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The Cooling of Europe

The end of the East-West confrontation demands a re-definition of transatlantic relations

01.03.2003 · Werner Weidenfeld


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The recent cooling of German-American relations is felt by all. Certainly, more than an acid-test is at work when one side complains of the arrogance displayed by the world's only superpower and the other makes condescending remarks about the incompetence of old Europe.

Demonstrating more than a simple example of sub-optimal cooperation, this delicate situation is currently viewed through two very different interpretive lenses.
One interpretation claims there is no real reason to be concerned. There have always been conflicts-from steel pipes to chickens, bananas to rockets. The German-American friendship runs deep and is stable enough to weather even the current conflict over a war in Iraq. According to the other interpretation, the German government has made a grave error and deeply wounded German-American relations. The Chancellor's unbridled electoral opportunism is seen as having sacrificed the Atlantic friendship upon the altar of domestic emotionalism. The American government is therefore, according to this view, justifiably shocked by the abuse of a trust built over decades. States that expressed absolute solidarity with the Americans after September 11th, should not then embolden Saddam Hussein by weakening international pressure put on Iraq.

Both interpretations run short of full explanations precisely because they touch upon the surface only and overlook tectonic shifts in the deeper dimensions of political culture.
The relationship between Germany and America has been characterized by a curious ambivalence since the first wave of immigration to the U.S.. Admiration and condescension have been prevalent on both sides; attempts to grow closer have been coupled with a mental distance. The German regard for America's dynamic ability to push its limits has been accompanied by contempt for the cold crassness of the American market. Americans' reverence for German and European culture and their disdain for the old continent's sclerotic state have been two sides of the same coin. This ambivalence was for the most part disassembled by the dynamics of a single era: during the Cold War, the communist threat forged an Atlantic community. The American ethos of freedom, combined with calculated economic and strategic concerns gave Washington a free, protective hand over the European allies. Europeans showed their thanks through loyalty and solidarity.
That era has come to a close. Currently, we are to some extent returning to the historical norm-a relationship rife with old ambivalences, short-term interests and tension. This relationship is becoming increasingly more fragile. It functions where interests are congruent, leads to conflict where goals diverge. Still-fresh memories of the good old days are bound to feed a nostalgic yearning for the past. The ties created through the intense interwoven nature of trade in goods, capital and services is also not to be underestimated. Nearly one-half of the world's trade takes place across the Atlantic. The fundamental difference between then and now is that decisions are currently made without the framework of a common strategic evaluation of a given situation. The era of the old Atlantic community is over-only now, and slowly, have we begun to take notice.
The dispute over a war in Iraq has become the symbol of this new era. German politics fails to understand the profound extent to which September 11th changed America's image of itself. This nightmarish threat to one's existence-a first in American history-has fundamentally shaped their perception. The war against terrorism is a logical consequence of this phenomenon.

In Europe-and above all in Germany - it is instead the cautious assessment of all military action which dominates. Germany's historical experience has provided lessons which make it morally difficult to comprehend things like preventive military strikes. The power politics behind the American superpower reflex is clear: when America's existence is at stake, a response cannot be dependent upon third party states. When individual European states break their solidarity in the fight against terrorism, then the U.S. is sure to divide the continent and play the "new Europe" against an "old Europe." Suddenly, the ball is thrown back into the European court. Europeans themselves are putting the reliability of their integration project to the test. Will they summon the strength to unite in confronting a global conflict? At the moment, the prospect looks bleak. But it is precisely this "Iraq shock" - a situation in which the Americans refuse to let a divided Europe get in their way - which could produce effective strategic coercion. Europe could pull itself up by its own bootstraps and act as a new political community on the world scene. And for the first time, a new transatlantic partnership of equality could emerge. The history of dialectics is opening a door to a new era: the demise of the old Atlantic community provides the opportunity to build a new partnership.


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