There is no question that one of the key episodes in the deterioration of relations between the United States and its European allies and friends involved the U.S. invasion of Iraq – a situation compounded by the discovery that the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had surreptitiously dismantled his nation’s covert weapons of mass destruction program years earlier (Saddam kept that decision a closely-guarded secret because he wanted his Iranian enemies to believe he still possessed such a formidable arsenal). While most allies fervently believed that Iraq was continuing to conceal illicit military activities in defiance of United Nations resolutions and sanctions, there was little appetite for a war that could destabilize the entire region and benefit the Islamic clergy ruling neighboring Iran – all of which occurred.
Additionally, the demeanor of President Bush and some of his top national security aides, especially then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, alienated many European friends who found these U.S. officials arrogant and strident. In addition, President Bush’s announcement that the United States would exercise its legal right to withdraw from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet treaty limiting antiballistic missile systems was perceived by many European liberals as unnecessarily threatening to Russia and destabilizing to the continent. While the U.S. had valid requirements for withdrawing from the treaty, and while the withdrawal was done in accordance with the treaty’s provisions, it was a bold move that frightened many Europeans.
As the war in Iraq deteriorated, with mounting U.S. and Iraqi fatalities, and with ancient sectarian tensions now free to manifest themselves in guerrilla warfare and continued acts of terrorism, relations between the U.S. and Europe continued to sour.
The election of Barak Obama as president of the United States was expected to usher in a new era of cordiality between the U.S. and its allies. In practice, the opposite occurred, as the new administration scrapped a missile defense agreement painstakingly negotiated by the Bush Administration with certain European countries. The way in which that agreement was scrapped by the Obama Administration reaffirmed in minds of many Europeans the unreliability of Americans in areas of national security.
On the economic front, the growing U.S. fiscal crisis, with its ramifications for economic stability in Europe, proved particularly painful for the latter, which grew increasingly resentful of U.S. lecturing on economics while Washington’s own fiscal house was a mess.
These were the main factors contributing to the deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Europe. Additional factors – how to deal with Russia, China and Iran – contributed to cross-Atlantic tensions, but one should be cautious about exaggerating the closeness of ties before the Iraq War. Tensions have long simmered just below the surface, as the political dynamics surrounding U.N. and NATO intervention in the Balkans during the 1990s demonstrated. Things were rarely as close as they appeared.