Rebuilding Alliances Involves More than Just Making Nice

A staple of Sen. John Kerry's critique of the Bush foreign policy is that President George W. Bush and his lieutenants squandered the goodwill of longstanding allies by their boastful words, plunged into Iraq without the explicit blessing of the UN Security Council, and otherwise disregarded the will of the international community. Only by striking an apologetic pose vis—a —vis the European allies, maintains Sen. Kerry, can the United States hope to revivify its alliances and rally support behind its foreign policy.

Sen. Kerry has it right —— up to a point. Alliance politics, like all diplomacy, does rely on the lubricant of cordial words and gestures. But the problem with America's transatlantic relationships runs deeper than that. A philosophical rift has opened, generating tensions, while historical forgetfulness —— especially on the part of the European allies —— has only worsened matters.

Plenty of harsh words have been flung around over Iraq. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's jab at "old Europe," for instance, needlessly affronted allied sensitivities. French President Jacques Chirac sinned even more grievously during the run—up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, when he lectured Eastern European leaders uppity enough to back the Bush Administration that they had missed a good opportunity to "shut up."

Hard feelings were the predictable result in both cases.

But diplomacy is more than just making nice. Consider the philosophical divide in the transatlantic relationship, chronicled by Robert Kagan in a recent book, Of Paradise and Power. Europeans, having put centuries of strife behind them, prefer to entrust their security not to armed force but to international law and institutions. Hence their seemingly infinite patience with discussion and consensus building.

Having convinced themselves that they have constructed a Kantian realm of perpetual peace in the form of the European Union, Europeans are reflexively skeptical of forceful American diplomacy. Americans, who inhabit a Hobbesian world in which only force can hold mankind's darker impulses at bay, still view the military instrument as the final arbiter of international affairs —— a necessary, if regrettable, ingredient of progress toward a just world order.

This disjunction in worldviews leaves both sides perpetually at odds over contentious issues such as Iraq.

Now consider the historical factor. Influence within an alliance or coalition —— NATO being the premier example —— gravitates inexorably to the countries that contribute lives and treasure to the common effort. That fact seems to elude contemporary Europeans. They enjoy the checks on U.S. decision—making conferred by international institutions such as NATO and the UN, even when they contribute little or nothing to U.S.—led foreign policy enterprises.

The present situation, then, is a historical anomaly. Think back. President Woodrow Wilson held a dominant position at the Paris Peace Conference, but only because the United States had hurled its sons into the fray, tipping the balance in favor of the Allies. Not Wilson's soaring rhetoric but hard power supplied in vast quantities allowed the President to foist his vision of a law—based international order on wary Europeans (though not on the U.S. Senate).

World War II was no different. In January 1944, frustrated with the demands placed on him by the charismatic French general, Charles de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill exploded. "Look here!" exclaimed Churchill. "I am the leader of a strong, unbeaten nation. Yet every morning when I wake my first thought is how can I please President Roosevelt, and my second thought is how can I please Marshal Stalin."

"Your situation is very different," he pointed out, alluding to the powerless condition of Nazi—occupied France. "Why then should your first waking thought be how you can snap your fingers at the British and Americans?" France had few assets to commit to the campaign against Germany compared to the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain; thus, reasoned Churchill, de Gaulle could expect to command little influence within the Grand Alliance.

During the Cold War, Western Europeans, as full partners in a NATO alliance that put their sons, taxpayers' money, and territory at risk, could reasonably expect to exert influence over the United States, by far the strongest member of the Atlantic Alliance. But the Alliance has contributed little —— indeed, less than a division's worth of men and materiel, in the form of the International Security Assistance Force in Afganistan —— to the U.S.—led counterterrorist campaign.

Yet Europe resents the easier—to—ask—forgiveness—than—permission attitude toward international institutions that's sometimes exhibited by the Bush administration.

The current situation, then, is seriously out of kilter with reality. The United States needs to do its part to narrow the rift in transatlantic relations. But the Europeans need to realize that influence flows from power. With most NATO countries allocating less than 2 percent of gross domestic product to defense, and with the resulting low level capabilities impairing the war—fighting capacity of NATO—Europe, it's readily apparent who has more work to do to close the gap.

In the final analysis, Sen. Kerry is right about the Bush Administration's occasional neglect of the diplomatic niceties. But Europe must also do its part to restore some balance to the transatlantic alliance. Washington can't do it all,no matter who captures the White House this November.

James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security and an adjunct professor at the Naval War College.