John Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention on Thursday night was billed as an exercise in matching machismo, designed to persuade the American electorate that this challenger can be just as tough on the terrorists - and just as proudly patriotic - as the incumbent he is trying to unseat. The New York Times counted the number of times Kerry used the word "strength", and arrived at a total of 17. "Invoking his past," trumpeted the Bush-haters' favourite paper, "Kerry vows to Command 'a Nation at War'."
Yet buried in his overlong oration was a rather different message. The key point was in the paragraph on Iraq. "We need a president," declared Kerry, "who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers. That's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home. Here is the reality: that won't happen until we have a president who restores America's respect and leadership - so we don't have to go it alone in the world. And we need to rebuild our alliances."
In other words, a Kerry administration would set about mending fences with allies who are not currently on America's side - which means most of continental Europe - in order to reduce and ultimately wind up America's commitments in Iraq.
advertisementSignificantly, Kerry mentioned Europe at the top of his speech, recalling the time when his diplomat father was stationed there. Was I just dreaming, or did he say he had "unforgettable memories of being a kid mesmerised by the British, French and American troops" he saw? Did he really say French? (Rewind the tape. Yes, he did. Boy, do his speechwriters know how to lose votes.)
Well, here's another reality for you, Mr Kerry. Even if you are elected in November, and even if the European leaders do fawn over you in a way not seen since the days of JFK, I don't expect much in the way of burden-sharing, least of all from the French. Sure, with you in the White House, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder would spout all sorts of fine words about restoring transatlantic harmony. But I would be quite astonished if practical support, whether in the form of money or men, were to be forthcoming.
This is not a fashionable view, least of all in academic circles. A clear majority of those who think, write and talk about international relations for a living take the view that the transatlantic alliance system can and must be restored. My friend Timothy Garton Ash argues in his new book, Free World, that America and the EU have too many common interests to become permanently estranged. Only a few neoconservative types still take seriously Robert Kagan's argument that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus" - in other words, that the United States and the EU now hold fundamentally incompatible views about the legitimacy of war as a tool of international politics.
True, the recent transatlantic estrangement is more complex than Kagan suggested. First, European governments were not united in opposing the war against Saddam; a majority in fact signed letters supporting the American policy of military action. Secondly, American voters were not united in supporting the war. Opinion polls last year revealed that it is only Republicans who are "from Mars"; Democrats are as "Venusian" as Europeans in their reluctance to wage war.
That said, I still don't buy the idea that a Kerry presidency could bring about a real rapprochement. Let's just revisit Mr Kerry's childhood memories for a second. Where exactly were those British, French and American troops that he enjoyed watching as a boy? Why, in Berlin, "each of them guarding their own part of the city, and Russians standing guard on the stark line separating East from West".
And that, in a nutshell, is why there was a transatlantic alliance in the 1950s. Let's not kid ourselves that the French and the Germans - or, for that matter, we British - were passionately pro-American during the Cold War. On the contrary, American experts constantly fretted about the levels of popular anti-Americanism in Europe. But as long as there was the Soviet Union menacing us with its array of missiles, troops and spooks, there was one overwhelming practical argument for the unity of "the West".
That ceased to be the case 15 years ago, when the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev caused the Soviet empire to crumble. Ever since 1989, the incentives for transatlantic harmony have grown steadily weaker, even as the incentives for greater European autonomy have appeared to strengthen.
There are, of course, many other ways in which Americans and Europeans have grown apart in the past two decades. Europeans now work significantly shorter hours than Americans (I write this article at 1.30 am in my New York apartment, secure in the knowledge that, all over Manhattan, other workaholics are tapping away at their keyboards). And Europeans are now significantly less God-fearing than Americans.
But these differences would not affect the international alliance system if there were still a threat to western Europe as grave as that posed by the Soviet Union. Of course, there actually is a very grave threat - that of Islamic fundamentalism. Yet Europeans quite clearly do not see this as a threat that requires transatlantic solidarity. On the contrary, since the Spanish elections earlier this year, they have acted as if the optimal response to the growing threat of Islamist terrorism is to distance Europe from America.
In a recent Gallup poll, 61 per cent of Europeans said they thought the EU plays a positive role with regard to "peace in the world"; just eight per cent said its role was negative. But a remarkable 50 per cent of those polled took the view that America now plays a negative role.
John Kerry is leading Americans to expect a turnaround in relations between America and its allies if they elect him on November 2 - a turnaround that he says will help materially to reduce America's commitments in Iraq. The reality is that the good old days of transatlantic amity are, like the divided Berlin of his youth, long gone.
So while Kerry's childhood memories may serve to endear him to American voters, they are no basis for a new American foreign policy.