Could Europe become the geopolitical equivalent of James Jeffords, the Vermont senator whose differences with Republicans led him to turn independent?
As President Bush pays his first official visit to Europe this week, he is having to tread carefully to keep trusted allies on board as he pursues his political goals.
His task is made harder by signs that Europe and the US are not merely at odds over missile defense, global warming, and a host of other topical issues. The foundations of a 50-year-old relationship may be shifting.
"The United States and Europe need each other less than they used to," says Ivo Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "US presidential transitions are often nightmares for Europeans, but I think we are seeing something more fundamental here."
"The United States may be more powerful than ever before, but Europeans are more confident and conscious of their European-ness," adds Dominique Moisi, an analyst at the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations. "A European model is emerging."
Highlighting the differences is the current ideological gulf between the conservative Mr. Bush and the Social Democratic governments that rule most of Western Europe. That has spawned an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility in European capitals, fed by one controversial American initiative after another revealing what some observers are calling a "values gap" between the Western allies.
Nowhere is the divergence of world-views sharper than over missile defense, the keystone of Bush's security policy.
Fundamental differences on security
At a NATO summit in Brussels yesterday, Bush tried again to sell his plan for an anti-missile shield, but European leaders remain deeply skeptical of the project, which they fear will unravel the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty and lead to a new arms race.
With few exceptions, the Europeans are not convinced by Washington's argument that the world is threatened by rogue states, such as North Korea.
"We do not refute the dangers of ballistic proliferation, while our analysis differs over the extent of the threat," French President Jacques Chirac said in a major speech last week.
Sidelining the ABM treaty, he warned, would "clear the way for new and ill-controlled competition."
At the heart of the transatlantic argument, says William Wallace, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, "are fundamental differences over the characteristics of international security."
While Washington is primarily concerned about its military vulnerability to rogue states and international terrorists, European policymakers are worried more by the problems posed by "failed states," such as mass immigration or trafficking in people and drugs.
Europe also attaches more weight to new issues on the international agenda, such as global warming, and Bush is sure to come under fierce fire for his rejection of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gases when he meets European Union leaders in Gothenburg, Sweden, today.
The US president's new plan to spend more money on research into global warming has not mollified European leaders, since he is still resisting the obligatory ceilings on greenhouse-gas emissions that the Kyoto treaty sets.
Behind this dispute lies a difference of approach to international affairs, says Mr. Daalder. "The Americans want to use their unique power to get their way, while the Europeans ... are committed to treaties and norms," he says.
Bush's unilateral approach was clear when he explained that he feared the Kyoto treaty's demands would hurt American consumers, and that "first things first are the people who live in America."
Europe's multilateral commitment stems partly from Europe's own experience of integration over the past 30 years; multilateralism is the glue that binds the 15 members of the European Union together in their effort to build a united front.
A more assertive Europe
That effort has encouraged European leaders to be more active on the international scene - creating an autonomous 60,000-man military force, for example, that could undertake limited operations independently of NATO, and striking out more independently in the diplomatic arena.
"There is more America in the world, but there is more Europe in the world, too, than there was 10 years ago," points out Mr. Moisi.
Those among Bush's advisers who served the current president's father "have an old view of Europe, and they will have to adjust to the changes," he says.
There are signs that this is happening: US officials appear less skeptical than they were a few months ago about Europe's defense initiative, for example.
Gap on human rights, trade
On moral questions, however, the gap between Europe and the US appears to be widening.
America's use of the death penalty - and Bush's enthusiastic support for it - has inspired widespread revulsion in Europe, where it is outlawed. And the European Union this week decided to actively promote the creation of an International Criminal Court, whereas the United States is opposed to the project.
"The EU and the US are going down entirely different roads as far as fundamental human rights issues are concerned," Dick Oosting, director of Amnesty International's Brussels office said yesterday.
On the economic front, too, trade disputes remain a serious irritant.
Washington and Brussels recently resolved a long-running argument over banana imports to Europe, but the EU is still threatening $4 billion worth of trade sanctions against the US in retaliation for a US tax law that it says is unfair.
Such sanctions "would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on the global trading system," US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has said.
Europeans also are alarmed by Bush's moves last week toward imposing limits on US steel imports: The EU is the largest exporter of steel to the United States.
This sort of traditional transatlantic rivalry, some fear, could spill over into Europe's bid to develop its own identity.
When Europe's common currency, the euro, was created, for example, many voices were heard boosting it as a potential replacement for the dollar as a reserve currency.
"I wish Europeans would become more mature," says Moisi. "They can't define themselves in negative terms against the United States - it has to be next to the United States."
That is more likely to happen, says Mr. Wallace, if European governments feel their views are being taken into account.
"Is President Bush coming over here to consult, or to tell us to fall in line?" he wonders. "Listening would help."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor