As Americans vote, U.S. ties to Europe may hang in balance

Although better relations are seen, extent and speed may depend on outcome

October 28, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Whatever the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, American voters will have had a say not only on differing approaches to Iraq and a long list of domestic issues, but also on how quickly the United States will re-establish ties with its historical allies in Europe and how close those ties will be.

Foreign policy is likely to dominate the White House for months whether Democratic Sen. John Kerry wins a first term or President Bush is granted a second. The issues range from how much help the United States will receive in Iraq to how Washington and its allies will handle growing nuclear threats.

Iraq is likely to be overshadowed at least diplomatically by efforts to rein in Iran, thought to have been edging closer to nuclear capability, and North Korea, which is presumed to have such weapons.

European officials and scholars of trans-Atlantic relations agree that a united front is far preferable to the United States acting alone militarily or Europe trying to solve such problems without any real threat of force.

"If Iraq has taught the world anything, it is that a common strategy is preferable to a divided strategy," said Michael Cox, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. "To think that these crises, Iran and the rest, will be approached with deep divisions - that's a really serious concern."

`Divorce not an option'

Regardless of who winds up in the White House, most experts in Europe agree, the trans-Atlantic relationship can only get better, if for no other reason than it could hardly get worse.

"It will improve because it has to improve," Cox said. "It's not possible for both sides to get on with life in this kind of a situation. Divorce is not an option."

In a second term, Bush is likely to be more conciliatory toward Europe, partly because he will have little choice, Cox and others say. The American military is stretched nearly to its limit, they say, so Bush would have to devote more time and energy to diplomacy with Iran.

Kerry, having made clear that he wants to re-establish alliances that were frayed during the Bush administration, would be difficult for Europe to refuse, so long as he asks for realistic assistance, such as money rather than troops for Iraq, and approaches Europeans with a plan for Iran and North Korea that relies first on diplomacy, experts say.

"The unmistakable bottom line is it will indeed matter who is in the White House," said Robert McGeehan, a fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "I don't know that anybody could argue that relations will not improve with Kerry as president. On the other hand, it probably won't matter as much as Kerry supporters think - at least not in the short run."

Part of that is because Kerry's maneuverability would be limited, McGheehan said. For domestic political reasons, France and Germany are unlikely to send troops to Iraq, regardless of who is in the White House.

Congress is not likely to return to the global environmental Kyoto Treaty, which Bush rejected. The International Court of Criminal Justice is, for the foreseeable future, a dead issue.

"We can hope that under a second Bush administration, the tone would be more conciliatory, and I think that's likely," McGheehan said. "What's more certain is that under Kerry, there would be a change in style and tone, if not on substance. But over time, style and tone would become substance."

Regardless of who wins the election, McGheehan is hopeful that the United States and its more reluctant European allies will find ways to mend relations, he said. France and Germany, for example, while still unable to commit troops in Iraq, could offer more manpower for Afghanistan, where the United States has about 14,000 troops.

And with the United States footing nearly the entire bill for Iraq, financial contributions from countries that can afford it would be a welcome, if largely symbolic, gesture to soothe relations. Likewise, Europe would appreciate some gesture from the United States that it is serious about repairing relations, said Dana Allin, a specialist on trans-Atlantic relations at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"Both Bush and Kerry have a constituency to worry about outside of Tuesday's voters," Allin said. "The United States considers itself the leader of the alliance with Europe, but you can't maintain leadership over democracies and not have the support of the democracies you're trying to lead."

In need of partners

Without improving relations, he said, the United States could find itself without the partners it desperately needs - and with urgency increased because of military limitations caused by Iraq - in dealing with Iran.

Likewise, he said, "It's not in Europe's interest to lose its best ally. The leaders of these countries are going to have to decide just how far they want the trans-Atlantic alliance to drift."

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