Solving Iraq may not clear the transatlantic air

Is anguish about the US’s sour relations with the world a problem of the past?

Sadly not, argue a quartet of French and American think-tankers in a persuasive pamphlet which is more precise and practical than the genre normally delivers.

Iraq isn’t the lasting problem, they maintain, even if it was the cause of so much tension. Nor was the Bush Administration’s high-handed pursuit of national interest entirely to blame, they say (and Gary Samore, one of the authors, adds that not only has the Bush team softened its rhetoric, but that the next president is certain to be milder in tone).

But the attacks of September 11, 2001, proved an unexpected strain, the authors suggest. Even though Europe’s reflex was wholeheartedly behind the US, the threat demanded that the alliance shift its focus from Europe, where allies agreed on what they were trying to do, to the Middle East, where they didn’t.

There they remain. The Middle East remains the biggest source of tension between the US and European countries, even Britain, argues the paper, part of the Adelphi series by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. This was inevitable, it says, given the lack of clear common purpose after the end of the Cold War. The clearest part of a joint project was rooted in Europe itself: in the eastwards enlargement of the European Union, now reaching its end, and in stabilisation of the Balkans, now a European task, not a transatlantic one.

Of course, relations are warmer than in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Gordon Brown’s declaration yesterday that he will halve the number of British troops in Iraq is a further step towards “businesslike accomodation” of the most contentious dispute, as the analysis puts it. Even those countries most provoked by Iraq into “ideological acrimony” are now pedalling hard to repair the rift. President Sarkozy of France, in Moscow today for his first summit with President Putin, is outdoing the US, sometimes Britain too, in his advocacy of the transatlantic alliance.

But a residual friction is still there, the authors argue. Dana Allin, one of the two American authors of the pamphlet, said that while he never accepted that the divisions over Iraq represented a fundamental unravelling of relations, “the alliance is fragile” because of the collapse of confidence in American leadership. Polls steadily record more than half of Europeans as thinking that US leadership is undesirable, he noted. Nor, he argued, would any alliance with Europe fully satisfy the US’s “worst fears” about terrorist threat, such as a nuclear attack on Manhattan.

The list of recommendations from the panel is refreshingly practical and narrow. There is a nod to the reaffirmation of common values, including the value placed on human rights, but more weight on the need to try urgently to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons, and on equipping military forces for foreseeable missions.

Least convincing is their attempt to staple an agreement on global warming on to the end of their wishlist. Here, and on Israel, the differences between the US and Europe may simply be too great. But that supports their main message: not to expect too much of an alliance that is based on shared values, and could pursue important common goals, but will always be strained by real differences in national interest.

— Repairing the Damage, by Dana Allin, Gilles Andreani , Philippe Errera and Gary Samore, IISS,

Bronwen Maddox