Of all the policy pronouncements from Washington recently that surprised or unnerved Europeans, one phrase struck fear into their hearts.
It came from President Bush's lips, as he explained last week that he was rejecting an international treaty to curb global warming because he fears it would harm the US economy. "First things first are the people who live in America," he said.
With that blunt statement, Mr. Bush swept away assumptions that have underpinned America's relations with its European allies for the past six decades.
"It looks like total unilateralism, saying 'we don't care at all what is happening in the rest of the world'," says Michaela Honicke, a specialist on transatlantic relations at the German Foreign Policy Society in Berlin.
On Wednesday, European Union leaders called Bush's abandonment of the Kyoto treaty "completely wrong."
The Texan president heads an administration that seems especially foreign to European leaders who are accustomed to sharing values more closely with their most powerful friend.
"I see a potential decoupling between us, not over traditional foreign policy values, but on more fundamental sociocultural values," warns Dominique Moisi, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. "We resent not what America does, but what America has become, if it is truly represented by the Bush administration."
It is Bush's decision to abandon the Kyoto protocol on climate change that has provoked the deepest shock and condemnation. To Europeans, it appears that Washington is selfishly shirking America's responsibility as the world's biggest carbon-dioxide polluter.
Other incidents over the past 10 weeks have also threatened to widen the gap between the US and Europe.
Washington's expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats on spy charges raised the specter of the cold war and caused unease in European capitals, where politicians prefer to be more understanding of the wounded giant on their border.
The president's lack of enthusiasm for South Korea's "sunshine policy" of reconciliation with North Korea has disappointed European diplomats, who hope that policy will defuse tensions in East Asia.
The new administration has signaled its determination to press ahead with a missile-defense shield in the face of European misgivings about the project's viability and political implications.
Some senior US officials, such as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have voiced hostility to European plans for an autonomous defense force that would give some military muscle to back up the continent's economic might.
Europeans have also been struck by signs that Washington does not plan to take the sort of "hands on" approach to world trouble spots that became Bill Clinton's hallmark. Politicians in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, for example, cannot expect such active US mediation efforts, and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neil has indicated Washington would be less ready to help with financial bailouts such as those that rescued Mexico and parts of Asia.
Analysts here caution, however, that with many second-tier administration jobs (and lower) still unfilled, US policy is not set in stone. "But we certainly have a first impression that is pretty sobering," says Guillaume Parmentier, director of the Paris-based French Institute on the United States. "People realize that this administration is going to be more self-centered."
That may not be a bad thing, Mr. Parmentier suggests: "The fact that they are raising all sorts of outcries all over the world may give us a better opportunity for real discussion" about foreign policy.
Other observers fear that Washington's new view of the world may drive a wedge between the US and its European allies. "The very rhetoric that the president chooses is so devoid of the idealism that has always been an important strain in US-European relations," worries Dr. Honicke. "That makes me very sad."
At a deeper level, the administration's new direction could take Europe and the US down divergent paths, say some policy experts. From a European perspective, Washington's attitudes are "anachronistic, provincial, and arrogant," Mr. Moisi says. The new US leadership "misses the essential flavor of the world in an age of globalization, interdependency, and universalism. It has a petty vision of national interests in a rather old-fashioned way."
A new generation of Europeans, less concerned with security issues now that the cold war is over, pays more attention to cultural questions. To many ordinary French people, for example, the death penalty - abolished throughout Europe - is the most objectionable aspect of American society. "There is a gap in values" that has led to "fundamental reflection over what we have in common," says Honicke.
Washington's apparent reluctance to engage itself abroad may offer Europe an opportunity to assert itself diplomatically. No senior US official visited Macedonia during the recent crisis there, while the European Union's top foreign-policy official, Javier Solana, went five times and led the political negotiations between ethnic-Slav and Albanian political parties that helped defuse the situation. Mr. Solana and two European colleagues plan to visit the Korean Peninsula next month, taking up the mediator role Washington seems to be ceding.
There are doubts, however, about how far Europe can take such initiatives. While Macedonia, in the Balkans, was a clear candidate for European ministrations, Korea is outside Europe's traditional zone of interest and influence. "Foreign policy starts with a statement and ends with implementation," says Parmentier. "If you don't have the means to implement what you say, your policy becomes declaratory, which is a dangerous path to go down."
Also, worries Honicke, "there is quite a lot of strain and tension and misunderstanding in the transatlantic relationship, and that is not a good climate for one partner to step back and another to step in. That should be done in close cooperation."
European leaders recognize that the US is the world's only "hyperpower," to use French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine's term. "But it is such a historical irony," reflects Honicke, "that at the moment when the United States is the unchallenged superpower, at the pinnacle of its economic, political, and military might and cultural influence around the world, they have this man as president."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor