The transatlantic gap remains as wide as ever

Time has taken some of the edge off the feelings over the war in Iraq, but not the distrust
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The Independent Online

Poor old Gerhard Schröder. The German Chancellor dares to say what many feel but few dare speak aloud - that the transatlantic alliance as structured in Nato needs to be recast - and everyone, including his own staff, rushes in to pretend that it was all an awful mistake. Far from wanting to weaken Nato, said his Foreign Secretary, the embattled Joschka Fischer, his boss was actually seeking to strengthen it. It was an attempt to be constructive not critical, pleaded his staff, while US officials dismissed it with an air of strained patience as "clumsily done".

Poor old Gerhard Schröder. The German Chancellor dares to say what many feel but few dare speak aloud - that the transatlantic alliance as structured in Nato needs to be recast - and everyone, including his own staff, rushes in to pretend that it was all an awful mistake. Far from wanting to weaken Nato, said his Foreign Secretary, the embattled Joschka Fischer, his boss was actually seeking to strengthen it. It was an attempt to be constructive not critical, pleaded his staff, while US officials dismissed it with an air of strained patience as "clumsily done".

But the German Chancellor is right, however embarrassing his comments in the week before Bush arrived on his European trip may have been. If Bush's visit is to mark a new phase in transatlantic relations, political leaders must look at the form as well as the style of that partnership. The world may have moved on since the Iraq invasion, but you can't simply pick up the pieces and go on as if the ruptures it caused never happened.

That, of course, was precisely what the Bush trip was meant to do, a visit in which everyone could shake hands, let bygones be bygones and act as if the world was exactly how it had been before Iraq. It isn't, and it's wrong to pretend otherwise. On the one side you have a newly re-elected US President with pronounced views of the world and an activist foreign policy made only firmer by an electoral mandate. On the other you have a Europe deeply distrustful of that US vision but confused as to what it believes its relationship with Washington and the outside world should be.

At the diplomatic level, you can smooth things over with fine words and a concentration on areas where there is agreement. But the trouble in this case is that there aren't that many areas of real agreement. Time has taken the edge off the feelings over the war, but not the distrust. Most European leaders take a quite different view of the world, and the rights and wrongs of intervening in it, than Washington. And even if, as in the case of Britain and Spain, their leaders do support Bush, their publics do not.

The disagreements about dealing with Iran and selling arms to China, about reforming the UN and signing up to Kyoto, are not just divisions about specific policies. They arise from quite different approaches to world problems and the efficacy of forcing change from outside. Washington can see the virtue in making more effort to bring its allies along with it. But ultimately it has its view, and will pursue it whether the Europe, as a whole or individually, goes along with it or not. Europe has a broad sense of its view of the world but, at the moment, lacks either the unity or the structures to provide an alternative, and so is left as the reluctant dissenter on the sidelines.

Nato is at the core of this disparity of approach and of power. Logically the organisation has lost all raison d'être since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is no longer a threat. Eastern Europe, including now the Ukraine, has moved from threat to eager supplicant. So what is Nato for?

The US, and with it the UK, still sees Nato as the basic mechanism for the military alliance with Europe and would like see it switch its role from defence to military interventions abroad. The Europeans would like to continue it, but mainly as the means of locking in US military know-how and might. Nato's own staff dream up ever more fanciful visions of the organisation as a political force for the new world of global security.

Yet, if that is the case, then how are the decisions for foreign ventures to be reached? Schröder is quite right to argue that new roles demand new decision-making. Iraq has shown that you cannot assume the continuous agreement that Nato had as a defensive alliance. If the US wants to go into Iran, and wishes to use Nato as the instrument, it will need a political agreement at a much higher level and with much more genuine accord than Nato's council can provide at the moment. And that is on the assumption that the European partners, or their public, wish to see the organisation develop in this way. If Nato cannot be changed to reflect a more equal partnership, then Europe is better dealing with the US, and vice versa, as equal and separate entities.

The weakness, and the reality that Bush's visit showed up yet again, is that Europe has neither the means nor the will to produce an alternative voice. This is partly because its own leadership remains so divided. Tony Blair made much of his role in encouraging Bush's visit, but he did (and does) little to help find the unified partner that the US would prefer to deal with. Europe is still far from having a common policy on either defence or foreign affairs, despite their place in the new constitution. And the way in which its partners allowed the Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Zapatero, to be singled out for slight by an America still keen to punish his country for withdrawing from Iraq was shameful.

Through all the arguments of the last two years, the US has made one persistent and accurate criticism of Europe - that it wants to have it both ways, rejecting America's leadership while refusing to take responsibility for its own defence and international policy. It won't produce the result that Washington wants, but the US is absolutely justified in calling for it.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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