After the Bush visit: Prospects for transatlantic relations

28 February 2005

The European Policy Centre and the Transatlantic Center of the German Marshall Fund held a joint Policy Dialogue on the topic “After the Bush visit: Prospects for Transatlantic Relations.” Michael McKinley, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Mission to the European Union, Ron Asmus, Executive Director of the GMF Transatlantic Center, Jim Cloos, Director for Transatlantic Relations at the EU Council, Guillaume Parmentier, Director of the France-US Centre at IFRI, Paris and Wojciech Lubowiecki, Editor of the Polish Section of the BBC World Service took part in the panel discussion, which was chaired by Fraser Cameron, Director of Studies at the EPC. A question an answer session followed. This is not an official record of proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.


All panellists agreed that the visit to Europe by US President George Bush was a turning point in transatlantic affairs and signalled a new spirit of cooperation. Beyond the gestures and rhetoric on the strength of the transatlantic alliance, panellists agreed that real progress had been made on many substantive issues. But several divisive issues remained and its was too early to predict whether these steps could lead to a genuine EU-US partnership.

Event Report

Michael McKinley reflected positively on the marked change in tone that had shaped the US President’s visit to Europe, citing his constructive approach to a range of issues and the substantial agreement reached on issues which united Americans and Europeans, including progress in Iraq, development policy, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, HIV/AIDS, climate change, democratic transition in Russia and a number of other areas. Citing various quotes from speeches made by the President during his four-day visit, Mr. McKinley stressed the American commitment toward working with a united Europe on the basis of shared values. He noted that the challenge now facing the transatlantic partnership lay in the implementation of the agreements reached at talks in Brussels, Mainz and Bratislava.

Ron Asmus said that he had noted a “dramatic” change in diplomatic style in these early months of the second Bush administration. The visit to Europe had been planned over a number of months as part of a series of steps to reach out to partners on the other side of the Atlantic and ease the rift created over the Iraq crisis. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s earlier visit to Europe had been the first element in this wider strategy and this visit by President Bush would be followed up by his trip to Moscow in May and the G8 summit in July. The inability to work together in the transatlantic partnership following the Iraq crisis had been a lost opportunity cost. He agreed with Mr. McKinley that the President was serious about changing his policy toward Europe, although “there is still a fairly steep hill to climb and a long way to go.” He advised Europeans to “embrace” this administration and challenge it to go even further and be more ambitious with respect to the global agenda it was formulating. By the summer, Mr. Asmus believed, one would be able to conclude whether or not a “new leaf had been turned” and the gap between the US and Europe would have narrowed.

Guillaume Parmentier opposed the views of earlier speakers, stating that he did not believe Europe and the United States shared a similar view with regard to imminent threats and global priorities. While Europeans believed a new era in international politics had begun with the fall of Berlin wall in 1989, for Americans this era had only been rung in on 9/11/2001. “We see the world in different terms: for Europe this is a time of confidence on the global stage, for the US this is an era of direct attack on its own territory.” Additionally, societies on both sides of the Atlantic were changing markedly. The US was becoming less of a ‘coastal’ entity, with political realities driven by the ‘red’ states in the centre and the south, and an overall inward-looking, self-centred approach toward policy-making. While Europe was also engaged in naval-gazing, particularly as it went through the ratification phase of its Constitution, it was simultaneously looking to take on a wider global role, driven by its desire to create a post-sovereign structure without outside threats. These fundamental differences were crucial to understanding why Europeans and Americans read international political developments so differently. He encouraged a re-examination of existing institutions and praised Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder for having raised difficult questions in his Munich Security Conference speech. “Why do we hold on to institutions that were designed for a different era?,” Mr. Parmentier asked. Institutions in which Europe and the US could debate common issues on a wide range of questions needed to be created and Europe had to make the additional effort to enable such a functional dialogue. In this sense, the Constitutional Treaty was a step in the right direction - but it was only a step and more needed to follow. He cautioned that an inevitable difficulty in creating such space for dialogue came in the ever-increasing pace of international developments that required quick-fix solutions.

Jim Cloos acknowledged that there was a noticeable “new spirit in the transatlantic love-in,” and agreed that this change had been a long time in the making. The US President’s visit to Dromoland Castle, Ireland last year had been a first step toward an improved relationship. During this visit, the President had insisted on the fact that a united and strong Europe was preferable to a disaggregated one - this, Mr. Cloos noted, had never previously been said so explicitly. Referencing the quotes by the US President cited by Mr. McKinley, he said, “words matter and they matter all the more if they are founded on the solid bedrock of common values.” He stressed that even when relations had been strained, following the US decision to invade Iraq, “we never stopped working together on other key issues.” He strongly disagreed with Mr. Parmentier regarding diverging EU-US views on threat assessments and referred to the European Security Strategy, in which issues such as curbing the reach of terrorism and nuclear proliferation were clearly outlined as key global threats. The EU had had three missions for the President’s visit: firstly, to improve the overall atmosphere; secondly, to present the EU as a unified structure with a clear message on substantial issues (which the President had understood) and finally, to achieve concrete results on key areas. These issues included developments in the Middle East, which the President had always put first; Iraq, where both sides had agreed to hold a joint conference, if and when the Iraqi government requested it; and on Iran, where both sides had underlined their support for a diplomatic solution. Differences still existed on questions concerning the Chinese arms embargo - though he was confident that the EU would work hard to explain its position to US counterparts - and on the Kyoto Protocol, although both sides had agreed that climate change was a serious problem.

Wojciech Lubowiecki reflected briefly on the role that public opinion played as background to the meetings between European leaders and the US President. He said that while leaders could never afford to ignore the views of the public, they nevertheless had to play a leadership role, encouraging the change of certain views. He also pointed out that the public reception of the US President had been divided along the ‘old Europe - new Europe’ lines. While he agreed that European policy-makers had played a united role for the US President, he reminded the audience of the “squabbling” and horse-trading that had gone on behind closed doors to determine which European Heads of State and Government would present which political dossier to the US President. Despite all references to European unity, transatlantic relations were still evaluated very differently in Paris and in Warsaw. The basic divisions over Iraq in Europe ran deep and this had not only affected European relations with the superpower across the Atlantic, but had also negatively impacted on the fledging cohesion between old and new Member States.

Panel Discussion

The stability of transatlantic relations

In the discussion, Michael McKinley warned the audience not to overly emphasise the issues that have divided the transatlantic partners, this was a “dangerous” trend. Despite the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1966 empty chair crisis at NATO, the Vietnam war and the deployment of US missiles to Germany in the early 1980s, positive cooperation between both sides had continued and would continue to flourish despite issues of dissension in the future. Major points of agreement centred on how to deal with the situation in Sudan, in Kosovo, how to address questions of Homeland Security and Justice and Home Affairs, etc. In fact, on the latter points, he agreed with Jim Cloos that the multi-layered cooperation between US and European authorities had been “nothing short of extraordinary.” In addition, transatlantic economic relations generated $2.5 trillion in trade flows, investments and sales of subsidiaries and 12 million jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, while there was a degree of dissension on China and Iran, dialogue was the key to making progress.

Guillaume Parmentier agreed that collaboration between both sides was ongoing, even during times of conflict and that efforts made on counter-terrorism, for example had been emblematic of the fact that despite wider tensions over the Iraq question, the willingness to make progress on key issues remained. Thus, while all of this was useful, one should not be overly confident. There had been terrible crises in the past, which had impacted on the health of the transatlantic relationship but the common Soviet threat had always united Americans and Europeans. With this no longer acting as the “glue that binds” a more effective relationship was needed. It was in the European interest to make it work. While Mr. Lubowiecki agreed that Europeans needed to make additional efforts, he reminded the audience that for the Baltic States, for example, the transatlantic relationship was still the primary security guarantee. There was continuing instability on the EU’s external borders to the East and the situation in Ukraine could have potentially gone either way, hence, many new EU Member States would continue to look toward the US for security.

Responding to Mr. Parmentier’s call for a revision of the institutions in which transatlantic relations were conducted, Mr. Asmus pointed to the fact that a sea-change had already taken place: while in 1985 out of the ‘top ten agreements’ only one might have been defined between the EU and US, leaving the rest to bilateral accords and issues agreed within the NATO framework, 50% of these were now with the EU and far fewer issues were tackled on the bilateral level or within NATO. He did criticise, however, the lack of strategic dialogue between the US and the EU. Jim Cloos agreed, saying that the EU had to demonstrate it was united and ready to take on its global responsibilities. The troika system of the EU’s international representation was “absurd” and had to be abandoned. The implementation of the Constitution would certainly help this situation.


Mr. McKinley said that the President had repeatedly expressed his support for the diplomatic approach and would evaluate its progress over time. Mr. Parmentier warned that the country could not be looked at in isolation - which the whole region had to be considered. He did not see a defined US policy on Iran. He felt that US support for the diplomatic efforts of the European troika in Iran was a “replacement” for a true US policy. Thus, while he welcomed the President’s support for European efforts he hoped it would become part and parcel of a visible US policy stance on Iran. Moderates in Iran wanted global recognition of their country, eventual WTO membership and stable relations with the US - all of these ‘carrots’ could be played in diplomatic negotiations, though these elements would be of little interest to the extremists. Ron Asmus disagreed with Mr. Parmentier’s views on the difference in threat perception on both sides of the Atlantic. There was a difference in the intensity in the perception of particular threats, yet there was no true analytical difference on issue such as Iran. Rather, it was a policy difference on how best to sway Iranians. Europeans had acknowledged the weakness of their diplomatic hand without US support, while Americans largely realised they could not make progress unilaterally, which opened up the field to collaboration. If the US was willing to offer its eventual recognition of Iran on the table as a bargaining tool, progress might be made sooner rather than later. And if incentives could be defined together, rather than separately, there was a greater chance of success.
Public opinion

On public opinion, Ron Asmus noted that support for relations with Europe was on the rise in US, not diminishing. US public opinion had little appreciation for recent rifts. Support for President Bush’s commitment to ‘fix things’ with Europe had been widespread but now the US public opinion was waiting for an equivalent commitment to improving relations from the European side.

Summing up, Fraser Cameron said that no one could doubt that there had been a major change in the style and rhetoric of the US administration towards Europe. But there was still some way to go before the transatlantic relationship could be described as a partnership of equals. The EU was not challenged to become a much more cohesive and united actor on the world stage.