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Political implications: the chances of restoring a transatlantic consensus

In Europe, an appeal to the sense of Atlanticism helps to overcome the reluctance to use force in international relations, and this occurs among Right-wing voters more often than among the Left-wing voters. In the US, Atlanticism plays a much milder role, and only among Left-wing voters. Right-wing voters in the US are not only more eager to opt for the use of force in different situations but they do so even more when the use of force is to take place unilaterally.

These dynamics help to explain under which conditions the issue of the use of force is likely to create a contentious climate in transatlantic relations. We argue that this is most likely when a) a Conservative government in the US is willing to use force unilaterally, b) Atlanticists in Europe are not mobilized if not critical of the US and c) the European governments are center-Left. In this situation, the traditional mechanisms built into the structure of beliefs of both Europeans and Americans to mend the relationship are less likely to work, and politicization of the issue would make things even worse.

If Americans and Europeans look at the world in largely comparable ways, why then do we see the divergences and problems that we observed in recent years and which we may see again in the future? Can the ensuing difficulties in getting transatlantic agreement be resolved? These questions will be briefly addressed below.

The issue here goes above and beyond the question - hotly debated in recent years - of whether it was President Bush or America as a whole that was the problem for the Europeans. The present data suggest that, irrespective of whether it was President Bush in recent years or President Obama since 2009 at the helm of power in Washington, Euro-American relations still face a challenging future. The diversity of opinion within Europe suggests, moreover, that irrespective of the party in power, each administration in Washington tends to find it much easier to reach common ground with certain countries than with others and with certain segments of public less complicated than with others.

What makes the relationship problematic and makes it difficult to come to agreement on policy issues, is the complex and elusive ways in which the different elements of their structures of belief come together on both sides of the Atlantic.

What would it take to restore a transatlantic consensus and what are the chances of this happening? In this connection there are two issues that we must consider: one is the outward need for the restoration of present policy consensus across the Atlantic community - the outward need for it; and the second is the possible degree of agreement on the means to reach common goals. As we established in Chapter 3, the degree of Atlanticism, the willingness to cooperate among European partners and the US on problems perceived as common, is still high in the new century.

We also showed, by looking at the distributions of attitudes on the Atlanticism index both across countries and within them, that there are remarkable differences. In particular we looked at how the Left-Right cleavages help to shape attitudes toward Atlantic cooperation.

There is indeed considerable variation between European countries and the US in the degree of Atlanticism. In general, and probably not surprising in the light of the impact of the Iraqi crisis on the European public, the American public in recent years was more supportive than the European public of the idea of an Atlantic alliance. On the other hand, there is also quite a lot of variation across the European countries showing that 'Europe' does not have unanimous opinions on this. This is probably largely due to different political historical patterns and foreign policy traditions and experiences.

The second result worth noting and repeating here is that the Left- Right cleavage is still relevant in explaining attitudes toward collaboration across the Atlantic. This is the case in the US as well as in the nine European countries surveyed by the Transatlantic Trends Survey in the period under review here. The Right-wing electorate is systematically more inclined to support Atlantic cooperation in Europe: while the opposite is true in America. While (Leftist) Democrats are more pro-At- lanticist than the (Rightist) Republicans in the United States, the opposite is true in Europe. This has, of course, important implications for transatlantic relations.

The typology introduced in Chapter 3 suggests that the transatlantic divide is less a 'gap' between America and Europe than the effect of the differing structures of attitudes on the use of force, and the relative size and weight of differing groupings in different countries of the alliance. Clearly, these differing structures are critical in shaping domestic debates and in framing the strategies that political leaders can pursue in questions of war and peace.

Just how important such decisions are is clearly shown by the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq, discussed in more detail in Chapter 5. In the Iraqi case, moreover, President Bush chose a specific strategy and rationale for making the case to go to war. Contrary to what many people now believe, it was a strategy that was at least initially politically viable in the United States, and especially within his own party, in terms of generating public support given the structure of US public opinion.

However, from the beginning Bush's strategy and arguments were unlikely to work in many European countries given the different structure of attitudes that exists there, especially on the continent. Whether an alternative strategy and rationale might also have worked in the United States, or would have been more effective in Europe, is one of those interesting questions that future historians may ponder.

A more interesting question is whether such a crisis might occur again, in the future. And here our answer is that, yes, it might indeed happen.

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