Robert Kagan, a well-known conservative writer and policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently published an essay in which he charted Europe's subordination to the US. In "Power and Weakness", he predicted that this subordination would continue, and went on to argue that any US administration was bound to conclude that unilateral action, as long as the US holds the role of global policeman, was the only sensible way to cope with the world's dangers.
Reading the article led me to discover that a swathe of the political, policy and journalistic elite of America has conceived a dislike of Europe and Europeans. It was something of a shock, and I persuaded the Financial Times to let me write about it in the course of other research which took me to Washington. When I told Bill J Antholis, director of studies at the German Marshall Fund - a Washington-based policy institute that specialises in European-US relations - about the purpose of my visit, he volunteered to host a dinner for about 20 people on the theme of "anti-Europeanism".
For many at the dinner, and in the debate, the European Union is the main bugbear. Gary Schmitt, head of the Project for the New American Century (which shares offices with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank) saw a division in the US administration between going along with the European Union, as a growing power with which it could share the burden of world leadership: and continuing to support Nato, which it also controls. "The EU is forever poking the US in the eye," said Schmitt. "If we come down in favour of the US with the EU, it will be a disaster."
Sebastian Mallaby, a columnist on the Washington Post and the son of a British ambassador, said: "The contempt for Europe springs from American unilateralism: its ability to do everything it wishes itself." However, he said, there was now a structural constraint on the US, in that "you can't get things done here. There's just too much to do in getting a domestic consensus to have time and energy to build a consensus with Europe."
Michael Haltzel is the policy director in the office of Senator Joseph Biden, who chairs the Senate foreign relations committee. He said: "It's irritating to hear European politicians dress up pure power political issues in moral terms. In all cases where we have a dispute (as on Kyoto, or the status of Yasser Arafat, or on the International Criminal Court), there are defensible positions on both sides - ours and theirs. But they choose to make us into a unilateralist bugbear. This is old-fashioned Machtpolitik."
Europe seems to Americans to be about "preserving a way of life", said Wendy Sherman, a former adviser to President Clinton and now of the Albright Group (the consultancy established by Madeleine Albright, who was Clinton's secretary of state). "Why don't you get more active? Don't always be so passive: take a hand in the issues which are central in the world. We see a great risk aversion in the EU. The Kyoto Treaty is a great example. We would like to see Europe ratifying the treaty and dealing properly with its consequences the way it has to happen here."
Bruce Stokes, of the National Journal, said: "There is a sense of this administration pushing back from Europe. But you ain't seen nothing yet. The administration will point out to Europe how it is being unilateralist - as it is in many things. The sense of American exceptionalism will continue. You have to think: in five years, will Nato be a serious issue for the US? A lot of very serious people in Europe think it won't." Radek Sikorski - another European voice, a former Polish deputy defence minister now running the American Enterprise Institute's New Atlantic Initiative - noted that "the issue of sovereignty will become more serious. The nation state has been delegitimised in Europe, but not in America. It accounts for a great deal of the differences between the way in which we see things."
Many - though not all - of the voices were from the conservative end of the spectrum. It is not quite right to say that liberal opinion is more "pro Europe" - a liberal Democrat had told me earlier, off the record, that any presidential candidate is going to have to run against Europe to some extent for the immediate future - but it is more likely that European concerns and attitudes are given a hearing among liberals than conservatives, who often share (and are influenced by) the view of the British right that the EU is a leftish, bureaucratic, anti-nation state institution. Indeed, the sudden charge of the US right against Europe had distressed those Europeans who were proposing to the Americans' most active spirits a different kind of anti-Europeanism than the one in which they are now indulging. None more than John O'Sullivan, the former Daily Telegraph writer and aide to Margaret Thatcher who is now editor-in-chief of United Press International: O'Sullivan, who writes for the National Review, warned his readers that to lump all Europeans together and proclaim a plague on all their works was to take a bludgeon to a problem where some delicate probing could reveal divisions and nuances best turned to American, and pro-American British, account.
This was not apparent in the dinner debate, however. John Harris of the German Marshall Fund voiced the liberal view that "11 September put the US in a unilateralist frame of mind but gave it multilateralist needs. Bush's rhetoric of unilateralism cannot be sustained. We live in an inevitably multilateralist world."
The most powerful "liberal" voice came from James O'Brien, also of the Albright Group. O'Brien, who had been a presidential envoy for the Balkans in the Clinton administration, was the only one to voice outright opposition to Kagan's "Power and Weakness" thesis. "I think Kagan is wrong. US and European foreign policy belong together. Any foreign policy initiative has to begin with acquiescence across the Atlantic. There is no other mechanism which can work as a counter-challenge to the US and Europe. We're stuck with each other. I think what's happening is pure power politics on both sides. It's true that we can create exclusive spheres of action - and Kagan can be proved right because of this. We [the US, that is] missed a huge opportunity to work together more closely after 11 September. Americans still see themselves as exceptional. I don't see any leader playing the true role of leadership here. Striking out alone is not a policy."
But for Chris Caldwell, a writer for the Weekly Standard, the most important issue was that raised by Sikorski. "The key problem the US has with Europe now is that there is a sovereignty deficit. Unilateralism is our only option: there is no one in Europe with whom to relate. If Europe cannot get its act together on defence and foreign policy then we will grow apart."
Americans, including the current administration, are right to hold Europeans to account, and to confront them with their own evasions, false comforts and hidden dependencies on the US. But it is a big and disturbing mistake to assume the attitude that the US has found a uniquely successful way for different cultures to live together, while Europe has not and cannot. It renounces analysis and understanding of differing structural and social systems in favour of an implicit demand that all conform to an American model. But that cannot and will not happen. Good relations across the Atlantic depend on it not happening.