Europe's Other

How a Gap Became an Ocean in Transatlantic Relations

Interview with WTO director-general Pascal Lamy: 'WTO had no say on ACTA'
Europe's Other : How a Gap Became an Ocean in Transatlantic Relations - Mary Martin


Among the factors behind tensions in the relationship between the United States (US) and the European Union (EU), which erupted over the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is a change in the terms of discourse between the two blocs. How did the US move from a position where Europeans promised to stand 'shoulder to shoulder' with their ally in the aftermath of 9/11, to being cast as a threat to European interests and values? In attempting to explain contemporary transatlantic relations through an examination of foreign policy discourse, it is argued that a process of "Othering" in which the EU sought to construct differences between the two sides, particularly in its approach to international relations, is useful to our understanding of the place of identity in this changing relationship. By analyzing the European response to a set of policy differences in 2002, this article looks at deliberate attempts by Europe to elaborate a discourse of difference with the US in order to sustain its own foreign policy identity as a collective global actor.


Four months after September 11, 2001, George Bush used the President's annual address to Congress to outline the next stage of the War on Terrorism after the defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. His speech became the most controversial piece of presidential rhetoric since Ronald Reagan's characterization twenty years earlier of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" for its one line which labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "Axis of Evil." As the correspondent for the UK's Guardian newspaper wrote: "The phrase has not only defined the battle lines of the 21st century, it has helped shape the world we now inhabit."'

The President's designation drew political fault lines with America's enemies, and also produced a seismic effect on relations with US allies in Europe. From "unshrinking solidarity," which characterized the US-European relationship after the September terrorist attacks, the speech was the catalyst for a discourse of difference with the US which had hitherto developed piecemeal, but which gathered strength in the early months of 2002. "We are all Americans now," French newspaper Le Monde had declared on September 12, 2001. Yet, six months later, and before the invasion of Iraq caused a dramatic nature in transatlantic relations, the outlines of a more fundamental - and potentially more enduring - distancing between the US and EU member states had emerged by the spring of 2002.

An examination of public discourses on foreign policy shows the US moving, or being moved, into a position of Europe's "Other,"2 in order to sustain and validate a growing identity for the EU as a collective actor on the world stage.

This discourse of difference came to reify a self-understanding of Europe' as distinct from, and, at times, in opposition to the US as a foreign policy actor, as characterized by the Axis of Evil phrase. A "logic of European identity"3 was produced through a contrast with US foreign policy, defined by the President's speech. This article examines how this discourse of difference was framed, and how it exists as an integral art of the contemporary transatlantic relationship.

While policy differences between EU member states and the US are well documented, 4 this article focuses on European public political discourses of the period to show how self-understandings of role and actorness underwent an important metamorphosis, and how even loyal US allies, such as the United Kingdom, used the characterization of difference to establish and cement a clear and distinct identity for the EU in international politics. By examining public discourses about foreign policy drawn from media accounts and the statements of European leaders, this article intends to supplement the "what" and "why" questions concerning the shifts in the transatlantic relationship, with a "how possible" account.

While the concepts of "Otherness" and "Othering" remain contested in the literature, 5 they have been used to describe processes of inclusion and exclusion, and the drawing of boundaries to delimit or "Other" those outside, in order to reinforce the identity of the ad hoc group or the coherence of the discourse thus formed. Furthermore, it is suggested that a spectrum of behavior, encompassing contrast or difference at one end and a more assertive process of distancing and alienation at the other, was evident in foreign policy discourses towards the US, and that "Otherness" helped entrench a more emphatic and visible identity on the part of the European Union as an international actor.6

Constructivist accounts see identity as recursively formed through their representation via public acts of articulation and definition/ but crucially these processes involve some opposition to what an identity is not: "The definition of identity in nations and men ... depends for its accomplishment on the recognition of that which is other, like and simultaneously other and like and on the abstract understanding of the self that follows from this recognition."8

"Identity requires difference in order to be, and it converts difference into otherness in order to secure its own self-certainty."9 Thus an identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized. Foreign policy is the means by which identity characteristics are inscribed and projected outwards, in order to reflect back on the community, in whose name and for whom they are produced. The Axis of Evil speech, which defined the post-9/1 1 US foreign policy position, served to provoke a drawing of boundaries, a production of difference and even at the extreme, of notions of danger/evil implied by the presence of an alien moral space.10 While the US used foreign policy to define national character, 11 the Axis of Evil concept also inspired a process by which the EU, as a unique type of foreign policy actor, struggling to establish its international presence and with a patchy record in international affairs, sought to entrench its actorness through a discourse of distance and "Othering" vis-a-vis the US.

This article examines various policy areas in which the US and the EU were at odds during 2002 and which fuelled a discourse of difference. Apart from the Axis of Evil speech, these included the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the US imposition of steel tariffs. These policy differences reveal an emerging European logic of identity, which became crystallized through a discursive construction of difference with the US.

In the following sections, the article discusses the context for this discursive shift, how it developed via a range of policy issues, and finally what it indicates about the development of transatlantic relations.

How a Gap Became an Ocean: US-European Differences Before and During 2002

Transatlantic relationships during and after the Cold War were based not on difference, but on significant areas of commonality, particularly regarding defense. Two leading member states of the EU, Britain and Germany were strongly and pro-actively Atlanticist: Britain saw itself as a partner in a "special relationship"12 while Germany was dependent on America's security guarantee during the Cold War and continued to rely on US logistical support after 1991. While French attitudes to the US, shaped by De Gaulle's resentment towards American cultural, economic and military hegemony, were more brittle, leading to France's withdrawal from NATO's military command structures in 1966, long­running disagreements over trade issues in the 1990s, and differences in attitudes towards key policy areas such as the Middle East, they remained part of French exceptionalism, a classic characteristic of national foreign policy under the Fifth Republic.13 Until recently, the elevation of these policy differences into a common European foreign policy discourse remained incomplete and inconsistent.

By early 2002, however, the divide which emerged was different in character from the irritations in bilateral relations between France and the US and the bickering among NATO allies. Earlier frictions in transatlantic security relations had revealed periodic differences between the allies, from which a "European position" could be discerned. By the time of the 9/11 attacks and the "War on Terrorism,", the "European position" had metamorphosed into something more akin to "European identity," mainly as the result of the deepening of foreign policy integration among the EU member states. The processes and machinery of the European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and the experience, however mixed, of establishing common initiatives in defined areas such as the Middle East peace process (MEPP) and engagement with Iran, had begun to develop a commonality of purpose and perspective, which was manifest at both the working level of co-operation among ministries in European member states and in public between national leaders. The fact and goal of this integration process in foreign policy was to present the US with a partner of a different status than in the past: "a true global partner, which would be beyond what any nation-state in Europe could deliver."14 After four decades in which the US was a "European power" through its engagement in the continent's security and its economic reconstruction, Europe was offering itself as a complement to American power in the world.

The development of a European security culture'5 was a manifestation of this integration, which went to the heart of changes in the transatlantic dynamic. The 1998 agreement at St. Malo, in which Britain and France proposed pushing ahead with plans for a common defense structure, represented a retreat from the position of British Conservative governments in the 1950s to prefer the US alliance above a European security option.

Moreover this development was taking place at the same time as fresh doubts about the future of the NATO alliance. While the Kosovo campaign and NATO enlargement had seemed to provide a new lease on life after 2000, America's snub to the organization's formal offer of assistance two days after 9/11, had made it clear that the old structures of European security politics were looking frail, for reasons to do with a revised US worldview.

The Bush Factor

By early 2002, however, the greatest strain on the transatlantic relationship was coming not from developments in Europe but from the foreign policy of the Bush administration. Europe was skeptical of the new administration's more unilateral line towards the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, the decision to revoke the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and the International Criminal Court, which the US had refused to ratify.

Together they amounted to a catalogue of friction, which had at its core a different perception in Europe and in the US of the value of multilateral action. With the Bush administration demonstrating an "America first" approach to global issues, the EU had become a visible proponent for co-operation and multilateralism. Despite attempts on the European side to emphasize the benefits of co-operation as representing an "engine for positive change" and a "convergence of strategic interests"16 there were plenty of observers drawing attention to the areas where the transatlantic divide appeared to be widening.17

In the aftermath of 9/11, chronic differences in the power and capabilities of the US and its European allies had been exposed, with the EU as a collective actor relegated to a secondary role as purveyor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction in Afghanistan. A solidarity of purpose had nonetheless prevailed, sustained in part by close collaboration between the US and some European allies, such as the United Kingdom, on a bilateral basis. The transatlantic relationship assumed, at best, co-operation in areas defined by the US, and, at worst, complementarity, as both partners performed different but non-competitive tasks. Confrontation was not part of the political agenda, nor an ingredient of mainstream public discourse.

From One of Us to the "Other"; Policy Differences and Discursive Shift

This changed with the Axis of Evil speech, which triggered a discourse in which Europe was defined as a counter subject to the United States, giving rise to a series of storylines and media frames which elaborated this difference in terms of the means and values by which the EU attempted to conduct foreign policy.

What the speech highlighted was the ability and the preference of the US to prosecute the War on Terrorism by use of force, rather than by deploying both soft and hard forms of power, including diplomatic engagement with states which posed a threat to its security. The European response was the development of a view that US foreign policy approaches were misguided or even dangerous. Furthermore it led to a corollary story that there was an alternative, "better" European way. Europe was committed to standards of international law and organization, and the US was not. The US was overly militaristic, too quick to find a unilateral solution and its policy prescriptions were misguided. The discourse had surfaced during the Afghan campaign of 2001, during which EU civilian power instruments presented a stark contrast to US firepower. Justification of European "soft power" had produced an increasingly critical stance towards the predominance of US military measures.

Ten days after the State of the Union address, Chris Patten, the EU's Commissioner for External Relations, developed his theme of the US as Gulliver, posing a threat to international order by acting alone, and, in contrast, of Europe which should stop seeing itself as "so Lilliputian that we can't speak up and say it."18

Media accounts adopted a lofty tone criticizing the "brutality and brutal simplicity" of Washington's official rhetoric, and characterizing President Bush as a cowboy and American policy as reflecting the attitudes of the Wild West.19 The idea that US attitudes threatened the West and European interests was articulated by French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, who claimed that Europeans were friends of the United States, but said: "We are threatened today by a new simplism which consists in reducing everything to the war on terrorism. We cannot accept that idea. You have got to tackle the root causes, the situations, poverty and injustice."20

The shift from closest ally to potential threat was summed up by an American writer in the UK Times: "The elite view ... was this: 'What is the threat? It is the United States."'21 Other voices were less keen to champion the European approach to international relations, yet still characterized US foreign policy in relation to a European alternative and cast it in alien terms. Thus the eurosceptic Times opined:

Mr. Patten and his continental colleagues are attempting to delineate a new division between the "sophisticated" approach to foreign affairs of the European Union that concentrates on "tackling the root causes of terror" and the "simplistic" approach of the US which deals, in its crude way, only with the symptoms. Which are you, sophisticated or simplistic, elegant or crude, or, as Nancy Mitford might have put it, EU or non-EU?22

The cultural basis of this divide was synthesized into what became a convenient shorthand for US-European identity differences. Robert Kagan's Power and Weakness, first published in June 2002, 23 gained notoriety for its epithet: "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." Kagan traced the developing fissure between the US and Europe to the end of the Cold War and in part to the European sense that "Europe," as a counterbalance to the US, had replaced "the West" as a concept.

Institutionalizing Difference

The Axis of Evil speech galvanized a European response because it directly affected issues on which the EU had forged a common policy consensus. European discourses were anxious to avoid a designation of the War on Terrorism as a conflict between Christianity and Islam, and they were particularly concerned at its potential to jeopardize two areas of EU engagement with Islamic states: a process of rapprochement with Iran which had been underway since the previous year; and the search for a solution to tl1e Palestinian problem in the Middle East.

Taking a clear line against US policy was not merely rhetoric: in the Middle East, the EU sought to clarify its role in the conflict by emphasizing the mistakes of US policy, and in the case of the UK's Tony Blair, by attempting to make the peace process an integral part of the War on Terrorism, despite Washington's refusal to view it in the same way.24

While there was no question of the EU taking up a "hostile" policy stance towards the US over the Middle East, the European discourse held that a solution in the Middle East required a different form of politics to that pursued by the US, and that the European approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict offered a better route to peace. The European Parliament's report on the issue exemplifies the distancing from the US:

By stressing that it is not just the symptoms of terrorism that have to be fought, but also and above all its root causes, and that dialogue must be conducted first and foremost with the weak, vacillating states, the EU is making conflict prevention the guiding principle of its foreign policy action and thus to some extent counterbalancing the US "axis of evil" doctrine.25

Steel and the Forging of Identity

The "Europe versus America" story, once crystallized, also developed across other US policy initiatives. In March 2002, a dispute over steel tariffs provided a further occasion for the EU to concretize its foreign policy identity in distinction to the US. The Bush administration's decision to impose twenty percent tariffs on imports into the US from the largest producer nations caused an estimated ten billion dollars per year in lost revenues to companies in the EU, Japan and Korea, which bore the brunt of the restrictions. 26 The move was seen as an electoral ploy to win steel workers' votes in the marginal states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia where congressional seats were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

The tariff move caused not only a rash of counter-offensive policy measures by the EU but a rush of rhetoric exhorting European values and economic clout. The steel narrative, like the reaction to the Axis of Evil speech, was about different means and values in international relations, with the EU seeking to present itself as the party upholding multilateralism and adherence to a rule and norm-governed international system. In comparison, the US had disregarded the constraints of international society. Pascal Lamy, the EU Trade Commissioner, echoed an earlier theme in which Europe had characterized the US: "The world steel market is not the wild west, where people do as they like. There are rules to guarantee the multilateral system"27 [emphasis added]. In a speech to the Humboldt University in Berlin in May 2002, Lamy also linked the steel row to the EU's quite distinct foreign policy choices:

We have to assert an autonomous model of Europe that prioritizes, against the backdrop of growing global economic and social imbalances. .. a sustainable development path, the resolution of regional conflicts through dialogue and co­operation and a well-regulated globalization. This approach is in fact the only avenue open to us: it is the only one compatible with our European values, and, on a more cynical note, the alternative (a security-centered approach based on strategic hegemony) is out of our reach anyway.28

The steel dispute also demonstrated that, in areas where the EU was a more assured and established collective actor, "Othering" of the US was an institutionalized discourse, rooted within the EU's policy machinery. The discourse of difference was embedded and sustained within its own capacity to act collectively in the economic domain where it could claim to rival US power. A common trade policy and .. the competence of the Union in external commercial politics are enshrined in Article 133 of the TEU. As a result of the Single Market legislation, the EU was established as a unitary actor, it had developed a history or collective trade negotiation such as the Uruguay Round, beginning with a common negotiating mandate agreed in 1986, and had assembled a repertoire of instruments such as sanctions against third parties with embedded normative values such as multilateralism, free trade and rule-governance in international relationships.

The EU response to the US steel tariffs invoked much of this extensive armory: the Commission developed a joint strategy to challenge the US move and seek compensation within the rules of the World Trade Organization and to take steps to safeguard the EU steel market, which meant in effect contemplating sanctions against other US industries such as Florida citrus producers and manufacturers of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The issue of Guantanamo Bay and the detention of suspected Al Qaeda members provided Europeans with a discourse of difference which was more weakly institutionalized at the European level, but which drew heavily on common norms among EU member states. A growing normative tendency, evident from European positions towards the death penalty and human rights, 29 is enshrined within a framework which provides for human rights as objectives of CFSP (Article 11 of Amsterdam) and development co-operation, through conditionality in trade and aid programs (Article 177).30

Unlike the steel row in which the EU had a clear collective voice, articulation of a European position on Guantanamo was largely bilateral, while acknowledging shared. norms among member states. On February 23, 2002, German newspaper Silddeutschezeitung published an article quoting its foreign minister Joschka Fischer that the German government was ready to talk to the US administration about the treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners: "In the struggle against international terrorism we are also defending our core values."31 Meanwhile its editorial in SZ was explicit about "the normative gulf between the two continents" in America's readiness to "set aside if not completely ignore human rights when it wants."


Identity is not a fixed and stable concept, but a fluid and highly contingent one. Therefore to suggest that a process of differentiation and "Othering" took place between the EU and the United States as a result of policy differences such as the Axis of Evil speech is not to ignore that, at other levels, commonalities of identity persisted, such as a neo-liberal identity, a democratic identity, and a Christian or "Western" identity. These forms of "inclusive" identity34 are, however, partial and insecure, and susceptible to moments of challenge by alternative and sometimes competing manifestations. According to Rumelili, "If difference is constructed to be deriving from acquired characteristics, then by definition, there is the possibility that the other will become like self one day, so the other is only in a position of temporary difference."35

The shift in US policy represented by the Axis of Evil speech, the imposition of steel tariffs and the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, reflects a particular strain of American-ness that provoked a disruption in more-settled forms of identity that Europe and America shared. This disruption has placed US-­European relations on a new footing, exacerbating tensions in a traditional alliance which nonetheless remains of paramount importance on both sides of the Atlantic. However, crucially, this policy shift also presented an opportunity for European countries, in search of a more emphatic and cohesive identity in global politics, to talk up their internal commonalities and the role and status of the EU as a unified actor through articulating a set of differences with its most obvious rival on the world stage. Discursive trends and evidence of" Othering," which can be discerned as a consequence of this US policy shift, enable an analysis of the transatlantic relationship at a different level and an examination of policy differences between the two regional blocs. While policy differences reflect, at least partly, the variations introduced by individual governments, discursive change and formation suggest more deep-seated processes of identity creation and inscription which may presage longer-term changes in the US-EU relationship.

While acknowledging that narratives of difference and distinction remain highly contested and that the concept of “Othering" embraces a range of behavior from co-operation to conflict, the EU's willingness and ability to construct, through discourse, a sense of separateness from its traditional ally marks a significant shift in the development of Europe as a global actor. The range of "Othering" techniques, from viewing an erstwhile friend as a "threat," to emphasizing the need for closer co-operation between two different but allied power blocs, suggests that the discourse of difference may produce uneven outcomes in an already bumpy transatlantic relationship.


Friendly Fire: The "Other" As Ally

While the discourse of "Otherness" drew on a number of issues from which to construct narratives of difference with the US, it did not go uncontested. The sense of commitment to a strong transatlantic relationship lay behind persistent attempts by executive elites and mass media to "talk up" areas of commonality with the US, the benefits of co-operation and to minimize differences. What distinguished these processes from earlier bouts of anti-American sentiment was the strategy of linking opposition td US policy with the articulation of a European alternative. Thus, Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative, drew comparisons with the US in order to present Europe as a coherent international actor with certain distinct characteristics, while also trying to preserve co-operative rather than conflictual relations. He argued that the differences between Europe and the us should be seen as complementary rather than opposed, and that while Europe was different, it is not a rival superpower. Difference was the means by which Europe offered herself as a unique partner for the US:

America seems set to maintain her military predominance for the foreseeable future, while Europe has an unrivalled claim as a global ‘civil’ power. Such a complementarity offers many advantages, in terms of efficiency, specialization, and the degree to which our two publics are likely to be supportive of different conceptions of a global role. Each partner must recognize the value of the other's distinct contribution … There is a strategic coincidence of values and interests: neither the US nor the EU will find an alternative international partner of similar scale and importance committed to defending values and interests so nearly identical.32

Three weeks earlier, Solana had delivered a speech to the General Affairs Council in Brussels, covering exactly the same policy issues. The later speech, delivered after the Axis of Evil speech, is different in that it devotes a large part of the text to highlighting the differences with the US and denoting an EU role in relation to the US.

Individual European leaders, such as Tony Blair also sought to contest narratives of transatlantic tension or rivalry. Yet at the same time, their European policy led them to emphasize "Otherness" as a way of developing a distinctive European discourse and foreign policy identity. At a speech to mark the opening of the George Bush Presidential Library on April 7, 2002, the British Prime Minister characterized the US-European difference as “utilitarianism versus utopianism,” but mitigated a strategy of “Othering” by claiming that “more than ever before those two views are merging,” and repeating his earlier calls for co-operation rather than confrontation:

The world works better when the US and the EU stand together. There will be issues that divide – issues of trade, most recently over steel, for example. But on the big security issues, the common interests dwarf the divide. Forget the talk of anti-Americanism in Europe…people know Europe needs America and I believe America needs Europe too. We have so many shared values.33

Mary Martin is a Ph.D. candidate at the Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. She is currently a guest teacher at the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics.