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Trans-Atlantic alliance still shaken
( 2003-12-22 14:48) (Agencies)

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the world is still waiting to see the outcome on the two main battlefields: Iraq and trans-Atlantic relations.

The war to topple a loathed dictator also turned into a brutal war of words between the United States and some of its main European allies. Sixty years of trans-Atlantic unity seemed close to unraveling in rhetoric and insults.

The realization that what started as a spat could spin out of control sobered both sides in the aftermath of the war. Quiet efforts to repair the cracks, or at least paper them over, have restored a semblance of unity.

But the rivalries and ambitions at the heart of the dispute remain a force that could divide Europe from America.

The alliance will have to be redefined now that the Cold War threat has gone and as the European Union becomes more powerful.

"The crisis over Iraq has left deep scars," said Maxime Lefebvre, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "Relations with the United States remain damaged."

Many in Europe, leaders and ordinary people, are uneasy about what they see as overwhelming U.S. power encircling the globe. America, which says it has no imperial ambitions, is baffled by what it sees as Europe's unwillingness to tackle threats to world peace.

The divide is fed by the stereotypes that have taken root in talk shows and editorials on opposite sides of the Atlantic: America the global bully, led by a Texas cowboy; Europe the aging continent, too pampered by welfarism to rise the challenge of terrorism and rogue regimes.

There are strong European voices that want the European Union, an economic powerhouse, to balance or curb U.S. might. Some Europeans say America already is a declining power and will ultimately be eclipsed by an EU soon to comprise 25 nations. The bloc's current 15 members alone have a combined population of 380 million with a GDP of $8.6 trillion, to the United States' $10.4 trillion.

The deep distrust of America, most starkly illustrated by the millions of Europeans who rallied against the war, shows no sign of abating.

"Perhaps the worst result of the trans-Atlantic ado over Iraq ... has been the growing anti-American feeling in large segments of European public opinion," commented Otto Graf Lambsdorff, a former German economics minister.

Calmer voices in Europe and America say both sides have far more to gain by continuing the alliance and that rivalry will help neither. The security and prosperity of America and Europe are very closely interwoven.

"Ultimately, there's much more that unites the two sides of the Atlantic than divides them," said Fraser Cameron of the European Policy Center, a think tank based in Brussels.

Without the common threat of the Soviet Union, both sides have far more room to disagree. Many European governments, however, still see NATO (news - web sites) and its promise of U.S. military protection as their best security guarantee. Few European states want to challenge the United States or endanger an alliance that worked so well for so long.

And few Europeans are willing to pay the high financial price of bringing their weak, underequipped armed forces up to par with America's.

Washington, which was scornful of European weakness, has now needs help in Iraq and Afghanistan and speaks of cooperation and consultation.

Despite protracted bickering, progress has been made in keeping NATO as the foundation of Western defense and giving it a post-Cold War role. But there are still big doubts about its role and future usefulness.

Still, Europe's desire for a major voice on the global stage to reflect its economic power are only likely to grow. That almost certainly means future friction with America as interests collide over issues ranging from strategic influence and trade to global warming and attitudes to the death penalty.

"The exacerbation of trans-Atlantic tension, broad anger at the Americans and anti-Americanism in Europe are rooted in European elites' feeling hurt by Europe losing its role in global affairs," said Andrei Piontkovsky, an analyst at Moscow's Center for Strategic Research.

Supporters of the trans-Atlantic alliance optimistically insist it's far from dead, just in need of some careful management.

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