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The transatlantic dimension

A transatlantic gap?

In the last decade, the assessment of the state of Euro-American relations has been influenced by the view that Europeans and Americans no longer share a similar view of the world and that this has created a true and troublesome gap between both sides of the Atlantic and across the board, covering all areas of foreign policy. It has indeed almost become conventional wisdom that there is indeed a gap, that it is widening and also that it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage and perhaps impossible to bridge. To the extent that a transatlantic dialogue is still taking place, it seems to be a dialogue of the deaf only. The debate rages across almost the whole range of foreign policy issues: from environmental to arms control issues, from trade to the problems of the Middle East. A solution for these differences is not in sight, although the American President who assumed office in 2009 appeared to acknowledge the need to repair the Atlantic relationship and put it on a more equal and better footing. This will in all probability only have a chance of success if a new consensus is re-established within the US and with the European partners as well. In recent years much has happened to make this a tough endeavor.

Whether this assessment of the state of transatlantic relations holds water or leaks crucially depends on the way the nature and sources of transatlantic relationships are defined and, consequentially, on the question of how different the present situation is from the past. Transatlantic relations have been plagued by crisis and rift since their beginning. US Ambassador to NATO, Robert Hunter (1984: 1) suggested in one of the periodic assessments of the (un)healthy state of transatlantic relations: 'The words NATO and crisis have been paired almost from the moment the ink was dry on the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949'. Indeed, many argue that differences of opinion and heated debates have been part and parcel of the transatlantic relationship over sixty years, and that the recent tensions are hardly a new phenomenon. Some even wonder whether, in the postWorld War Two world system, Europeans and Americans ever shared a common worldview. One other careful observer (and shaper) of transatlantic relations, Henry Kissinger, more than four decades ago, referred to the structural 'strains on Atlantic relationships': Europeans and Americans, he said, have a different 'historical perspective'; the Americans are convinced that 'any problem will yield if subjected to a sufficient dose of expertise', while the Europeans sit on 'a continent covered with ruins testifying to the fallibility of human foresight.' (Kissinger, 1966: 23).

In more recent years, transatlantic relationships have witnessed a new round of fierce debates and remarkable differences in US-European relations. And now, as then, the questions are how much the last crisis differs from past turbulences and what are its possible sources. Not surprisingly, vastly different answers to both questions have been offered and they have generated a lively, but often also confusing debate over the nature and causes of such differences (see e.g., Anderson, Ikenberry and Risse, 2008; Lindberg, 2005; and Mowle, 2004).

Some point to structural factors (e.g., Walt 1998/99; Layne, 2008), while others emphasize the situational and idiosyncratic aspects. Among the latter it is more recently and most frequently argued that such differences are largely attributable to either the policies of the Bush Administration, anti-Americanism or a combination of both. Bush has clearly been 'a Divider, not a Uniter' (Jacobson, 2008) not only domestically, but also internationally. However, US popularity was already low well before the Iraq war (Isernia and Fabbrini, 2007), and Bush's clumsy and unilateral management of both the pre- and post-Iraq war situation only made things worse. Anti-Americanism, especially after Afghanistan and Iraq, was seen as spreading all over the world and Iraq only contributed to rekindle knee-jerk Anti-American reactions well-rooted in European culture for decades (e.g., Markovits, 2007; Pells, 1997; Sweig, 2006).

Others argue, rather, that the advent of the Bush Administration was not a major factor and that the problem is structural rather than conjectural because the perspectives of the two sides have become increasingly incompatible as a result of the growing asymmetry in power across the Atlantic and the impotence of the European Union in trying to speak with one voice on matters of foreign and security policy. In these interpretations, power and ideas combine, in claiming that structural asymmetries in cultural strength and military power between Europe and the United States generate different values and preferences vis-a-vis the nature of international relations in general, and the use of force in particular, among the two publics (e.g., Kagan, 2003). Yet another, intermediate, view argues that current differences are essentially rooted in widely differing threat perceptions in the US and Europe after 9/11. Throughout the Cold War, it was evident that Europeans and Americans sometimes had different perceptions of the Soviet threat and with the end of the Cold War, they looked at threats in different ways or, rather, they gave different priorities to the same threats.

This variety of interpretations and theories about the nature and characteristics of transatlantic relations, and the consequent differences in prognosis about the evolution of the crisis reflects different theoretical views of the nature and essential elements of the transatlantic order. Not surprisingly, the scope and gravity of the transatlantic crisis depends on which theoretical elements are deemed essential in defining the nature and fundamental characteristics of transatlantic relations. Like beauty, it is largely in the mind of the beholder.

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