Strained U.S.-European Relations Turn Pragmatic

Times Staff Writer

He’s as ubiquitous as the Big Mac.

Europe can’t shake the bowlegged cowboy peeking out from a too-big Stetson, arms bent and ready to draw. This political caricature of President Bush endures, even as transatlantic relations have improved from the derision and backbiting that one year ago marked the beginning of the Iraq war.

A lot has happened in that year. While the U.S. has been preoccupied with securing Iraq, Europe, in many ways, has set its own course. Perhaps more than the U.S. itself, Europe understands that the Sept. 11 attacks changed U.S. priorities and that Washington’s old friends are often overshadowed by new strategic alliances.

The terrorist bombings in Madrid last week -- possibly orchestrated by Islamic extremists to punish Spain for supporting the Iraq war -- are forcing some European nations to reevaluate their partnerships with the U.S. The leader of the newly elected Socialist Workers Party in Spain has vowed to withdraw the nation’s 1,300 troops from Iraq, a prospect that would undermine U.S. efforts to build an international coalition.


The specter of terrorism and differences over world security are turning the Cold War-era transatlantic friendship into steely pragmatism. The continent has a two-dimensional view of the U.S. Although most people in London, Paris, Berlin and other capitals feel an affinity for Americans, that closeness does not extend to a White House seen as rash and militaristic at a time when globalization needs patience and diplomacy.

“The last four years have been hell,” said Francois Heisbourg, a foreign policy expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “The Bush administration’s view of things is, ‘You’re either a poodle or an enemy.’ The Bushies don’t tend to forget.”

Such widespread attitudes are softened by nostalgia many Europeans have for U.S. forces who liberated them more than half a century ago.

“If you go to the American cemetery in Cassino or the cemetery in nearby Anzio,” said Italian waiter Dario Di Tiello, 40, speaking of his nation’s World War II battlefields, “you can see how many Americans are buried there, how many came to save us from hell. We always forget these things. For me, the American people were a great people, they still are a great people.”


The spate of across-the-pond name calling -- Euroweenies versus cultural bimbos -- has largely subsided. But Europeans have been reminded that they are more different from Americans than they once thought. Attitudes toward gay marriage, capital punishment and other social issues reveal the chasm between a liberal-leaning Europe and a conservative-tilting America.

And the Bush administration’s weaving of religion through politics -- especially when the president invoked God as he was going to war -- unnerves European secularism.

“There’s an extraordinary element of fundamentalist type of religion in American life,” said Roger Duclaud-Williams, a political science professor at the University of Warwick in Britain, adding that he was bemused that Janet Jackson’s flashed breast at the Super Bowl caused so much hand-wringing. “It’s a kind of Christian-based Puritanism for which our educated governing class doesn’t have much sympathy.”

Europeans have tried to move beyond rancor when discussing Washington. Conversation is as dignified and proper as a tea party on the Thames. There are the occasional snide asides about Europe’s moral authority and the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been unearthed in Iraq. But when the brandy is poured in the anterooms, or pints are hoisted in pubs, Europeans swoon and giggle over John Kerry, the continent’s new poster boy.


“Kerry has Europe’s Vote,” said a headline in the Economist.

The Financial Times Germany has written of Kerry: “His first cousin is a French mayor. His father was a diplomat. He spent school years in Switzerland. He thinks the death penalty is bad and thinks the Kyoto Protocol, intended to protect the global climate, is good. If the Europeans were allowed to vote for the U.S. president this coming November, a triumph for the Democratic challenger John Kerry would be assured. Never has a U.S. president been so disliked in Europe as George W. Bush.”

Some Europeans are quick to add that Kerry would be a pleasant change of personality, but that terrorism and shifting world hotspots would prevent him from significantly altering U.S. foreign policy.

The Madrid bombings have given Europe a keener understanding of acting within one’s own interests and have raised challenging questions: Does supporting the U.S. mean bringing Islamic terrorism to European cities? If Spain withdraws troops from Iraq, what domestic pressures will Britain, Italy and Poland face to do the same?


“It comes down to fundamental differences in our societies,” said Bernhard May, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “American society seems to be more inspired, a society with a mission. But Europe doesn’t want to go around the world telling people how to live.

“What really is going on now between Europe and America is a working out of a relationship for the post-Cold War era. We should have had this discussion back in the 1990s, but we didn’t. The fundamental question is, what kind of world order do we want?”

The iconic images of a gunslinger Texan helped change the political dynamics of the continent.

Antiwar fervor strengthened the Berlin-Paris axis. But it created animosity with countries that supported the war, such as Spain and Poland, and has strained the atmosphere as the European Union prepares to expand from 15 to 25 nations this year. Despite the EU’s goal of cohesion, the continent is increasingly discovering that it can be compared less to a chorus than to a jazz ensemble, with each player fighting for his own solo.


British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- whose backing of Bush cost him in the polls -- these days wants to be known as a statesman “at the heart of Europe.” Many in Blair’s liberal-leaning Labor Party believe that staying cozy with Washington is political peril.

“We need to get George Bush out of the White House,” Anthony Giddens, an unofficial Blair advisor, told a recent Labor Party gathering. Even members of the conservative Tories, who bonded so well with Ronald Reagan, see Bush as an impediment to transatlantic relations.

“Some of it’s jealousy, the frustration that after [Bill] Clinton we thought we’d have our own guy in the White House and then it didn’t turn out that way,” said George Osborne, a Tory member of Parliament who supports Bush. “But the Bush frontier-style talk just doesn’t go down well among Tories.”

Europe’s own problems often eclipse its worry about U.S. relations. The French and German economies are struggling. Health and social reforms are triggering voter anger. Immigration problems are roiling governments. Many wonder what will happen to the EU -- once a privileged Western club -- when it admits the Czech Republic and other former Soviet Bloc countries in May.


“The relations with the United States should not be our priority today,” said Jean-Luc Turcouin, a French retiree. “We have to deal with our own national problems, the elections, the euro, the unemployment, the terrorism. This is what we should worry about.”

But the U.S. is the new hyper-power, and Europeans acknowledge that the harsh rhetoric against Bush’s military policies should not jeopardize the transatlantic alliance. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, for example, has declined French President Jacques Chirac’s suggestion that Europe form a counterbalance to Washington. Analysts say the U.S. and Europe need each other, especially in the Middle East and in fighting terrorism.

For all the recent nastiness, Europe and the U.S. often complement each other. European diplomacy backed by a veiled threat of U.S. military prowess helped defuse the Iranian nuclear crisis and prompted Libya to renounce its chemical weapons programs. The continent and Washington are cooperating on a new role for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as strategic interests move eastward. And Paris -- the major European capital most estranged from Washington -- is working with the Bush administration in Haiti.

“We have come to the conclusion that we went too far in the divorce,” said Dominique Moisi, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations.


It may never be a love fest. Europe and America have had more than 200 years of skirmishes and spats. America has been cast as the ambitious upstart less concerned with high culture than with making a buck, Europe as a bit of a relic that speaks eloquently but is skittish when it comes to action. The Cold War put a veneer over the rifts as Europe and the U.S. faced a common enemy. Now there are more mercurial foes -- as the recent Madrid bombing reaffirmed -- and the bonds of friendship are being recast.

Moisi said Europe and the U.S. might grow closer in coming years through an ironic twist. Under Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, Moscow is growing autocratic and restive as Europe integrates and becomes more of an economic power. This trend concerns European officials, some of whom believe Cold War ghosts are stirring.

“You suddenly start to be worried,” Moisi said, “and you start to want a blend of U.S. and European cooperation.”



Times staff writers Janet Stobart in London and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris, and special correspondents Nancy Meiman in Rome and Bruce Wallace in London contributed to this report.