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July 12, 2011
 by Steven Hill

ANATOMY OF A TRANSATLANTIC RIFT: AMERICA VS. FRANCE AT THE UN, AND THE CLASH OVER GEOPOLITICAL SECURITY...With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the skirmish between the United States and France in 2003 at the United Nations over Iraq was more than just a Cain and Abel episode between two erstwhile allies. It was a titanic clash over two different visions -- unilateralism vs. multilateralism -- for how the global security system should work.

On February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed a plenary session of the United Nations Security Council to argue in favor of military action against Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in Iraq. Putting his considerable reputation as a soldier and statesman on the line, and employing his persuasive slideshow with visuals purporting to show mobile production facilities for biological weapons, Powell cited “numerous” anonymous Iraqi defectors and asserted that “there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more.” Powell also stated that there was “no doubt in my mind” that Saddam was working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons.

On that day I had given a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and I remember watching Powell’s testimony with a professor who, moved by Secretary Powell’s riveting PowerPoint and personal conviction, shook his head and remarked grimly, “That’s it then, we have no choice. We must go to war to stop this thug [Saddam].”

While Powell’s testimony had been persuasive to most Americans, it had not been so persuasive to most of Europe, nor to most of the world. Nine days later, France’s Foreign Minister, Dominique Marie François Rene Galouzeau de Villepin -- yes those French aristocrats do have long names -- mounted the U.N. podium, a striking figure with his white, leonine mane and patrician bearing, his square, chiseled chin and trademark florid eloquence on display. Villepin, a diplomat, author and poet, highbred in France’s elite grandes ecoles who was later to fumble badly in his own bid to become France’s president, rode the wings of a quintessentially French brand of righteousness to spearhead a global plea: that the U.N weapons inspectors be given more time to search for weapons of mass destruction. His retort to Powell turned out to be prophetic.

“The use of force would be so fraught with risks for people, for the region and for international stability that it should only be envisioned as a last resort...Would not such intervention be liable to exacerbate the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism? Let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace…”

It was the soldier versus the poet, with war or peace hanging in the balance. The Karl Rove-Fox News public relations machine launched a frontal attack on France and other foot dragging Europeans. They were labeled ungrateful, cowards, hypocrites and “old Europe” in a fit of sandbox play that undermined any attempts at diplomacy. The U.S. followed this by threatening trade reprisals and bugging the U.N. headquarters of key allies whose votes they were trying to win at the Security Council, presaging the “ends justify the means” mentality that later would result in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, waterboarding, kidnappings, the suspension of the Geneva Conventions, wiretapping and civil liberties violations in the U.S.

Today, we know that the poet was right and the soldier was wrong. Powell had misled the world, and his country, into a war based on manipulated facts, outright fabrications and failed military intelligence. We Americans have never been able to admit that France was right and the United States was wrong, and France to this day fills the role of punching bag for patriots. Yet after he had resigned from the Bush administration, Powell himself was to call his UN speech a “blot” on his record. “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world,” he said, “and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”

Powell’s "painful" episode was the first of many that ricocheted with blowback, striking self-inflicted hits against the U.S.S America. Violations of the norms of decency, even in a time of war, became the ammo for the world's autocrats to take aim at, not America the country, the home front, but at the idea of America itself. They didn't aim at the heartland in the form of more 9-11 type attacks, instead they aimed at America's values and what Old Glory had stood for in the post-World War II era. The Bush administration’s bending of the rules was all the more shocking to Europeans, since they thought they had learned their own valuations of international law and human rights at the paternal knee of Uncle Sam.

In retrospect the skirmish in 2003 between the U.S. and France at the U.N. revealed that, fourteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Way of foreign policy had become not only boldly assertive but also strikingly different from the American Way. While some European governments joined the Bush administration’s “coalition of the willing,” the populations all across the continent mounted massive protests, even in the coalition countries. The formerly warring tribal nations of Europe had learned a thing or two about how to advance -- patiently -- peace, democracy, prosperity and sustainability, with military intervention as the last resort. The Bush administration failed to grasp that Europe’s history of bloody militarism and total destruction in previous centuries gave the European public and most of its leaders a very different perspective on these matters. Ignoring the European historical experience made as much sense as ignoring the events of September 11 in understanding American behavior.

Military intervention is a last resort for Europe not because Europe doesn’t possess significant military capability compared to its potential enemies (European nations, in aggregate, have the second largest military force in the world after the US, including two nations with nuclear weapons, France and Britain, as well as advanced weaponry like tanks, jets and other military hardware), or because Europe always is opposed to military force. The E.U. is not pacifist. After all, the United States led and Europe followed behind to intervene with great force in the Balkans just a few years before the September 11 attacks, with support from even the formerly pacifist German Green Party. They saw with horror the ghosts of their fascist past return in the fields of Srebrenica, the site of the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II with an estimated 8000 Bosniak men and boys murdered by Serb-allied thugs. The Europeans, having survived the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the 20th century, are not averse to principled interventions and military operations, as the presence of European troops in Afghanistan and the British and French actions in Libya in the spring of 2011 show.

No, Europe’s smart power is based more on principle than impotence: a continent of nations that spent centuries warring among themselves has learned a thing or two about the severe limitations of state violence, as well as the benefits of a regional prosperity that derives from steady economic growth among neighbors that is not interrupted by destructive wars. So Europe has based its foreign policy on the tools of investment, trade and Marshall plan-like aid, which it dispenses more of than any other place in the world, including the United States.

This is a new horizon, a watershed in human history, that a great power of the magnitude of the European Union should base its foreign policy so substantially on the principles of nonviolence and fostering "peace and prosperity partnerships" in its region. The advent of peaceful social capitalists who spread prosperity and security in concentric rings of connectivity that touch two billion lives living in the Eurosphere -- not only Europe itself, but the many nations on its geographic periphery or that trade with it -- is a momentous shift, unprecedented in its scope. The rise of an economic power that does not combine it with an imperial use of military power -- indeed, seems to have little desire to do so and to some degree defines itself by this lack of desire -- may be a historical first.

It is difficult for most Americans, fed by media stereotypes about "old Europe" and stuck along with their political leaders in the warring quagmires of Iraq, Afghanistan and increasingly Pakistan, to grasp the enormity of what European foreign policy has accomplished among formerly communist dictatorships, Turkey, and elsewhere. While Europe certainly has a smaller military stick than America, its very success with its smart power and America’s recent failures with its hard power raise a legitimate question about the best tactics in this post-Cold War, multipolar world. For all the talk of the United States as the world’s lone remaining superpower, the past decade of foreign policy stumbles have demonstrated the limits of that power.

Given the deep and historical roots of its foreign policy, Europe is extremely unlikely either to spend more of its economic wealth on increasing its military power or to take a more aggressive military posture toward Russia, Iran, China, or the Middle East, despite pressures to do so by American political leaders and critics. President Barack Obama, like the Bush administration, has stated that he wants Europe to step up and shoulder more of the responsibility for the world’s security, but that receives a head scratch from most Europeans. They believe they already are doing their fair share, as they have defined that task, and Europe is wary of joining the United States in its military misadventures. President Obama promised a new multilateralism and more consultation with allies, yet in early 2009, barely months in office, he chose to escalate the war in Afghanistan and send in more troops and to widen drone strikes inside Pakistan beyond even Bush administration targets, all without consultation. Then he was disappointed when Europe rejected his request for more troops in Afghanistan. Like President Bush, Obama apparently does not understand that Europe has a different strategic assessment of these matters. Nor does he grasp that, in the absence of a more direct and imminent threat, Europe is reluctant to spend more on its military and less on its domestic needs, lest it risk underfunding its people, its infrastructure, and its future—becoming more like the United States, in other words.

It’s not that Europe doesn’t understand what is at stake in Afghanistan, Iran or the war on terror, as some American critics have charged. But Europe is looking for a partner across the Atlantic that is willing to be a power among peers instead of a messianic hero that regards itself as the “indispensable nation,” as Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called the United States. Europe has its own way of doing things, and the European approach to foreign policy has been extremely successful in the regions in which it has been applied. While it’s true that Europe’s smart power does not always achieve its desired result, at least not in the short term, neither does America’s hard power. Indeed, a September 2008 intelligence forecast written by the top analyst in the U.S. intelligence community concluded that superior U.S. military power will “be the least significant” asset in an increasingly competitive world that is being reshaped by globalization, climate change, and shortages of food, water, and energy. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seconded this view when he said that the Bush administration’s foreign policy risked “creeping militarization” by focusing too many resources on the Pentagon and not enough on U.S. diplomacy and international aid.

In retrospect, then, the clash at the United Nations over the invasion of Iraq was not merely between two nations, the United States and France—it was over the direction of the geopolitical future. The world needs to invent a new security model based on open, free-trading societies that feed from economic and political webs of interconnectedness and concentric rings of partnership and development, instead of on the model that has prevailed in the postwar era, namely, the big kid on the block with massive military might policing the smaller kids. While some criticisms of Europe’s foreign policy have been valid, the value of Europe’s smart power diplomacy has been underestimated. Europe does sometimes punch below its weight, as former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has said, when it comes to wielding a military threat, but that has never been the source of Europe’s power and there seems little reason to change that. Indeed, its very success with its smart power, combined with the United States’ failures with its hard power, should be a wake-up call. In light of the ineffectiveness of America’s unilateralist hammer approach, the world is looking for a different style of leadership during an era when the direction over the essential policies as well as values needed for survival in the twenty-first century seems more crucial than ever.

Steven Hill 5:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks
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