Why the trans-Atlantic gap is deeper than it looks

From Charlemagne’s notebook

Depending on whether you favour arguments of the heart or the head, it is possible to believe the current mood of transatlantic drift matters a lot, or is not as serious as all that. The head says to be optimistic, and look at the long list of issues which the EU and America want to work on together. But the heart notes that things are not going well. In private conversations, European diplomats talk of their high expectations after the Obama administration took office. A year on, they say, on tricky dossiers from Iranian nuclear weapons to Russian relations with NATO, they have little real idea what America’s strategy is.

American officials, meanwhile, talk about their commitment to multilateralism as a gamble, which Europeans must soon repay with help on tougher Iranian sanctions, unity on Russia or more police trainers in Afghanistan, if America is not going to be tempted to go it alone.

What is going on? Here is a third, final theory, and it is not that cheery: a greater willingness to cooperate is not enough to fix some of the present differences in transatlantic opinion. Take two issues that loom larger than most: the war in Afghanistan, and efforts to limit man-made global warming. If you believe the public statements of leaders in Europe and America, these are essentially quantitative differences of opinion. If Europe could only promise x-thousand extra troops or policemen for Afghanistan, they seem to suggest, and if America could only bind itself to this or that percentage cut in its carbon emissions, all would be well.

(…) What does this mean? It means these disputes will get worse if they are left unresolved: people who think they face an existential threat become impatient and intolerant if others refuse to listen.

None of this will be easy to fix: Americans and Europeans cannot easily change the way they think. On Afghanistan and climate change, it would be a start for both sides to realise how far they remain apart.

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