by Martin Wolf
The US is no longer a status quo power. Attendance at this year's Bilderberg meeting, in Versailles, made clear how big a challenge this poses to the health of the transatlantic alliance. I went to the meeting convinced that divorce between the US and Europe had become possible. I left thinking that it could easily become unstoppable.
Clyde Prestowitz, a former member of the Reagan administration, has expressed the worry in his provocatively entitled new book, Rogue Nation.* In this he makes two significant points. The first is that "the imperial project of the so-called neo-conservatives is not conservativism at all, but radicalism, egotism and adventurism articulated in the stirring rhetoric of traditional patriotism". The second is that this radicalism both frightens and enrages foreigners. What astonished me at the meeting is that these emotions are felt by pro-American businesspeople, politicians, academics and journalists. Americans believe that French and German opposition to the war in Iraq was a betrayal of decades of support. But many Europeans believe recent US behaviour was a betrayal of what the US has taught them. The ideological gulf is wide.
Americans and Europeans share many values. That is hardly an accident. The US devoted much blood and treasure to turning Europe into a stable continent of liberal democracies. But in many ways, Europe and the US have become very different. Most important, the US has now adopted old European theories of international relations, while the Europeans have embraced a newer American one.
The classic European system rested on the sovereign independence of states. In their relations, states recognised neither legal nor moral constraints. But states also agreed not to interfere in one another's internal affairs. Today's European states reject this view of the world, because it engendered catastrophe. Operating within an unstable balance of power, illiberal states fomented wars that brought the deaths of millions. European civilisation foundered.
The answer, Europeans decided, was to embrace the ideals proffered by the American president Woodrow Wilson: peace, free markets and democracy. Within Europe, under American auspices, they created a supra-national order that stood the classical system on its head. Instead of sovereign independence, Europe would have a supra-national authority and a shared commitment to democracy and human rights. Sensible Europeans are not naive enough to believe the world can operate without resort to force. They are also grateful to the US for its ability and willingness to apply that force. But they are Wilsonian, for an obvious reason: if Germany were to announce its adherence to the doctrines that now animate the US, stability in Europe would vanish.
Today's US is not Wilsonian. It is important, however, to define in what way it is not. In doing so, we must recognise the tension within the administration between nationalists and neo-conservatives. Where they agree is in their rejection of moral or legal constraints on the sovereign independence of the US. Where they disagree is on how far pursuit of those interests requires interference in the internal organisation of other states. Nationalists focus only on direct threats, principally state sponsorship of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Neo-conservatives desire to embed liberal democracy, as well, since its absence explains, in their view, why states generate these threats.
Nationalists then are anti-Wilsonian in both their means and their ends. Liberal imperialists are anti-Wilsonian in their means, but Wilsonian in their ends. Yet both groups unambiguously reject the secular religion of contemporary European elites, which is Wilsonian in means and ends. The new US doctrines are, from the general European point of view, poison. They invite them back to the world of Bismarck. For many Europeans the contemporary American ideology is made more bitter by the perception that it represents a betrayal of what they have learned from the US.
A transatlantic alliance cannot be sustained if the US remains dedicated to its current doctrines, except as a state of dependency on one side and mastery on the other. There are, instead, two alternatives. The first is a divorce, with abandonment of the institutions that bring the two sides of the Atlantic together. The second is a pragmatic partnership, in which the two sides work together in areas of common interest.