as the ultimate antithesis to the United States.

§ The Old Europe distinction remains alive and well in the White House and Pentagon, where it counts.

§ Europe is taking the first steps in the long process of developing the military capability to act independently of the United States in international security affairs.

In the short run, trans-Atlantic relations are likely to return to some semblance of normalcy, with the United States and Europe bouncing from disagreement in one area to cooperation in another. Despite Javier Solana's best efforts, Europe still does not speak with one voice in international affairs. European countries most certainly will not merge their defense capabilities into a united army of Europe any time soon, and as a result, Europe will continue to lack the wherewithal to effectively challenge the United States on global security issues. NATO will expand and survive, but its identity remains in post-cold war flux.

Yet these long-term trends can slowly separate historic allies who now see the world in fundamentally different terms. While the physical distance between the United States and Europe continues to grow at the steady and predictable inch per year, the political distance between them is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Absent some political tectonics, though, Europe and the United States are slowly drifting apart.

Dr. Peter Howard phoward@american.edu>is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at American University in Washington, DC and writes on U.S.-European relations for Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org ) This article is excerpted from a new global affairs commentary, available in full online at http://www.fpif.org/commentary/2003/0305europe.html