As American and British forces continue to flock to the Persian Gulf, a stunning global rift is reaching historic proportions. Not since the end of WWII has Germany, one of America's staunchest allies, refused to support the U.S. on a major foreign policy issue. And now, France, which was instrumental in defining the terms of United Nations Resolution 1441, has opted to join the ranks of the "refusal camp," as it is being called here. Both countries in recent days reiterated that they would block the U.S. request for military and logistical support from NATO to prepare for a war with Iraq. Unthinkable a decade ago, such a move could be a sign that old alliances are in for a profound change.
Appearing to catch Colin Powell off guard during a press conference following an anti-terrorism summit at the U.N., French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin lambasted the idea of waging a war on Iraq, saying that "nothing today justifies...military action." The Washington Post called the surprise declaration "the diplomatic equivalent of an ambush," but it was only the expression of the most widely held view in France, where 77 percent of the population opposes a war. In Germany, the percentage is identical. And while the Bush administration has at times placed great weight on Monday's expected report from the U.N. weapons inspection team, it is considered by most European governments as merely an interim stage in the disarmament process. The Middle East, French President Jacques Chirac says, "does not need another war."
As Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, a catalyst in creating the European Union, their positions of opposition to war have come into alignment. Signing a joint political declaration, the two leaders underscored their nations' "common historical responsibility towards serving Europe" by broadening their cooperation on the international level. Henceforth, France and Germany will strive to "adopt common positions within international institutions, including the Security Council." The opposition to a U.S.-led strike on Iraq, fluid until now, has solidified around the Franco-German axis.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the burgeoning rift within NATO and the split between Europe and the U.S. over Iraq. "You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's old Europe," he said. In those comments and in other ways, the Bush administration seemed to be indicating that it was ready to wage war against Iraq without substantial help from the Continent. But Rumsfeld's remarks and similar signals only further incite top officials and members of the public in those countries that already consider the United States and the Bush White House arrogant and impetuous. The Franco-German axis is the motor behind the development and growth of the E.U., and their collective weight is probably greater than that of all other E.U. nations combined. Nations such as Spain and Italy have yet to commit to either the U.S. or the French position regarding Iraq.
At least six members of the 15-member Security Council have adopted the position that the American administration still hasn't made a good case for attacking Iraq and that the inspectors need to be granted substantially more time. Russia and China, also permanent veto-bearing nations, subscribe to that view.
How deep the chasm between the United States and its traditional European allies will get is anyone's guess. For many French and German analysts, there is a clear distinction between the benevolent power the U.S. symbolized to Western Europeans in the last century, and the America of George W. Bush. On the one hand lies the enlightened America of the New Deal, Jimmy Carter, the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton; on the other hand is the confusing, primal United States of the death penalty, powerful corporate interests, Christian fundamentalism and the Bush doctrine. While they still consider Europe to be the ally of the first America, they argue that it should vehemently oppose the second on principle.
Writing in the London Review of Books, Anatol Lieven has put it most bluntly: America, that elder daughter of the Enlightenment, has become "a menace to itself and to the rest of the world."
To find a French equivalent to the present United States government, argues Patrice Higonnet, a professor of French history at Harvard, one would need to go back to Napoleon the Third, the French emperor of the mid-1800s who was a heavy-handed diplomat and whose response to opposition could be ruthless. And to most Europeans, the Bush administration is an anachronism, an archaic throwback to medieval politics. Germany and France believe that the administration, in the words of Laurent Murawiec of the Hudson Institute in Washington, wants to "end the present structure of the entire [Persian Gulf] region, inherited from the Pax Britannica."
"The hawks believe the fundamental source of the woes of the Middle East is the absence of a dominant power over the last 30 years," argues Pascal Riché in the French daily Libération. "Following the Ottoman Empire and the British domination, there was a power vacuum, and the radical hawks [within the Bush administration] suggest that the United States should fill it, even if that means becoming an imperial power."
Clearly, that prospect is unpalatable to France, Germany and Russia, to name only a few. Beyond the potential for regional chaos it would provoke in the Middle East, Western European nations fear a rise in Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism in their own countries. A bilateral U.S.-British strike in the absence of clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and without a resolution specifically authorizing war, would be counterproductive, Villepin argued at the U.N.
The Iraqi imbroglio has crystallized the fears in European public opinion over a U.S.-dominated world. Mainstream Europeans, and not just the tens of thousands of peace activists who have demonstrated daily from Florence to Berlin, want a renegotiation of the global status quo. What is more surprising, however, is that their leaders seem to be embarking on a sweeping effort to achieve just that. Unveiling a draft of the new European constitution in December, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, made it clear that the long-term ambition of Europe should be to compete with the United States politically as well as economically. The draft constitution calls for the elaboration of a common European policy for foreign, defense and security issues, and a much stronger federal backbone for the E.U. -- which will count 26 member-states by 2004, and twice the population of the United States.
France, under the new government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has been particularly brazen in its efforts to build a viable military alternative to the U.S. Its military budget for 2003 has grown by nearly 8 percent, the largest percentage increase since 1987. Topping $33 billion, it still represents less than 10 percent of annual U.S. military spending, but it is a massive amount by European standards.
Writing in Le Monde of the unprecedented increase in France's military budget, the journalist Jacques Isnard put it succinctly: "It's not merely about rebuilding the capacity of the French army: The effort is geostrategic in nature." Chirac is actively exhorting other European heads of state to get on the bandwagon and increase their own military spending, so that France's vision of a multilateral world can one day come to pass.
The Bush administration's "regressive nationalism" abandons "dissuasion in favor of preemption" and "permanent alliances in favor of ad hoc coalitions," military analyst Nicholas Baverez argues in Le Monde. "This doctrine implies the disappearance of an automatic American engagement in the case of a menace on Europe's security. Thus, the United States, previously a guarantor of the status quo, is now reinforcing global instability, and the Middle East is an example of that."
Spurred by France and Germany, the European Union could well be on the verge of one of these sporadic revolutions that have defined its complex, unpredictable evolution. Imagined in the aftermath of WWII as an economic and political union that would prevent future wars between the European greats, the question of rebuilding the military might of Europe has long remained taboo. The fall of the Soviet empire only comforted the notion that Europe didn't need to be a military powerhouse, as there was nothing to defend against, and countries gladly capitalized on the "peace dividend" by reducing chronic deficits while continuing to provide "welfare state" benefits to their citizenry. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, however, engendered a new paradigm.
"September 11th, by revealing the nature of the risks faced, and by the radical reorientation of American diplomacy and strategy it provoked, obliterated the illusions of European nations concerning the peace dividend and their own security policies," argues Le Monde.
It'll be a long time yet, however, before Europe creates a new world order, and in the interim international institutions such as NATO and the U.N. Security Council are in for a rough ride.