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Construire l’Europe

Andre Liebich
Basil Germond

L'Union européenne et le monde

A Troubled Partnership: The Transatlantic Relationship from the Cold War to the 21st Century

Jussi Hanhimäki

Note de l’auteur

Note portant sur l’auteur1

Texte intégral

  • 1 Henry Kissinger, The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance, Doubleday, New Y (...)
  • 2 Kissinger tells this story in his memoirs. Kissinger, White House Years, Little, Brown &Co., Boston (...)

1In 1965 Henry Kissinger published a book called The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance1. It was not a particularly noteworthy publishing event given that its author had yet to become famous. Nor did the book become a commercial success, except in one store where it quickly became a best-seller. The New York based publisher investigated, and found that the book had been placed not in the “current events or “history sections, but in the section of the store featuring books about marriage counselling. One can only wonder whether The Troubled Partnership by Henry Kissinger was much help for any couple in trouble. I somehow doubt it2.

2The story is worth telling because it seems to me that there is something to the idea that the transatlantic relationship was and remains a marriage in trouble; a partnership in constant need for counselling. For example, in 1966, the year after the publication of Kissinger’s book, France announced its decision to leave NATO’s integrated military command thus causing a serious reappraisal of the transatlantic alliance.

  • 3 Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, Alfred A. Knopf, Ne (...)

3Nor has the transatlantic relationship – whether we describe it as a marriage or not – gotten much better in the past 40 years. Today Americans and Europeans quarrel over Iraq, trade, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the environment and, it is likely to come about, about the role of a resurgent oil rich Russia. As one commentator put it in 2003: “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world. To make the metaphor clearer Robert Kagan added “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus3.

4Quite apart from one’s preference for the goddess of love or the god of war, the fact remains that the transatlantic relationship has always been a troubled partnership. These two elements – repeated troubles, or conflict, on the one hand and an unbroken partnership or community, on the other – have prevailed from the cold war to the twenty first century. In today’s globalized, rapidly changing world the transatlantic relationship remains a central and indispensable feature of international relations as much as it did in the 1960s. Thus my ultimate point is that continuity, rather than rupture, and ultimately community more so than conflict, has been the central prevailing feature of the transatlantic relationship.

I. Conflict

  • 4 Kissinger, American Foreign Policy: Three Essays, W.W. Norton, New York, 1969, p. 68-69.

5It is imperative to the central argument of this article to say a few words about transatlantic conflicts. In his 1965 book Kissinger pointed out that there was no historical basis for a transatlantic concord, that the post war alliance was an exception brought upon by the emergence of the Cold War and the spectre of the Soviet threat. He hoped for the partnership to continue, but was pessimistic. Should a united Europe emerge, Kissinger thought that it was likely to develop an identity of its own but it was hardly self-evident that such an identity would fit nicely together with that of America. As Kissinger, very much a believer in the realist tradition of international relations, put it: “A separate identity has usually been established by opposition to a dominant power: the European sense of identity is unlikely to be an exception to this general rule – its motive could well be to insist on a specifically European view of the world4.

  • 5 Geir Lundestad, “‘Empire’ by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952”, journal (...)

6In the 1960s this was seemingly happening. Europeans had accepted American leadership after 1945 because the perceived alternative – Soviet domination – was far worse. To be sure, when Americans in 1947 offered the Marshall Plan to help European recovery, it was too seductive to turn down. Those who did reject the offer, like Finland, did so under pressure from the Soviet Union; a fact which initially pushed other West Europeans closer to the United States. Nor did Americans have to exert much influence to get European countries to sign up for NATO in 1949. As a result, Americans did indeed erect an empire of sorts in Western Europe. Yet, as Geir Lundestad famously put it, America’s informal empire was an empire “by invitation in contrast to the Soviet “empire by imposition5.

7Such a contrast remains, though, a caricature, an oversimplification. There was no true golden age of transatlantic relations in the late 1940s. As soon as the transatlantic relationship was formalized conflicts emerged. Many of them were over so-called third area issues. For example, Europeans criticized US policy in the Korean War in the early 1950s; while Americans opposed British and French policies in the Suez crisis of 1956. In the 1960s conflicts over Vietnam, the Middle East, the American lack of consultation over Cuba, the specific policies vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China, the seriousness of America’s commitment to the defence of Europe all clouded the transatlantic relationship.

8Moreover, once the USSR appeared less threatening, after Khrushchev talked about peaceful coexistence and Brezhnev accepted the idea of détente, the decreasing threat from the East made an American nuclear umbrella seem less necessary to many Europeans. No wonder leaders in France, West Germany and elsewhere pursued increasingly independent policies in the 1960s and 1970s.

9The most obvious examples of the transatlantic discord were the policies pursued by Charles de Gaulle. During his ten-year presidency, he seemed to oppose the Americans on every front. He vetoed British membership in the EEC by citing the close Anglo-American special relationship; Britain, de Gaulle argued, was not a European power but would only act as America’s Trojan horse within the EEC. He practiced independent diplomacy with the Soviets and the Chinese. He vocally, if a bit hypocritically, criticized the American war in Vietnam. And, most spectacularly, he withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966.

  • 6 Cited in Thomas A. Schwartz, In the Shadow of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson and Europe, Harvard Universit (...)

10De Gaulle’s main point in separating his country from the United States was simple. As he put it: “if the Western half of the Old World remained subordinate to the New World, Europe would never be European, nor would she ever be able to bring her two halves together6. To de Gaulle, and many others, the United States was an obstacle to European unity.

11Indeed, by the time the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe met in Helsinki in 1975, many Europeans had come to believe that there was no return to the rigid Cold War divisions of the 1940s and 1950s. The turn towards confrontation in the early 1980s, symbolized by Ronald Reagan’s talk of the evil empire, was particularly poorly received in most west European nations.

12When the Cold War suddenly ended, Kissinger’s prediction of a new independent European identity developed in opposition to the United States was thus already well under way. In the 1990s, conflict after conflict followed: over trade and tariff issues, over the proper approach to the Middle East peace process, over the post-cold war role of the United Nations, over the policy towards the break-up of former Yugoslavia, over the International Criminal Court.

  • 7 Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 70, n° 1, Winter 1990/91.

13Many of these issues were exacerbated by the sheer imbalance of power in the transatlantic relationship. This was what Charles Krauthammer called the unipolar moment in which the United States remained the only superpower7. In contrast, by the time the EU saw its first expansion in 1995 what we now euphemistically call “EUROPE was still an emerging and murky entity with a massive economic capacity but little to offer in terms of a coherent foreign policy.

  • 8 Apparently, the first time Albright used the term was at a townhall meeting at Ohio State Universit (...)

14In fact, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – with customary arrogance – called the United States an “indispensable nation in 1998 she was probably right8. The United States military spending was as high as the next 14 countries put together; its economy was entering the happy days that characterized the last years of the 20th century. In contrast Europe was economically stagnant and a military dwarf.

15This imbalance of power was and remains, of course, at the heart of many of the disagreements between Europe and the United States in the twenty-first century. Most seriously, the 2002-3 transatlantic conflict over the American-led campaign to invade Iraq seemingly threatened to tear the once robust NATO alliance apart. “You’re with us or you’re against us, declared the current American president. French president Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder – unwilling to join the American-led coalition – were quick to note the less than diplomatic tone of George Bush’s rhetoric. But they would not budge. As a result, Chirac in particular was castigated as a symbol of “old Europe by the then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Europeans, in turn, would complain that:

  • 9 Cited in Leslie H. Gelb and Justine A. Rosnethal, “The Rise of Ethics in Foreign Policy: Reaching a (...)

Americans believe in the special legitimacy of their democratic institutions and indeed believe that they are the embodiment of universal values that have a significance for all of mankind. This leads to a tendency for Americans to confuse their national interests with universal ones9.

16No one was happy, except for Robert Kagan whose Mars and Venus analogy seemed to fit that moment of transatlantic relations particularly well and whose brief book Paradise and Power became a surprising bestseller.

17The confrontation could be seen in any number of areas, but one statistic perhaps illustrates the sudden shift in transatlantic attitudes. In 2002, 62% of the French held a favourable view of the United States, while a remarkable 79% of Americans thought highly of France. By 2004 the figures had dipped to post-World War II lows: only 31% of the French still liked the US while a remarkably low 29% of Americans regarded France positively10. No wonder that John Kerry’s ability to speak fluent French was not an asset in that year’s US presidential elections!

  • 11 Kissinger, Troubled Partnership, op.cit., p.125.

18Crisis is, indeed, a dominant feature of the history of transatlantic relations. The separateness of a European identity from the American one, as Kissinger had argued back in 1965, was bound to become particularly evident when that identity was “no longer nourished by the fear of the USSR11. And indeed, it seems that transatlantic conflicts have become more frequent and the gulf that the Atlantic Ocean represents ever wider, since the end of the Cold War. Following Kissinger’s logic, the only recipe for fixing this would thus be a new threat, perhaps from Russia, perhaps from China, perhaps from international terrorism.

19But have Europe and America truly been drifting apart as Henry Kissinger suggested more than four decades ago? Has conflict been the dominant feature in transatlantic relations? In fact, there is much evidence to the contrary.

II. Community

  • 12 Samuel Huntington first publicized this thesis in his article “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreig (...)

20For there is, and has been for a long time, a healthy and vigorous transatlantic community. It was created and has been based upon both tangible and intangible factors. On the tangible, or concrete, side one can count the deep economic linkages and the close security cooperation. Among intangibles, it is important to note that across the Atlantic people tend to share a broad set of values; one need not believe in Samuel Huntington’s thesis about the “Clash of Civilizations to accept the fact that Americans and Europeans partake in the same political traditions that are different from those found in most other parts of the world12.

21I will focus here mainly, and briefly, on the tangible factors by citing a few statistics. No other fact is more astounding than the economies of transatlantic relations. The EU-US economic relationship is, simply, the largest in the world; comprising 40% of world trade, with exchanges worth over €1.7 billion a day. Indeed, the EEC countries during the Cold War and the EU since the 1990s represent a massive market for American products. Throughout the Cold War, roughly one third of American exports went to Western Europe. In today’s far more globalized economy, a quarter of American exports find their home in the 27 EU countries. Meanwhile, European imports represent roughly a fifth of America’s total imports; a figure which has remained roughly the same since the 1980s.

22Investment figures are even more remarkable. In 1960, 47% of European Foreign Direct Investment went to the United States; by 1980 the figure was up to 58%. To be sure, the proportion has shrunk in the last two decades to just over 40%, largely due to the opening of capital markets within Europe itself, which has meant that more European investment stays inside of Europe. At the same time, the role of emerging markets has an increasing share of Europe’s external investment. But the United States remains the largest external target of European FDI. US FDI in Europe has followed an even more noteworthy trajectory. Between 1960 and 1980 its share of total US investments abroad doubled from 18 to 36%. In 2007 it was close to 50%13.

23None of this would probably have been surprising in the context of the Cold War, when large parts of the world remained politically unwelcoming and economically closed or otherwise unattractive for investors. But the point is that today, despite the much talked about rise of China, India and other emerging economies as producers and markets, despite the sporadic transatlantic trade disputes over products ranging from bananas to airplanes, the transatlantic economic relationship – a transatlantic economic community – remains a bedrock of the global economy.

  • 14 <>.
  • 15 <>.

24Indeed, while many may have missed it, 2007, the sixtieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan, saw the establishment of the Transatlantic Economic Council which purpose is to “promote transatlantic economic integration [regarding] intellectual property rights, investment, secure trade, financial markets, and innovation14. This was continuation to the 1995 Transatlantic Agenda in which the US and the EU had, for example, pledged to “strengthen the multilateral trading System and take concrete, practical steps to promote closer economic relations between us15.

25The sense that a transatlantic community actually does exist is strengthened when one thinks about security issues. Quite apart from the rash talk about Americans from Mars and Europeans from Venus, despite the United States’ obvious rush to act unilaterally and let the mission define the coalition – a long term policy that was evident already during the Cold War – rather than the other way around; one fact is clear.

26NATO – a transatlantic creature if there ever was one – is the only well functioning and even thriving security community in the modem world. And I use the word “security community on purpose because it seems to me that since the end of the Cold War, since the disappearance of the threats that had brought NATO into being in the first place, it has ceased to be a purely defensive military alliance. NATO – which has expanded even faster than the EU – plays a role in many peacebuilding missions and deploys its capacities far beyond its immediate geographical area. It adopted a political mission already in the 1960s and through democracy building continues to do so today. NATO – which many did declare dead in the early 1990s – has found a new life in the post-Cold War world.

27In practice this means that NATO is today in its third major phase of development: the first was the defensive alliance formed to contain the Soviet and Warsaw Pact threat in the Cold War. The second was a reinvigorated NATO that played a major role in the transformation to the post-Cold War era and in integrating former Soviet bloc countries into NATO, a fact that, it seems, played a major role in their ability to join the EU. This was something that was also expressed in the 1995 Transatlantic Agenda as follows:

Together, we will work for an increasingly stable and prosperous Europe; foster democracy and economic reform in Central and Eastern Europe as well as in Russia, Ukraine and other new independent states; secure peace in the Middle East; advance human rights; promote non-proliferation and cooperate on development and humanitarian assistance16.

28The third, and current, phase has meant the globalization, since 2001 in particular, of NATO’s role. For example, NATO has deployed forces to Afghanistan, given technical assistance to peacekeepers in Darfur and offered training to Iraq’s new military personnel. Indeed, despite the 2002-2003 rift over Iraq a transatlantic security community continues to function effectively and continues to expand to new areas. Who knows, maybe one day even certain Northern European countries will become members.

  • 17 For the argument regarding values gap see Charles A. Kupchan, The End of the American Era, Vintage, (...)

29In the end, shared interests are not enough to create a community. But if you add shared values, then we are getting somewhere. And I would argue that despite the talk of a “values gap there seem to be more in common than not between Europe and America17. Sure there are transatlantic differences over the environment, over the role of religion in public life, over the use of death penalty, to mention a few. But these pale, it seems to me, when contrasted to something more fundamental: a shared history of democratic traditions, something that still appears to be unparalleled in contrast to any other part of the world.

30In fact, it is the belief in democratic values – the right to free speech, the right to disagree – that are part of the reason why there is so much open disagreement between the members of the transatlantic community. It is, after all, the two countries that make most trouble to transatlantic ties – France and the United States – that, in the form of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the US Declaration of Independence, produced the two key texts that still remain at the core of what we understand as “western democracy. While I would not go as far as argue that western democracy is some-how superior to other forms of government, I would note that shared democratic values make it easier for Americans and Europeans to both disagree and agree on their interests without descending to outright hostilities.

31It is difficult to measure values and I will not try to do so here. But perhaps two quotes from 2007 illustrate my point. First, take the newly selected (if not yet elected) British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In July 2007 Brown wrote that:

  • 18 Gordon Brown, “Partnership for the Ages, Washington Post, July 30, 2007, p.A 15.

Outside observers may think of even great alliances only in narrow, 19th century terms: treaties of convenience driven forward by nothing more than mutual needs and current interests. Yet I believe our Atlantic partnership is rooted in something far more fundamental and lasting than common interests or even common history: It is anchored in shared ideals that have for two centuries linked the destinies of our countries18.

32Second, take the new French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Speaking to the US Congress in November 2007, he was positively gushing:

The United States and France remain true to the memory of their common history. It is our duty to remain true to the blood spilled by their children in common battles on both sides of the Atlantic. But the United States and France are not merely two nations true to the memory of what they accomplished together in the past. The United States and France are two nations that remain true to the same ideal, that defend the same principles, that believe in the same values... Today as in the past, as we stand at the beginning of the 21st century, it is together that we must fight to defend and promote the values and ideals of freedom and democracy that men such as Washington and Lafayette invented together19.

33Common history, common values; such was the talk by the British and French leaders in 2007. One may disagree with the significance of such speeches. Yet, they reflected a simple reality: only a few years after what had been widely deemed a major breaking point in the transatlantic relationship, the troubled partnership had – yet again – been rescued. George Bush may still have been in the White House but European leaders did not view that fact as a major obstacle to beginning the public therapy that was bound to restore normality to the transatlantic community.

34In sum, my second major point – which naturally contradicts the first – is that transatlantic ties are des that, like it or not, bind. Common economic and security interests form the hard core, while the shared values – which are ironically evident even at the times of the most furious disagreements – underpin the reality of a solid transatlantic community.

III. Continuity

35So what to make of this troubled partnership, this tension between community and conflict that is so evident within the transatlantic relationship? How can one summarize the past, the present and the likely future of transatlantic relations in 2007; 60 years after the announcement of the Marshall Plan, 50 years from the Treaty of Rome, four decades after the limited French exit from NATO, a decade after the first former Warsaw Pact countries joined NATO? Let me answer by making three basic points.

36First, one cannot deny that this is and has always been a troubled partnership. It has had its severe ups and downs over the decades. From the French effort to ban coca cola in the 1940s to the American Congress’s equally enlightened effort to rename French fries as freedom fries a few years ago, crises have been the norm, not the exception, for the transatlantic relationship.

37Second, the partnership remains; Venus and Mars are still together, somehow these tensions – or periods of transatlantic rift and drift – have passed. Neither abrasive personalities – from Charles de Gaulle to George W. Bush – nor conflicts over the proper use of military force – such as Suez, Vietnam, or Iraq – have been able to cause a permanent breach.

38Third, it is likely that cooperation and conflict will continue their uneasy coexistence in the future. For there is something special – both tangible and intangible, both interests and values – that has kept and will continue to keep the transatlantic relationship intact.

39So let me turn to Henry Kissinger for one last time. In another book, called imaginatively American Foreign Policy and published in 1969 as he took office as Richard Nixon’s new National Security Advisor, Kissinger pondered, among other issues, the future of American power and the transatlantic relationship. In closing Kissinger wrote:

  • 20 Kissinger, American Foreign Policy, op.cit., p. 78.

Thus, we face the root question of a multipolar world. How much unity should we want? How much diversity can we stand? These questions never have a final answer within a pluralistic society. Adjusting the balance between integration and autonomy will be the key challenge of Atlantic relations20.

40The sentiment, it seems to me, rings even truer today, four decades later, as Americans and Europeans continue to try and find the right balance between autonomy and integration, between unity and diversity, between community and conflict in a very different global context. The chances are that they will continue to quarrel. But the possibility that the transatlantic community will be ripped apart any time soon appears, to me, highly improbable. A transatlantic divorce, to use my opening metaphor, is highly unlikely any time in the near future.


1 Henry Kissinger, The Troubled Partnership: A Reappraisal of the Atlantic Alliance, Doubleday, New York, 1965.

2 Kissinger tells this story in his memoirs. Kissinger, White House Years, Little, Brown &Co., Boston, 1979, p. 78.

3 Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003, p. 3.

4 Kissinger, American Foreign Policy: Three Essays, W.W. Norton, New York, 1969, p. 68-69.

5 Geir Lundestad, “‘Empire’ by Invitation? The United States and Western Europe, 1945-1952”, journal of Peace Research, vol. 23, August 1986, pp. 263-276.

6 Cited in Thomas A. Schwartz, In the Shadow of Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson and Europe, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003, p. 132.

7 Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 70, n° 1, Winter 1990/91.

8 Apparently, the first time Albright used the term was at a townhall meeting at Ohio State University in February 1998.
See <>.

9 Cited in Leslie H. Gelb and Justine A. Rosnethal, “The Rise of Ethics in Foreign Policy: Reaching a Values Consensus, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2003, p. 11.

10 For these figures (and more),
see <>.

11 Kissinger, Troubled Partnership, op.cit., p.125.

12 Samuel Huntington first publicized this thesis in his article “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, n° 3, Summer 1993.

13 For these figures (and more), see <>.

14 <>.

15 <>.

16 <>.

17 For the argument regarding values gap see Charles A. Kupchan, The End of the American Era, Vintage, New York, 2002. See also Joseph Nye, The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone, Oxford University Press, New York, 2003.

18 Gordon Brown, “Partnership for the Ages, Washington Post, July 30, 2007, p.A 15.

19 Sarkozy’s speech on 7 November 2007 can be found at <>.

20 Kissinger, American Foreign Policy, op.cit., p. 78.

Notes de fin

1 Jussi Hanhimäki is Professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

© Graduate Institute Publications, 2008

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