I recently attended an international conference on conflict prevention in Geneva. The weather was so stormy that boats were floating belly up on Lake Leman where whitecaps were washing the shore. Strong winds made me struggle through the short walking distance from the hotel to Palais Wilson, which houses the headquarters of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the venue of the meeting.
During a coffee break, participants freely exchanged views on U.S.-Europe relations after the U.S. presidential election. It was just after re-elected U.S. President George W. Bush, following a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, expressed his willingness to advance U.S. relations across the Atlantic with European countries during his second term.
"Both men appeared before the press wearing red ties," a Swiss diplomat said. "They both like primary colors. Primary colors are didactic. When European leaders meet, I think their ties are mostly pastels or other subdued colors. U.S.-European relations will continue to rock. Bush is exultant at his reelection that he wants to appeal his generosity."
However, a former Belgian prime minister said: "I don't know. Although many European leaders said they supported Kerry, privately I think they didn't want him to win because they knew they would be required to shoulder a heavier responsibility. With President Bush, all they have to do is keep opposing him. Now that Europe has no choice but to talk with him, it must make up its mind."
Meanwhile, a former Finnish foreign minister gave his view: "Under the circumstances, Europe has no other option than to further advance European integration also in terms of foreign relations and security. As seen in the presidential election, if U.S. politics takes on religious zeal and the separation of church and state becomes blurry, I expect more people will come to feel uncomfortable with the United States.
"Even Britain may seriously move toward European integration. No other countries dislike evangelical politics more than Britain."
In addition to Iraq, the problem of Iranian nuclear development will likely be a test for U.S.-European relations to make a fresh start. Britain, France and Germany have been negotiating with Iran to talk it into giving up nuclear weapons,but many Americans are calling for stronger measures to deal with Iran. Unless Europe and the United States act in concert, it would be difficult to settle this problem. The United States can win a war by itself. But in order to win peace, it needs the cooperation of its friends and allies. This is apparent in Iraq.
U.S.-Europe relations tensed up after the Cold War and deteriorated visibly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States as its war on terror spread to Iraq.
Situations that were unlikely before came into existence one after another:
●An incumbent German prime minister won general elections with an anti-U.S. slogan;
●Germany quit serving as a go-between to ease U.S.-French friction and teamed up with France to counter the United States;
●Russia joined the German-French anti-Iraq war camp;
●The United States made an undisguised attempt at dividing "old Europe" from "new Europe"; and
●"Bottom-up" anti-U.S. sentiment changed a government's stand to support the United States as seen in the case of Spain.
The underlying problem is the difference between the United States and Europe over their recognition of threat and opposing views on world order. They differ sharply on such issues as regime change, pre-emptive strike, diversification andmultilateralism but they all stem from the same roots.
One of the major themes of the meeting was peaceful coexistence with Islam. A terrorist incident by Muslim radicals in the Netherlands was discussed. Participants thought that terrorism is about to dramatically change tolerant European society and that Europe is also to blame for its failure to integrate the Islam population. We also discussed ways to protect open society from terrorism.
Incidentally, the last time I visited Geneva was Sept. 11, 2001. I was glued to the television in my hotel room all night.
In the three years since then, what changed the most in the world, I thought, sitting in front of the television that was reporting Arafat's death, was that: "Politics is being shoved by fear. The object of fear is taking an abstract form called terrorism. In order to escape fear, people are turning to values and religion. The result is a clash between abstractions. People are targeting their criticism not at what the other party is doing (policy) but at what they are (existence)."
Simply speaking, the problem is "incompatibility of characters" and not that of opinions. This trend is spreading globally. People are judging others by their faith, ethnicity and race, and jumping to conclusions about their nature and profiles to decide whether they like them or not as a society or nation.
Is the discord between the United States and Europe also caused by "incompatibility of characters"? Or are they two of a kind in the uncertainty and fragility of their open societies? Only when both the United States and Europe properly acknowledge each other's possibilities and weaknesses can they start true dialogue.