The tensions do not, however, signal an end to the strategic partnerships that have spanned the Atlantic for decades, they said.
"Since the end of the Afghan war there has been this bitterness and political split between the United States and its European allies which is really quite severe," said Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, known as SAIS.
The forum, titled "The End of the West? U.S.-Europe Relations," was sponsored by SAIS's Center for Transatlantic Relations.
European criticisms have been fueled by a host of American actions, including the treatment of captured suspect terrorist fighters being held at Guantanamo Bay naval station in Cuba. Other sore points include the Bush administration's pullout from the anti-ballistic missile treaties and its refusal to participate in the Kyoto Protocols, as well the United State's refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court.
The most ardent critiques from our European allies, especially France and Germany, have come in response to the Bush White House's movement toward military action to force regime change in Iraq and its embrace of preemptive military action as a foreign policy doctrine.
Over the last year, this transatlantic stress has sparked a debate within the American foreign policy community over the future of relations between the United States and Europe. The question is whether these conflicts are part of a cyclical decline in close and longstanding transatlantic diplomatic relations, or if they represent a new -- and not so friendly -- direction.
James Schlesinger, a senior adviser to Lehman Brothers and a former secretary of both Defense and Energy and ex-director of the CIA, said the recent problems have their genesis in the fall of the Soviet Union. The communist threat from that country was the glue that held the European-American alliance together, he said.
Schlesinger added that in the post-Soviet era the U.S.-European relationship has evolved into one where the United States must lead, but must also gain the approval of its allies for international actions in order to avoid strife.
"That is a tough assignment," he said.
According to Fukuyama, the major U.S.-European policy disconnections are based the Europeans questioning American unilateralist tendencies. He added, however, that such criticisms could be redirected to the Europeans regarding their unilateral policies on genetically modified foods or agricultural trade.
Fukuyama also said there is merit to the argument put forward by Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, that European discontent with American policy is driven by Europe's embrace of normative laws and international organizations like the United Nations. Kagan has written that such Europeans believe that such institutions provide a needed balance in world affairs, and also function as the driving force of European power.
Fukuyama said that such beliefs underlie the basic schism between the American view of nation states and international power, and the view held by the European policymaking elite, because Americans have a fundamentally stronger belief in national democratic institutions. He added that Americans also strongly mistrust non-elected bodies like the International Criminal Court.
"I would say that this issue of the basic concept of the state is really going to continue to divide the Unites States and Europe," he said, although he also said he is sure the cooperative relationship between the United States and Europe will continue.
David Owen, former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and a member of the House of Lords, said it is important to understand that Europe is not one country but is made up of different nations with varying political opinions. He said that while overall policy differences do exist with the United States, that there are still significant divisions between European nations on many issues. For instance, the United Kingdom, Italy and the Netherlands support the idea of American military action in Iraq, but France, Germany and Belgium oppose it.
Owen noted that there is an ongoing debate in Europe over just how interconnected the countries should become, and whether Europe's future should be as a united whole or not.
Schlesinger added that the frenzy of European criticism of U.S. policy has come to a point where it can be compared to the boy who cried wolf. He said that even the smallest problem with any policy is often blown up to a grand scale, blunting the impact of all the criticism, even if it is helpful.
"I would say that this criticism has ceased to be irritating and has become boring," said Schlesinger. "The problem is that one can not pick out the signal from the noise."
Comparing the relationship to a strained marriage, Schlesinger said the current policy rift is severe but not catastrophic, with an outright split prevented by the power of international agreements and organizations.
"It is, I think, a mistake to underestimate the seriousness of the current drift," he said. "(But) there will be no divorce. Institutions like NATO, like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), will continue to go on, but we are likely to have separate bedrooms and possibly a trial separation."