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Europeans grapple with Bush's America

Europeans may have wished for a different U.S. election result, but now they must figure out a way of working with the a U.S. president they find hard to understand. NBC News Andy Eckardt reports from Germany.
/ Source: NBC News

Back in my German high school days, I used to have an American flag hanging in my room and in our yearbook I wrote that John F. Kennedy was a model for me. Nearly 20 years later, the flag no longer hangs on the wall, but Kennedy still remains a model.

Because I spent several years of my life in the United States and have many close friends there, I have always had a strong affection for America.

It is a country where I learned values like respect, friendship and modesty. Unfortunately, in recent years,Europeans have found it difficult to detect those values in U.S. foreign policy — especially in regard to relationships with its long-standing allies across the Atlantic.

Ahead of the election last week, Europeans were leaning toward Kerry, although unsure about the choices that were offered to the American public. Who would be better for Germany and Europe? A harsh unilateralist, who's policies had often upset Europeans in the previous four years, or a man who seemed to be more cosmopolitan, but whose foreign policies were hard to define?

But maybe it made no difference. "There was an assumption that Bush would be comparatively bad for transatlantic relations and Kerry would be much better," Professor Eberhard Sandschneider from the Research Institute of the German Council of Foreign Relations said.

"In the end, the problems of transatlantic relations will remain the same and we need to look ahead, not back."

And that's the rub: Europeans, and Germans in particular, may have wished for a different result, but now they must figure out a way of working with a U.S. president they find hard to understand.

A different America
The generations of my grandparents and parents, who experienced World War II and its aftermath in Germany, were always grateful to the Americans. Then, and probably still now, they regarded the United States as not only a friend, but the number-one ally.

Yet, when President Bush, in his first term, confronted his European partners with remarks such as "nations are either with us or against us in the war on terror," many Europeans were bewildered.

It got worse, in the view of Europeans, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld categorized Germany as "old Europe" and bunched the allies in the same group as Cuba and Libya. Germans did not understand and were not amused.

Yet, Europeans were slow to realize that America has changed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

More than ever, the United States was focused on homeland security; it was forging its own agenda in terms of foreign relations, and was convinced of the right path to tackle terrorism.

Based on public opinion polls ahead of the election, Europeans did not seem to grasp the issues that mattered for the majority of Americans.

"I think we understood quite clearly that the outcome of this election has certain roots within the American society and does not necessarily have to do with the Iraq war or the economy, but is more value oriented," said professor Manfred Goertemaker from the University of Potsdam.

Today, a majority of Germans still remain critical of the Bush government.

"The rift is becoming wider. Bush's victory is a provocation for Europe," wrote Peter Frey, the Berlin Bureau Chief for the German television network ZDF.

"Bush represents the alien America; he gathered the silent and invisible majority behind himself, the heartland, the Bible-devoted South, which German tourists, exchange students and politicians rarely visit," he noted.

On Monday, the cover of Der Spiegel, one of Germany's leading news magazines, showed a blindfolded Statue of Liberty with the headline, "Close your eyes and just do it."

"Bush's policies are strange to us. And I think we have a strong anti-Americanism here in Germany, maybe all over Europe," said Christian Wienert, a student at the university of Potsdam. "And I think it will now become stronger."

Most Americans living in Germany and other European countries do not feel threatened, but they see growing opposition to U.S. policies.

"I personally do not feel uncomfortable because I feel that people can separate me as a person from their attitude toward the Bush presidency," said Ellen Immergut, an American who has lived in Germany for the past 10 years.

"But, I do think there has been a rise in critical feelings against the United States and I also heard from Americans living in other European countries that they have not seen as much anti-Americanism since the Vietnam War," said Immergut, a professor for comparative studies at Berlin's Humboldt University.

European independence
The rising criticism of America mirrors the emergence of the European Union as a global power.

"You cannot build a Europe against the United States, but the superpower U.S.A. has to understand that it cannot achieve anything alone in a global world," said Angela Merkel, head of Germany's opposition conservative party.

In the 21st century, the European Union wants to be respected as an equal partner, maybe at times a counterbalance to the United States. And, despite recent controversy over the role of NATO, European nations hope that the alliance will persist.

The U.S. government has wasted no time to step up efforts to polish its image. "Europe will see that the United States is engaged in listening, in consulting and in working together with its European friends," Secretary of State Colin Powell told the German edition of the Financial Times  on Tuesday.

Analysts agree that politicians and diplomats will indeed continue dialogue because Germany and other European countries depend on good and strong relations with the United States. Yet, the general public and the media will need some convincing about the U.S. approach toward Europe.

The first steps may need to be taken here.

"Those who demand more respect from the United States have to learn to respect the results of Nov. 2 and have to learn how to continue to live with Bush," read an editorial in one of Germany's top newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung.