Financial Times - April 15 1999
William Wallace - Meeting of minds By William Wallace
The US and its European allies are now militarily committed in south-eastern Europe and about to embark on the new "Millennium Round" of trade negotiations. Economic setbacks in East Asia and Latin America and political stalemate in Japan make transatlantic co-operation even more central to an open global economy and a stable world order.
Yet the gap in mutual understanding between US policymakers and their European counterparts is wide.
The Congressional mood on trade relations is ugly. "The embers of protectionism are clearly smouldering on Capitol Hill," Bruce Stokes wrote in the National Journal after the House's approval of legislation on steel quotas last month, "ready to burst into flames with the slightest downturn in America's economy."
Congressmen who attended a recent Transatlantic Policy Network conference in Italy portrayed themselves as a threatened minority of free traders, squeezed between rightwing isolationists and leftwing protectionists.
They see America's widening trade deficit with western Europe as evidence in itself of European protectionism, aggravated by the "output gap" in the German economy which - to them - follows from Germany's failure to reform its labour market and social policies towards the more efficient Anglo-Saxon model.
They cite the repeated failures to open European agricultural markets, evident yet again at the March European Council in Berlin, as demonstrating an overall effort to bend the rules of world trade to European advantage. The beef hormone issue, one remarked, "is just a ruse to refuse our beef".
On broader economic and political issues, Washington politicians also complain that Europe is not pulling its weight. They see themselves as "running a monetary policy not just for the US but for the world" (as one Washington commentator put it) in sharp contrast to the introverted perspective of the European Central Bank; acting as importer of last resort to keep the world economy growing, while Europeans drag their feet even on opening their markets to eastern Europe.
European incoherence on important issues is a constant irritant. US officials have pushed their European counterparts to share strategic approaches to Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, central Asia and China, but have received only muffled responses.
Part of this bill of complaint against the European allies is justified. Failure to agree on the agricultural reform package at Berlin was a triumph for France, at the expense both of European Union enlargement negotiations and of wider interests in the Millennium
Round. In transatlantic negotiations Americans find themselves facing both the European Commission, which is responsible for traditional trade issues but not for the widening agenda of services, environmental and social policies, and EU member governments, with a different government in the presidency every six months.
Finland promises to focus on European strategy towards Russia in its forthcoming EU presidency. But its approach confirms US scepticism about parochial European governments, by defining relations with Russia as part of Europe's "northern dimension", as if Russia only had a maritime frontier on the Baltic.
But American discontent with Europe goes far beyond this. There is an alarming mixture of resentment, self-righteousness and plain misinformation in the Washington debate. Determination to retaliate against Fortress Europe every time the EU wavers on World Trade Organisation rulings is accompanied by Congressional unilateralism, often in response to domestic lobbying.
Two-thirds of the world's population is now covered by some form of US economic sanctions. If European governments (unwisely) pushed the Iran- Libya Sanctions Act, or US legislation on trade with Cuba, to WTO trade panels, Americans would insist that political priorities must override legal determination. Yet where European domestic politics constrains trade negotiations, as on beef hormones and genetically modified organisms, Washington is narrowly litigious.
Triumphalism about the American economic model is accompanied by aggressive attacks on European social capitalism, by Democrats as well as Republicans.
With environmental issues and sustainable development on the agenda for the Millennium Round, there is little understanding across the Atlantic that a European Union which has a population 40 per cent larger than the US, but crowded into a third of the space, must be more sensitive to social order, environmental preservation and even aircraft noise.
Washington's self-image of coherent and strategic foreign policy leadership is far away from European experience of disjointed demands from different Washington agencies. The US Trade Representative announced the details of sanctions against Britain in the banana dispute the day after British planes had supported the US in renewed strikes on Iraq.
American relations with Europe are managed through many different channels: through Nato, through bilateral links with European states and through six-monthly EU-US summits. These last have the least political resonance in Euro-sceptic Washington and the most precarious place in policymakers' calendars. "We have to fight for every one," an American diplomat warned a European delegation.
The White House sees Nato as its preferred framework for US-European relations, with the US as alliance leader and the European allies following that lead. Here too, however, there is resentment: over Europe's deficient military capabilities, evident yet again over Kosovo, and European unwillingness to accept that American leadership extends to political strategy outside Europe.
The Washington consensus is that "the United States should draw Europe, over time, much further into a global strategic partnership to help shape the international system in the new era", as a new Council on Foreign Relations report puts it. But this is assumed to be a partnership on American terms, most of all in the Middle East.
Some European officials despair of their chances of creating a more sympathetic understanding of European interests in a political system which is driven by the desperate search for campaign finance and by the power of domestic lobbies.
Yet European governments cannot afford to allow transatlantic relations to drift apart. With a succession of summits over the next three months, with the Franco-British defence initiative edging towards a European group within Nato, with a series of difficult trade disputes under way, European heads of government should have more effective presentation of European approaches and interests to the American audience high on their agenda.
The author is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics