Bridging the gap

The Cold War elevated the transatlantic relationship into the cornerstone of foreign policy: not only for Western European governments but also for the US administration. The alliance system stood in opposition to the Warsaw Pact, giving the West a clear geopolitical dimension and solidifying its internal cohesion. Despite any occasional rifts, the converging interests of NATO’s twin pillars were the glue that kept the two sides together. Throughout the Cold War period, the Western Europeans were willing to recognize Washington’s dominant role in the alliance, but they also enjoyed a privileged status as strategic partners. Things began to change following the collapse of the communist system 15 years ago. With the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the sole superpower and the European nations started to make small steps on the long and winding road toward integration. The new global context brought about a growing divergence of interests which, during the 1990s, provoked a series of confrontations. But the partnership again managed to escape largely unscathed. More recently, the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US were expected to clear away any remaining clouds over the transatlantic relations. The first cracks began to show when the Bush administration went on to exploit the anti-terrorism campaign for the sake of settling its own geopolitical scores. Its insistence on raiding Iraq, combined with its unilateralist bent, did serious damage to the Western alliance. The firm resistance of what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dubbed the «old Europe» was not just about the latter’s opposition to the war and its possible repercussions. Above all, it was about the quality of transatlantic relations. More precisely, it reflected Europe’s reluctance to be downgraded from a strategic partner to that of a US satellite. The big problems facing the Americans in Iraq have prompted second thoughts among American officials, but the easy re-election of the Republican party in November has also strengthened Bush’s hand. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent European tour and the American president’s statements ahead of the NATO summit signaled Washington’s efforts to bridge the yawning gap between the two sides of the Atlantic. The obvious question is: On whose terms? In other words, will Washington respond to European demands for a more equal relationship? We will have to wait to see how the US responds to outstanding challenges such as the tug of war over Iran’s alleged nuclear program.

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