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U.S., Europe Bound to Disagree

Author: Michael Mandelbaum, Christian Herter Professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
February 7, 2003


The debate over what to do about Saddam Hussein has exposed what seems to be a wide rift between the United States and its traditional allies in Europe, with the American government moving toward war to disarm Iraq and Europeans energetically opposing the use of force.

The trans-Atlantic discord raises three questions: First, how deep is the gulf between Europe and the United States? Second, why do Americans and Europeans see the problem that Iraq presents differently? And, third, what do these differences portend for international politics and American foreign policy in the 21st century?

European-American differences should not be exaggerated. Attitudes toward war against Iraq are not monolithic in either case. On the one hand, the governments of Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have all expressed support of one kind or another for military action to disarm Iraq. On the other, support for war is hardly unanimous in the United States. American pundits and politicians echo many of the reservations heard on the other side of the Atlantic.

Still, there is no doubt that opposition to war is stronger in Europe. The reason has to do with geography and geopolitics. On issues of security the European countries concern themselves, on the whole, only with Europe. They are regional powers, and since 1945 their region has, fortunately, been a zone of peace. With the exception of the wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, a place distant from the concerns of most Europeans, negotiations and compromise have resolved all intra-European disputes for more than 50 years. The countries of Europe have lost the habit of thinking seriously about war.

The United States, by contrast, is a global power. It operates in parts of the world, notably the Mideast, where negotiation, compromise and peace do not prevail. America has to play by the local rules to protect its interests in places like the Mideast, and so finds war a more plausible policy than the Europeans do. Because the Europeans see no need to go to war to protect their interests, they have not invested in the means to do so. And because they lack usable military forces, they do not want important international issues to be settled by the use of force, for that would reduce their own influence.

While the disinclination to go to war affects European countries in general, France and Germany have their own particular reasons for opposing an American-led war against Iraq. French opposition is based on nationalism. The French see it as their national mission to exert as much influence as possible on international affairs and for 40 years, since the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, their chief method of doing so has been constantly to criticize and occasionally to obstruct American initiatives.

The German position on the war stems from a strain of pacifism in German public opinion, itself a legacy of the disastrously aggressive German foreign policies in the first half of the 20th century. Finding himself in a precarious political position before last year's general election, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came out in opposition to war against Iraq as a way of mobilizing pacifist sentiment on behalf of his own electoral prospects. The tactic succeeded, he was re-elected, and he reiterated his anti-war stance in anticipation of regional elections held last weekend, in which his party did badly.

In the coming weeks France, at least, may well move closer to the American position on Iraq. French and European opinion may be moved by Secretary of State Colin Powell's powerful presentation of evidence of Iraqi noncompliance with UN disarmament resolutions. And, if war does come, the French will not wish to be relegated to the sidelines, which would make them, in global terms, precisely what they least wish to be: irrelevant. But the trans-Atlantic differences over Iraq do offer a preview of what is likely to be a prominent pattern in 21st-century international relations.

With the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the common enemy that bound them together, the members of the Western alliance will disagree more and more among themselves. These disagreements within the trans-Atlantic community of democracies will be very much like the familiar disagreements within democratic countries in two important ways, both reflected in the Iraq debate.

First, just as the current dispute concerns what to do about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and not whether he ought to have them, so the community of democracies, like individuals and political parties within democracies, will disagree not about what to do but rather about how to accomplish commonly accepted goals. Second, disputes among democracies, as within democracies and as in the case of Iraq, will be conducted on the unspoken but unchallenged premise that no matter how deep the differences are, they will be resolved by compromise, or by agreeing to disagree, but never by the democratic countries going to war against each other.

Michael Mandelbaum, author of The Ideas That Conquered the World, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of American foreign policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

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