The Widening Atlantic: Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is talking about US-European relations, a subject oft-covered on this blog. I am a subscriber so I have full online access to all the Atlantic’s archives, while most of you poor people out there don’t subscribe. I will quote liberally…

Putting out his stall, he points out that Bush is one of the most disliked US presidents in European history.

According to a poll conducted by Globescan and the University of Maryland, 74 percent of Germans wanted to see John Kerry beat Bush in November, while only 10 percent favored the president. Even in the United Kingdom the public backed Kerry over Bush by 47 percent to 16 percent.

But, Ferguson argues, the gap between the US and Europe has been widening for 15 years – but it has much more to do with changes in Europe than in the US. He continues:

This is not a fashionable view, least of all in academic circles. A clear majority of those who think, write, and talk about international relations for a living believe that the transatlantic alliance system – what used to be known simply as “the West”- can and must be restored, by means of adjustments in U.S. policy.

The Oxford historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash argues in his new book, Free World, that the United States and the European Union have too many common interests to become permanently estranged. He sees “no inexorable drifting apart of two solid continental plates” but, rather, “overlapping continental shelves.” In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Robert E. Hunter, a senior adviser to the Rand Corporation and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, also called for a shoring up of the Atlantic alliance. The Bush administration’s “experiment in unilateralism,” he wrote, had merely revealed “the limits of such an approach.” Kenneth Pollack, a member of the National Security Council under Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, urges the Bush administration to work in tandem with the Europeans to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But Ferguson doubts that any mending of relations between the two sides is possible, for three reasons:

1. The primary reason for the transatlantic alliance was the Cold War. During the Cold War we should be aware that the French, Germans or British were not particurlarly pro-American. Unity with America was practical not ideological. Once the Soviet bloc collapsed incentive for parternship have all but disappeared.

2. Islamic extremism is viewed in different ways by both sides. Europeans don’t see Islamic extremism as a threat comparible to Soviet Russia, while to the US, Islamism have replaced commumism as its mortal enemy. In fact, since Madrid, Europe has seen distancing itself from the US as a partial solution to the Islamist problem. Added to this, 3-5% of Europe is Muslim, and this figure is growing. If Turkey joins in 2015, Muslims will account for 14.5% of Europe’s population – more Muslims than Protestants. The recent murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh demonstrates that criticising Islam can be politically incorrect and life-threatening. This means that Europe is vulnerable to demographic as well as political changes.

3. Christianity is declining in Europe. Almost half of Western Europe no longer attends church. The decline of European Christianity helps explain why European conservatism has little in common with the conservatism of the American right.

Ferguson concludes:

In the absence of the Soviet Union, in the presence of increasing numbers of Muslims, and in light of their own secularization, European societies feel more detached from the United States than at any other time since the 1930s.

In a recent Gallup poll 61 percent of Europeans said they thought the EU plays a positive role with regard to “peace in the world” (while just eight percent said its role was negative). But a remarkable 50 percent took the view that the United States now plays a negative role. Compare that with American attitudes: 59 percent of Americans regard the United States as making a positive contribution to world peace, and just 15 percent think the EU plays a negative role.

In the face of this kind of asymmetry it is well nigh impossible to turn back the clock to those halcyon days when there was just one West, indivisible. John Kerry would have tried, but he would have failed. George W. Bush has lower expectations of transatlantic relations. But he should not be blamed for their deterioration. His much exaggerated “unilateralism” is not why the Atlantic seems a little wider every day. It is Europe, not America, that is drifting away.

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