The current strains in the trans-Atlantic relationship pervade politics and publics on both sides of the ocean. Conservative American scholars write of a permanent rift, founded in the notion that the European continent is moving powerfully and irreversibly away from power politics. Europeans express grave concerns about unchecked American might, besmirched by overtones of cultural imperialism. A billboard in New York boasts that Grey Goose, the French vodka, is "100% American owned," seeking to suppress a growing American aversion to French products; among Europe's citizens, critiques of the Bush administration grow more vocal and vitriolic by the day.
American power is, and has long been, the vanguard of European security. But America needs European capabilities, too. Evidence of the dangers stemming from a breakdown of U.S.-European cooperation (and the powerful legitimacy that accompanies such teamwork) abounds.
Despite the decisive American-British victory in Iraq, the victors are at a relative loss for mechanisms to foster democratic legitimacy. Troubled by a paucity of skilled peacekeepers and organizations capable of building up a sustainable infrastructure - areas where European capabilities are superior to America's - the European soft power apparatus seems more than ever like a necessary element of an American military effort, rather than an optional complement.
Meanwhile, on the strategic horizon, more trouble looms. But neither Europe nor America can again afford to allow divergent approaches to dealing with threats to subordinate the imperative that we work together. Contending with North Korea and Iran's weapons of mass destruction programs absolutely necessitates the cooperation of the United States and Europe.
Despite that both the United States and Europe have expressed a desire to work together on North Korea and Iran, the climate for such cooperation is hardly hospitable. Many Europeans now fear that the much-hyped neoconservative cadre in Washington is spearheading a movement to launch surgical strikes against Kim Jong Il and the mullahs who control Iran. In the United States, a large number of Americans feel that Europe is going to drag its heels whenever the use of force is on the table.
Given these perceptions, exacerbated if not caused by the diplomatic fiasco over Iraq, an explicit framework is the best hope for the two to work together without distrust.
Recent history shows us what not to do. U.N. Resolution 1441 authorized the use of force in Iraq in the event of material noncompliance by Saddam Hussein, but what constituted such a material breach was left deliberately vague in an attempt to account for the obviously divergent attitudes of the Security Council's members.
This vagueness proved to be a damaging curse for the U.S.-European relationship. Each side came to think that 1441 was a ploy to undermine the other. Many in the United States saw France sabotaging any military campaign in the name of prolonged diplomacy. Much of Europe perceived the United States as coming to the Security Council to present a done deal and demand a rubber stamp to go after Hussein.
Vagueness in diplomatic agreements is sometimes a good thing, giving leaders room to account for differences of opinion among their respective publics and governments. But in this case, the vagueness of 1441 was rendered lethal by a mutual perception of bad faith that poisoned the dialogue.
Some of this perception was justified: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder exploited anti-American sentiment for political gain - his commitment to opposing a war in Iraq pushed him to victory in a race he seemed doomed to lose; the Pentagon's decision (though perhaps necessary from a tactical standpoint if military action had to immediately follow an inspections failure) to put a massive American military presence in Kuwait, even as inspections allegedly remained the vehicle of choice to disarm Hussein, wounded the legitimacy of that process.
So where vagueness may not be a problem in and of itself, vagueness plus bad faith is a recipe for disaster.
Specificity may be the solution. Rather than drafting ambiguous documents and hoping that nothing will go wrong, America and Europe need to address the strategic concerns posed by Iran and North Korea by devising specific plans of action, revolving around benchmarks which carry explicit consequences that leave little room for manipulation by either party.
To succeed, Europe and America need to agree on what they want from Iran and North Korea (is it about negotiated disarmament or regime change?); how they want it done; and what they are willing to offer in exchange.