Two years ago when the World Economic Forum assembled here in Davos, Switzerland, Colorado Governor Bill Owens was one of the few Republican officeholders from the U.S. to cross the Atlantic for the occasion. President George W. Bush had been in office only a few days, and one of the last things on the minds of Bush or his advisers was dropping in on a European confab that had been a multilateral lovefest for the Clintonites over the previous eight years.
In the vacuum, Davos-goers looked to Owens as the voice of the new Administration, and inquiring minds wanted to know if the new President would usher in policies that were more isolationalist. "People came up to me repeatedly and said, 'America needs to be engaged, you need to be in Europe,'" remembers the Centennial State governor, who's back in Davos this year.
How things have changed in two years. Now, Europeans complain ceaselessly about Bush's policies in Europe and the Middle East. Owens is worried that the strife will "rekindle that great American isolationist impulse that is just below the surface. It won't take much for it to occur."
"OLD EUROPE." No question, a divide seems to be splitting the transatlantic alliance -- one that has the potential to create the deepest rift in years. The immediate cause, of course, is the looming conflict with Iraq, with the U.S. signaling it will go it alone in the face of unusually strident and public resistance from France and Germany. Off-the-record grumbling has now erupted into an open war of words between Washington and Paris and Berlin. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's characterization of France and Germany as "a problem" and his patronizing reference to them as "Old Europe" is enraging the Continentals. "It's like Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus," says former U.S Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.
Don't expect the two sides to kiss and make up anytime soon. That's the consensus among European and American policymakers here. The Iraq crisis is bringing out tensions that have been gestating for years. There is the deep -- and growing -- divergence between what Talbott and others calls "different strategic cultures": a U.S. ready, able, and willing to use its lavishly funded and equipped global military presence, and a Europe that shies away from virtually any kind of conflict-resolution involving violence.
The Iraq crisis is also supplying ample evidence of the huge difference between Europe and the U.S. over the role of multilateral institutions like the U.N. "Deeper, secular trends are out there which will make it more difficult to close the gap," says Sir Lawrence Freedman, a leading British political scientist. He lists the loss of a common enemy in the form of the old Soviet Union, the great gap in military capabilities, and the Continent's grappling for a fully functioning European Union. Right now, the ingredients makes for a "Europe that doesn't exist" trying to speak with one voice, Freedman says.
ONLY GAME IN TOWN. Because Europeans are still working out their institutional future, the U.S. tends to downplay European integration -- and puts the emphasis on bilateral relationships with individual countries. Or rather, one individual country and one leader: Britain and Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Also unavoidable is the simple fact of economic imbalance between a still-dynamic U.S and a low-growth Europe that seemingly can't get its economic house in order. Although the U.S. equity markets are troubled and economic recovery is not assured, it's striking to see how the U.S. economy is dominating virtually every discussion in Davos. Apart from China, it's the only game in town.
What no one wants to talk about is the German economy. "Germany -- you can really imagine it getting bad -- something between Argentina and Japan," worries Juergen Kluge, director of McKinsey & Co. Germany. "No one wants to ponder that."
USEFUL CONSEQUENCES? So what could be done to improve tattered transatlantic political links? On the strategic side, the Europeans states can attempt to spend more on their own defense efforts -- though few think this is a likely near-term possibility. More of a military balance could create the basis for a true transatlantic defense partnership. Says Boeing Chairman and CEO Philip M. Condit: "If defense spending is more equitable [between the U.S. and Europe], you can do lots of things back and forth. Today, that's not possible."
Ironically, perhaps, some see the ratcheting up of rhetoric as having potentially useful consequences. Washington's taunts about European powerlessness "may underscore the importance of Europe integrating more quickly. Rumsfeld's statements may actually help," says Britain's Freedman.
And, he thinks, a unilateral U.S.-led military action against Iraq might also have the same effect -- whatever the outcome. If the U.S. emerges militarily and politically triumphant, Europeans will be forced to react to the ensuing "dominance" of the U.S. If America, on the other hand, gets bogged down in a military failure in Iraq, it could withdraw into an isolationist shell. And that scenario could also force the Europeans to begin acting more forcefully on their own.
Those are very qualified "ifs," however. The consensus in Davos is that whichever way the Iraqi crisis ends, the rift that has opened up between the U.S. and Europe will remain for quite a while. By John Rossant at the World Economic Forum in Davos