The bitter standoff between the Bush administration and three longtime European allies over Iraq war plans continued for a third day Wednesday, as France, Germany and Belgium rejected the United States' scaled-down request that NATO prepare to defend Turkey from an attack by Saddam Hussein.
The argument is largely symbolic, and the U.S. has promised to bolster Turkish defenses without the blessing of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if necessary. But the division over Iraq is so stark and so deep that some analysts say it could precipitate the rise of a new world order in which Europe acts as an independent power to check and contain the U.S.
Stresses in the alliance have been growing since last fall, when European leaders and Bush administration moderates prevailed in getting the U.S. to take its case against Iraq to the United Nations. The latest conflict, however, is widely seen as the worst in the 53-year history of NATO and a defining moment in the post-Cold War era.
Europe and the U.S. have weathered past conflicts, and no one expects the alliance to end anytime soon. For now, European governments remain divided on the war. But grassroots opposition to the war is so strong that it is endangering leaders who back the U.S. effort -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for instance, and Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. And in the longer term, some analysts say, opposition to the U.S. as a solo superpower could create favorable conditions for a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis that would reshape global relations for years to come.
"For a long time, only France was proposing to use the European Union as a counterweight to the United States," says Georgetown University professor Charles Kupchan, who served as a foreign policy advisor in the Clinton administration. "Today, that idea has been adopted by virtually everyone ... This generation [of Europeans] believes it's important to have a European voice on the global stage."
And, Kupchan warns, "if America is perceived less and less as a munificent power, and more and more as a predatory power, the risks of 'hard' competition will increase."
The immediate crisis was provoked Monday, when the three countries -- with strong backing from Russia -- charged that the U.S. move on Turkey's behalf was designed to undermine peace efforts. It has been exacerbated by a new French-led effort to triple the number of weapons inspectors in Iraq and, according to some reports, to put peace-keeping troops in the country. The argument has featured an unusual display of public acrimony among leaders whose countries have been allied since the end of World War II.
"It's clear that if NATO had accepted the American demands, we would already have entered a logic of war without a U.N. mandate," Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt declared on Monday. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell answered that the decision by France, Germany and Belgium to veto NATO deployment in Turkey was "inexcusable," and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the opposition a "disgrace."
To many in Europe, the Bush administration seems to care little -- or not at all -- if it is perceived as a Wild West Lone Ranger who has morphed into an insensitive 21st century hyper-power. In fact, many signals suggest that the U.S. recognizes the divisions within modern Europe and will not hesitate to exploit them.
Emerging victorious from the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and galvanized into action by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has made clear that it will act unilaterally and preemptively, if need be, to protect and advance American interests. But from the European grass roots to its halls of power, that position has frightened and incensed those who believe that working within multilateral governing bodies like the United Nations or the European Union is essential to resolving global disputes.
Robert Kagan, a journalist, author and former U.S. diplomat, makes the case that U.S.-Europe relations are dictated by one fundamental principle: Europeans, he argues in his new book "Of Paradise and Power," are guided by the ideal of perpetual peace, which implies a desire to settle disputes not by military power but by law, consensual politics, negotiation and cooperation. The United States, on the other hand, sees a chaotic, more Hobbesian world, in which it imposes a liberal order by the threat -- and sometimes by the use -- of blunt force. Europe may indeed want a more multilateral world, Kagan says, but isn't attempting to create a "countervailing power."
Conservative pundits in the U.S. have generally embraced that view; so has much of the Bush administration, no doubt reinforced by the Republicans' midterm electoral sweep. But that means they've failed to see, or have ignored, the desire of a growing segment of Western European society to break from the U.S. sphere of influence.
On issues ranging from the death penalty to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, from the creation of the International Criminal Court to the imminent invasion of Iraq, the European establishment is at odds with Washington. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have been marching through the streets of European cities in a popular upwelling against a new war with Iraq -- the most visible manifestation of a massive grassroots phenomenon that has been gaining momentum. European leaders, no matter what their views on Iraq, are increasingly concerned that they are being perceived by a new generation of constituents as subordinated to U.S. imperatives.
Concerned about their own loss of international clout and fearful of an eroding political base at home, European leaders like German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have pulled away from the superpower that helped restore Europe after World War II and protected the continent during the Cold War. France and many of the other core E.U. states have begun to radically rethink their military dependence on the United States and their commitment to NATO as the organization best suited to defend Europe. That revolutionary notion, while probably latent even before the election of George W. Bush, has gained widespread acceptance in recent months.
In September, France officially declared itself "the defining power" behind the yet-to-be-created European Rapid Reaction Force (it will provide 20 percent of the funding). The European force would be able to mobilize 60,000 troops, hundreds of fighter jets, and dozens of battleships. The French nuclear aircraft carrier Charles-de-Gaulle, the only one of its class in Europe, would serve as an operational and logistical platform.
In November, France used its position as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to leverage the U.S. into acceptance of Resolution 1441. The resolution established a two-step process for any military action against Iraq, though the two sides disagree over whether a second vote by the council is ultimately needed.
French historian Patrice Higonnet, now a Harvard professor, has never been known for anti-American views. But in a Op-Ed piece published recently in the left-leaning French daily Liberation, he expressed a withering frustration with the Bush administration and suggested Europe had no choice but to step out of the U.S. sphere. "Europe, sooner or later, will have to separate from this new America," he wrote. "It would be best to do it audaciously, firmly, and with dignity."
Failure to do so, he suggested, meant that France must "collaborate" with a "gun-toting, arrogant, imperial, racist, opportunistic, politically manipulative, conspiratorial" United States epitomized by the Bush administration.
But while the confrontational methods of the Bush administration have squandered much, if not all, of the sympathy engendered by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there is still no universal opposition to a U.S.-led war against Iraq, even in France. Instead, many critics expressly oppose only a war dictated by the United States outside the bounds of the United Nations. Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of the prestigious newspaper Le Monde, has argued that the "Bush factor" is merely contextual and shouldn't erase the long history of cooperation between France and the United States.
"We cannot remain prisoners of the 'war-antiwar' dilemma," he wrote in an editorial last week. "And for that to occur, we must rise above a simplistic negative reaction to the American attitude. That's the basic problem of Europe in general, and France in particular. What is the strategic doctrine the Europeans would oppose to the preventive war America is calling for?"
The Franco-German plan of beefing up inspections, while giving inspectors more time to determine whether Iraq actually possesses weapons of mass destruction, seems to answer that question. Unlike Germany, France has never said it opposed a war on principle, and there has been no effort by any mainstream media outlet or politician to paint Saddam Hussein in anything but a negative light.
But the United States, pushing an urgent timetable for war, seems uninterested in such subtleties. If France and Germany will not support the coalition, White House hawks suggest, then the U.S. will isolate them and undermine their heavyweight status within the E.U. by turning to other European allies. The eight-nation declaration of support for the Euro-U.S. bond is seen as illustrative of this strategy -- and has made French President Jacques Chirac furious. He considered the statement a machination of the Bush administration, and a personal affront.
"Chirac thought he could well have signed that letter, as it did not explicitly mention war," a source close to the French leader told Salon. "He wasn't consulted and felt the administration was deliberately attempting to isolate France. He was not amused."
White House hawks did not seem especially concerned about his pique. Richard Perle, interviewed Sunday night on CNN, stated that "overreaching by France" and "German pacifism" would lead to a strengthening of U.S. ties with other European countries that are "unsatisfied" with the Franco-German tandem -- and particularly with the new Eastern bloc members of NATO. Currently, the U.S. has the backing of the U.K., Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Within Europe, there has always existed a split between nations who think of European unity basically in terms of the traditional transatlantic alliance with the United States, and the federalists who want to increase the degree of European unity as well as the degree of autonomy with regard to America. Traditionally, the balance has been in favor of the federalist faction, but with the E.U. spreading eastward, the balance could tip in favor of the "Atlantists," who have yet to adhere to the concept of strong Europe independent from the United States. The Eastern European nations look to America for leadership rather than to France or Germany.
The Bush administration seems to be assuming that the divisions in Europe will grow deeper before they get begin to close. The letter signed by the "European 8" in favor of strong cooperation with Washington could undermine the development of the E.U. as a political entity. The new European constitution will call, in particular, for the election of a European foreign minister who will present a "common position" on issues of diplomacy and defense, based on a majority vote. But with countries like Hungary, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic now E.U. members or about to become E.U. members, that prospect seems increasingly illusory. The Franco-German tandem is going to find it more challenging to mold the E.U. into a more federalist entity with a coherent foreign policy and an independent military.
"It's going to take a while for these countries to feel part of the European family, and not Euro-Atlantic," one French diplomat conceded in an interview.
One result of the emerging split within Europe could be the consolidation of an axis among Bonn, Paris, and Moscow. If that were a reliable alliance, it would exert a powerful gravity on the rest of Europe, perhaps extending all the way to China. Such a coalition would prove a formidable challenge to any U.S. administration.
In the near term, however, conditions within the alliance will be volatile, with the scales tipping tentatively toward Europe. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud has called on Europe, and France in particular, to start playing a bigger role in the Middle East. That could breed more conflict with the U.S., which is generally more pro-Israel than Europe. Saudi Arabia this month signaled that it wants U.S. troops out after the Iraq campaign is completed. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., announced during a trip to Europe last Friday that U.S. troops stationed in Germany would probably be deployed elsewhere, perhaps permanently.
The major problem with the current White House gambit is that popular opposition to a U.S.-led strike against Iraq outside the aegis of a new U.N. resolution has become overwhelming in virtually all of Western Europe. In Great Britain, Spain and Italy, opposition fluctuates between 77 percent and 98 percent. Saturday's scheduled antiwar demonstrations, which observers predict will dwarf anything previously seen in Europe, are likely to provide Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with the strongest indication yet that granting unconditional support to America will likely have significant long-term political ramifications.
Within his own Labour Party, Tony Blair is facing potentially crippling opposition over his policy of open support for the United States. Two high-ranking officials from his government have threatened to resign if the Blair goes to war without a second U.N. resolution. Clare Short, the International Development secretary, has stated that waging war without another resolution would be unacceptable.
According to Hans-Ulrich Joerges, a prominent German political analyst, Chancellor Schroeder likewise sees popular revolt as the force behind Europe's declaration of independence. This, Joerges says, is Schroeder's hope: "The most important allies, Tony Blair included, spurn the United States because people would otherwise turn their backs on them. The conflict becomes the birthing hour of European unity. NATO and the United Nations are democratized. The Old Continent becomes a world power."
Because of financial considerations and internal divisions, it is doubtful that Europe will become a powerhouse anytime soon. France's military ambitions are already creating a huge national deficit, putting it at odds with official E.U. dictates to achieve a balanced budget by 2004. Whether or not the present crisis is resolved, though, George Bush's brand of power politics has clearly convinced much of Europe that it must set off on a different course, however uncertain.