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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting Off the Divorce

Split apart over the invasion of Iraq, the West remains divided. The rifts owe much to Sept. 11, 2001, which put the United States into a state of war. Americans are now readier to use force against perceived threats to their security, such as Iraq, and less willing to wait for coalitions to be assembled or for international organizations to bless an operation.

Many Europeans think the United States cannot deal with a host of global problems without the help of alliances and international organizations. Yet U.S. hawks believe "coalitions of the willing" suffice: America's military and economic prowess, combined with its commitment to freedom and justice, ensure that many countries will follow a U.S. lead. After all, most European governments backed U.S. action in Iraq, even if the United Nations and NATO did not.

The unilateralism of U.S. foreign policy has divided Europe. British Prime Minister Tony Blair argues that the Europeans should generally support the United States on security issues, to show that allies are useful and that multilateralism serves U.S. interests. But French President Jacques Chirac argues that when the United States is mistaken -- as it was, he believes, over Iraq -- the Europeans should oppose it, to prevent a "unipolar" world emerging.

However, there are some tentative signs that transatlantic divisions are narrowing. The United States has a big problem in Iraq. The huge costs of running it, and the reluctance of other countries to provide troops, are forcing a rethink in Washington. Several Republican congressmen have argued that countries that opposed the war should be asked for peacekeepers. But the Bush administration knows that it cannot spread the burden of managing Iraq without conceding a larger role for the UN, since other countries will make that a condition of their help. The grim reality on the ground is starting to soften the unilateralist ideology that has hitherto driven U.S. policy in Iraq.

The difficulties in Iraq, for which the Pentagon must take some responsibility, have weakened the hawks' grip over U.S. foreign policy. The multilateralists of the State Department are making the running on North Korea, which the United States wants to tackle together with North Korea's neighbors. On Iran, too, those clamoring for regime change are now less vociferous. The United States is emphasizing the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Until this spring the Bush administration seemed disengaged from the Middle East peace process. But the president has disarmed many of his European critics by devoting time and energy to the "road map." Now that Israelis and Palestinians are talking, a main source of transatlantic discord has, for now, diminished.

For their part, the Europeans are starting to show the United States that they could become more effective partners. Last month they adopted their first common security strategy, whose robust language delighted Washington. The German government abandoned its traditional pacifism to support the line that, when diplomacy and sanctions fail, the European Union should be ready to use force to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The document concluded: "If we want international organizations, regimes and treaties to be effective in confronting threats to international peace and security, we should be ready to act when the rules are broken."

Fine words, of course, are easy. But the EU's new line on Iran -- threatening to review its entire relationship unless Tehran signs up to enhanced IAEA inspections -- suggests that the Europeans may be serious about getting tough on WMD.

So the United States may be becoming a little less unilateralist and the EU a bit less wimpish about the new security threats. But the leaders of both will have to work hard to bridge the remaining divisions. The Europeans must stop scrapping over how to deal with the United States. The British need to be less uncritically pro-American while the French need to be less instinctively anti-American. If Blair and Chirac could agree to support a strong Europe that normally backs the United States, but that reserves the right to act autonomously on vital issues, the EU could forge common policies more easily.

Meanwhile, the United States needs to resist the temptation to play the Europeans off against each other. In a divided Europe, of course, some countries will back the Americans. But others that are capable of damaging U.S. interests will oppose them.

If the EU -- soon to include 10 new members that are sympathetic to the United States -- becomes a more united entity, it will not be anti-American. But it will be more capable of helping the United States to tackle the many threats to its security.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform (www.cer.org.uk) and author of "Transatlantic Rift: how to bring the two sides together." He contributed this comment to the Financial Times.