The United States and Europe: Continental Rift

Power Won't Lead to Victory

Rumsfeld and Franks brief the press
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (L) and Commander in Chief of U.S. Central Command General Tommy Franks brief reporters at the Pentagon, Aug. 15, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Perhaps, to use [British historian] Arnold Toynbee’s expression, “History is on the move again.” This feeling is born out of an observation: U.S. power is at its height, it was galvanized by the Sept. 11 attacks, and the United States is preparing to intervene in the Middle East to overthrow [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein. Its intervention in this already-troubled part of the world will have considerable consequences. In any case, it will justify the title of empire that is ascribed to it—as much by fear as by admiration—with a series of more or less close synonyms: unilateralism, hyper-power, even hegemony.

Europeans experience two feelings about this: the frustration of the former player who has become a powerless spectator, and the disquiet of the person who sees his habits and his neighborhood turned upside down.

The Iraq intervention remains uncertain, of course. Domestic policy, public opinion, and the fall elections may extinguish the warlike ardor. The fears and the reversals that these preparations may cause in the Middle East, the hesitations of the Turks, and the difficulties of the operation itself may turn the Americans away from this project, particularly as it is not certain that their army is adapted to an intervention of this type.

Be that as it may, you understand the European disquiet: The Middle East is close, our oil supply depends on it, and the Arab minorities who live on our continent will not remain unmoved by this conflict. This mixture of frustration and disquiet explains the embarrassment, the reservations, and the criticism of the United States—as much in public opinion as on the part of many European leaders.

In the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, Europe advocated realism and practiced power politics. This school inspired Bismarck, Churchill, and even De Gaulle, who, if he did not have the means for this policy, maintained a nostalgia for it. Now, because they are incapable of giving themselves the necessary military forces to be a world power or, to be more precise, because they favor social and domestic expenditure over military expenditure, the Europeans are reduced to speaking the language of international law and free trade.

If U.S. intervention does take place in Iraq, it will cruelly expose European powerlessness. Europe was in fact the object of the Cold War, and by contributing, even if partially, to its own defense against the U.S.S.R., it believed itself to be, if not the main actor, at least the privileged partner of NATO. The events in the Balkans, the promises of European Union enlargement, and the responsibility exercised in commercial and monetary matters led Europe to believe that it was actually playing a world role. The Europeans, in hastening to proclaim their solidarity with the United States after Sept. 11 and endeavoring to play a role in Afghanistan, wished to prove that they still counted. But no one is taken in by this diplomatic rhetoric. The United States declared that it would now choose the allies it needed à la carte and that it alone would decide what was to be undertaken.

From this standpoint, one may fear that European opinion will diverge from U.S. opinion. You can already clearly see this over Israel. Many leaders in Europe, starting with the British and the French, accept U.S. intervention, because they fear appearing hostile to the United States and, even more, that being marginalized on the international stage would cause a deep gulf between Europe and the United States.

By stripping their thoughts of all resentment and all hypocrisy, Europeans could emphasize the risks of this policy for the United States, above all. This is thinking that is difficult to carry out and even more difficult to express: It has to be recognized that advisers run no risks, particularly as there persists in Europe a strange feeling of intellectual superiority over Americans, for which one wonders what the justification can be. Who has not heard the exchange between statesmen according to which the Americans are “very young and not very wise”? A surprising remark if you consider the history of the 20th century and the suicidal confrontations of the old nations of Europe.

There are enough experts, shrewd diplomats, and realistic politicians in the United States to weigh the risks of an intervention and an extended U.S. presence in the Middle East. After all, if you had told a European in 1910 that the question of the balance of powers, which had been pondered in Europe for five centuries, would be settled by two interventions by the United States followed by a permanent presence of its troops, you would have provoked downright hilarity. But, having admitted all that, there is one thing that the Europeans do know and can put forward without presumptuousness: It is that power does not necessarily lead to victory.

In tackling the Middle East, the Americans link together and wish to resolve several problems: the Iraqi regime’s armaments, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, religious passion, Arab resentment, the unequal sharing of oil revenue, and the archaic nature of the monarchies of the Gulf. They think that in the long term, democracy, law, trade, and peace will be able to reign in the Middle East as elsewhere.

As soon as they wish to play that role, the questions come thick and fast. How does a modern democracy that is subject to public opinion govern an empire? How does an army whose strength is based on technology overcome terrorism? How do you bear losses of men and maintain lasting commitments from election to election? You choose your enemies, and you take the enemies of your enemies as your friends. Again, you have to weigh the consequences of these dubious alliances for the Chechens or for the Kurds.

More generally, is it politic to speak solely the language of force and to forget international law? Is it prudent, when you have helped create the principal international institutions, to undermine their foundations? And finally, when you prepare for a lightning victory on the ground: Have you properly gauged the conditions of a political success over the medium and long term?