America – Unilateralist or Multilateralist?


By David Alton

Universe Column for Sunday August 3rd 2003

Every so often it is worth looking at how America and Europe, those two uncomfortable bed-fellows,   are getting on.  Incoherent anti-Americanism, a total failure to understand one-another’s pre-occupations, and the bad taste of post-Iraq fallout, have all made the marital bed an unhappy place – sometimes even a bed of nails. One outward sign of this was the extraordinary decision of some American families to cancel some exchange visits between French and American children. When children get caught up in the cross-fire it’s a sure sign that the relationship is in deep trouble.

Boycotting French fries or pouring the Evian water down the drain is one thing, endangering our historic ties and strategic alliances is quiet another.

Some Americans have grown so tired of having to work at their European relationships that they hope that Europe will become so divided they won’t have to deal with it at all. The argument goes that dealing with a divided Europe is preferable to dealing with a united Europe – a profoundly mistaken view. Dividing and conquering works in the short term but not in the long term.

Although Europe deserves to be criticised for its parsimonious and lacklustre performance it also needs to be remembered that some major international initiatives – such as the World Trade Organisation (the WTO) –would never have happened without Europe.  And for all the talk of replacing Europe with Japan or Asia it’s worth Americans considering that in the last decade there was more European investment in  the State of Texas alone than in the whole of the US by  the Japanese.  Many international conglomerates operating out of cities such as Dallas or Paris, Cologne or Chicago have no idea where they are “from” and operate across country and continental borders. Their future success depends upon the continuation of that capacity and instruments of international arbitration, such as the Trade Dispute Mechanism of the WTO ensure their ability to make money and to make jobs.

Economically, culturally and politically – let alone in the big bad world of international security and terror – the US and Europe need one another. Pretending that we don’t is a dangerous world of make believe.

Post World War Two the US defined itself as altruistically committed to nation building and to building international institutions.   For a while it tottered on the brink of becoming unilateralist and disinterested. Now, it has re-engaged in working for a more global, more democratic, and more stable society. That, Europe should welcome.

What we need to do is to ensure that the US walks the talk; that, for instance, it sees the link between failing to curb energy consumption and being reliant on corrupt regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Does religious America appreciate that every dollar it pours into Saudi Arabia coffers is liable to be used by militant Islamic Wahhabists in fomenting intolerance and extremism in Sudan and Indonesia? Every barrel of oil is paid for in the blood of hundreds of thousands of Christians.

In the face of hugely complex challenges the US and Europe need to rebuild their fractured relationship. That will require some honest straight talking – and an appreciation that without one or other of the occupants, the bed will be a  lonely and less productive place to be.