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Into the breach
The Bush administration’s drive toward war with Iraq is pushing our European allies away

WASHINGTON, DC — A dry-erase sign advertising the daily specials outside a K Street restaurant in downtown Washington, DC, summed up one powerful strain of American sentiment this week: first iraq, then france.

The sign could just as well have said "Germany" or "Belgium." Perhaps cooler heads will prevail before angry mobs sack Au Bon Pain — or re-enact the Boston Tea Party with cases of Beck’s lager and Chimay Lambic.

Just don’t trust those heads to belong to people in the Bush administration or the US Congress. The steady stream of anti-Europe invective from President George W. Bush and others in the White House has continued apace. Members of Congress, according to the Washington Post, have already started talking about enacting trade sanctions and putting health labels on French wine and bottled water. Moving the large numbers of US troops (over 70,000) now based in Germany to other locales is also a hot topic at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

Don’t trust those cooler heads to be found among the media, either. European author Timothy Garton Ash’s article "Anti-Europeanism in America," published in the February 13 issue of the New York Review of Books, offered an astounding array of poison darts launched from our side of the pond with which to pester the "Euroids" or "Euroweenies" — for whom one author predicted a "slip down the Eurinal of history."

Yet the noisy (and, dare one say, "über-chic") anti-European fireworks found in Beltway corridors and on US cable-television shoutfests drown out what Europeans actually think about the growing US projection of global power. Unlike the simplistic division of the continent into "old" and "new" Europe preferred by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the European view of the overall transatlantic dip in relations — and how to deal with Iraq — is highly diverse and complex.

That diversity, in fact, extends even to views of how seriously the Iraq flap between the US (and the United Kingdom) and the four European nations that have openly broken from the quick march to war (France, Germany, Belgium, and Russia) will affect overall transatlantic relations.

Radek Sikorski — who served as a high-level Polish cabinet official in the 1990s — is the executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative (NAI) at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. In keeping with the NAI’s goal of "strengthening Atlantic cooperation," Sikorski argues that "what unites Europe and America is much greater than what divides them." The public show of support for the US position by a number of European nations (both "old" ones such as Italy and Spain and "new" countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic), he observes, is one sign of overarching unity.

"America has friends in Europe," Sikorski observes. He also believes that the US should stand by its European friends, even if France and Germany attempt to punish those friends in other forums for their dissent on Iraq. Asked about the probability that such punitive action will follow, Sikorski says, "That might be. And America should use that opportunity to show that it stands with them — and that it pays to be a friend of the United States. They need to feel that support."

Other observers see a deeper and more fundamental breach in transatlantic relations. John Palmer is the political director of the European Policy Center — a Brussels-based think tank devoted to analysis of the European Union. He sees the breach between the US and Europe over Iraq policy as "serious," yet symptomatic of a larger gap opening across the Atlantic that has been exacerbated by the Bush administration.

"There is a growing distance between the EU as a whole and the United States under the present administration," Palmer argues. "This is partly a consequence of the new strategic doctrines which have been developed by the Bush administration. Linked to that is a growing European alarm at unilateralism in decision-making. And thirdly, there is disagreement about the character of global governance and global rule of law — and the European belief, across the board, that we need structures and legal processes to which all are accountable."

Palmer observes that pre–September 11 acts of Bush-administration unilateralism — including the US’s scrapping of the Kyoto agreement on the environment and its announcement of a decision to pursue missile-defense programs — set the stage for a deepening transatlantic rift. The White House’s repudiation of the International Criminal Court — and its active attempts to undermine the court’s global impact — added pressure even before the drive toward regime change in Iraq began.

"These are issues on which the European Union is entirely agreed — and I think this is as true of London as it is of Paris, Berlin, or Madrid," observes Palmer. "There is a yawning fissure opening up in terms of how we see the world, how we see the role of force projection in the world, and the role of global governance. Linked to that is a somewhat different approach to threat assessment. There are threats. There are common threats. There are real threats. But there is a pretty uniform European belief that the appropriate response to threats has to be modulated as between force, diplomacy, and engagement with the international community."

Palmer argues that this European view extends even to a new war in the Gulf — and explains Great Britain’s desire for yet another UN resolution explicitly authorizing force. "If you take, for instance, Iraq, across the union — and this is all 15 [countries], there is a belief in the priority of positive engagement as opposed to the responses which are associated with the ‘axis of evil.’"

Despite his view of a yawning fissure between Europe and the United States, Palmer agrees that America has friends in Europe. Their advice, however, is something he believes the Bush administration does not want to hear, whether it involves Iraq or dousing the Middle East’s main source of violence — the conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. "The European view is that the US would be making a huge and terrible mistake in going into a war pre-emptively and prematurely," Palmer says. "A huge mistake in terms of its own interests, particularly without there being any evidence of a through strategy to the postwar [situation] — and given the utter failure of the administration to deliver on promised support for the [other three members of the] Quartet [the EU, the UN, and Russia] on the Palestinian peace process. That is a view held by people who are traditionally pro–Atlantic alliance. We’re not talking about radicals or left-wing protesters. One can’t overestimate the depth of European concern and alarm at the drift of [US] policy."

The drift is so acute, believes Palmer, that some of the support lauded by Sikorski may disappear — but it may also be strengthened if the US goes through the UN. "I think if it is a unilateral war, there will be defections to the Franco-German side," Palmer says. "If there is more time for inspections, [British prime minister] Tony Blair will emerge much stronger."

IN A RECENT talk at Georgetown University, French diplomat and scholar Thierry de Montbrial — who now serves as president of the French Institute for International Relations — echoed many of the points made by Palmer. He noted that the "anti-Americanism" so often ascribed to Europe by the US press is focused almost entirely on the policies of the Bush administration.

Montbrial’s talk took on a particularly acerbic tone in relation to the White House’s drive toward war on Iraq — and its potentially destabilizing effect on the war on terrorism. Noting that the Bush administration "will not talk about the root causes of terrorism," Montbrial contrasted the possible exacerbation of terrorism via a new Gulf War with Europe’s experience with terrorism in the 1970s. "The key issue is draining the potential reservoir of terror," Montbrial said. "The reservoir for terrorism in the 1970s in Europe was not refilled."

Yet despite his stark criticisms, Montbrial dismissed notions of anti-Americanism in Europe — and sought to accentuate the positives in future relations. "There is no such thing as anti-Americanism in France," Montbrial stated flatly. He also noted that France and the United States share the trait of holding — and fighting for — universal values such as liberty.

Montbrial was candid in noting that the Iraq war would most likely proceed. After the war, he said, Europeans "should try to minimize the divergences" between the US and Europe. "[Discord is] no good for us or the Americans," Montbrial argued. "We need to minimize diplomatic clashes."

Of course, the current spat over Iraq has exacerbated the weakening of institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), through which such transatlantic policy disputes are debated and resolved. Much of the friction in the past week has centered on a tug of war over NATO's obligations to defend members — and whether an "offensive" war such as a pre-emptive strike against Iraq falls under NATO’s treaty obligations.

Sikorski believes that NATO continues to be a viable institution — and is the "right place" to start repairing the breach. "The lessons for the future that we can take from this are that there needs to be earlier consultation with allies," he says, "and much better public diplomacy."

Institutions such as NATO will also be needed to help coordinate any postwar rebuilding of Iraq. Sikorski and Palmer agree that even recalcitrant nations such as France and Germany will aid in postwar reconstruction. Palmer, however, sees future strains on NATO even in the peace after a war.

"There is probably no way that Europe can avoid involvement in reconstruction," Palmer says. "But there is a view that I’ve heard some Bush-administration ideologues put, which is ‘We fight the wars, they make the peace.’ What [that view] will bring to a head — and not just with France and Germany — is a very serious confrontation within NATO and inside the alliance about the whole division of responsibility. There is a huge vulnerability for a power that seeks to act unilaterally. Europe could not stand back from the responsibility — moral and political — of reconstruction, but I think it would polarize to a further quantum degree the divergence in the basic global-security doctrine between the US and Europe."

Richard Byrne can be reached at richardbyrne1@earthlink.net

Issue Date: February 20 - 27, 2003
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