Europe's dilemmas

Print edition : September 14, 2002

The United States would like the Europeans to show more stomach for its proposed war on Iraq. Europe's response has been incoherent: Italy and Spain seem to favour a U.S. strike, France and Germany seek legitimacy for an attack and Britain's stand has been ambiguous.

WITH the United States upping the ante in its rhetoric against Iraq, the question is no longer, "Will President Bush attack Iraq?" but "when" he will do so.

European observers are watching the fortunes of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as a weather-vane. "His is the sole voice of reason within this administration. If he falls, and hawks like Vice-President Dick Cheney or Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld take over completely, we'll know the end game has begun," a senior official of the European Union (E.U.) said.

French President Jaques Chirac (right) and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Germany and France have said that the U.S. failed to provide proof of Saddam Hussein's intention to wage war against the West and Israel using weapons of mass destruction.-CHRISTIAN CHARISIUS/REUTERS

Initially, Cheney and Rumsfeld waxed eloquent about Saddam Hussein's evil intentions, implicitly ruling out another United Nations Security Council Resolution that would force the Iraqi leader to admit U.N. weapons inspectors. Then Colin Powell changed the tune, saying that Iraq must accept the unconditional return of UN weapons inspectors. Military sources say the window of opportunity for an attack against Iraq lies between November and February. Will the Bush administration be able to wait that long?

"At the moment, we feel we're sitting on a diplomatic see-saw. It's got to do with whose lips you are reading - Powell's or Cheney's and Rumsfeld's. There is so much dissension within the administration, and such a cacophony of views and prescriptions that it is not easy. In all this, President Bush has remained silent and sphinx-like, allowing his lieutenants to test the waters of world opinion for him," the E.U. official said.

Most Europeans, however, feel that the U.S. has made up its mind to attack, and in European capitals there has been a flurry of consultations over how the E.U. should respond to a unilateral strike by the U.S. At a time when the U.S. is desperately seeking to get at least a few major E.U. nations on its side, there is every likelihood of Italy and Spain breaking ranks in support of Washington.

Europe's response so far has been incoherent. Britain started off by expressing full support for U.S. plans to invade Iraq. But pressure from his own countrymen and particularly the party he heads, as well as his peers in the European leadership forced British Prime Minister Tony Blair to adopt a relatively more ambiguous position. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw insisted that the return of arms inspectors to Iraq would mean a significant change. In Johannesburg, where he was attending the Earth Summit, Blair played his cards close to his chest and refused to say whether he would support an unprovoked U.S. attack against Iraq. Italy and Spain, headed by hardline conservative Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi and Jose Maria Aznar respectively, are likely to favour strikes by Washington. Both Aznar and Berlusconi are ardent personal admirers of George Bush and favour tough, repressive methods to deal with not just terrorism but criminality, juvenile delinquency and even industrial action.

Germany and France opposed U.S. plans to invade Iraq - the Germans much more firmly than the French - saying that the U.S. failed to provide proof of Saddam's alleged intention to wage a war against the West and Israel using weapons of mass destruction. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder firmly stated that his country would not be party to an attack against Iraq and that he would withdraw German forces stationed in Kuwait. (Germany is due to go to the polls on September 22.)

France took a more nuanced position. Not once, for instance, did it refer to the U.S. directly while speaking of Iraq. French President Jacques Chirac said, "the emergence of a temptation to legitimise unilateral and preventive use of force" is a "worrying" development. He said this unilateralism was contrary to France's vision of collective security, which was based on cooperation between states, respect of the law and the authority of the U.N. Security Council.

"We shall invoke these rules when necessary and notably in connection with Iraq. If Baghdad stubbornly refuses the return of inspectors, the Security Council and it alone should decide what measures to take," Chirac said.

However, Chirac's Foreign Minister and close confidant Dominique de Villepin, fearing U.S. accusations of appeasement, softened France's stance by saying that Saddam Hussein's defiance of the international community was "indefensible". He said: "We Europeans know too well the price of weakness in the face of dictators. We should therefore maintain our demand for the unconditional return of U.N. inspectors with the greatest firmness." France is keeping its options open, reassuring Arab, north African and West Asian countries with which it has traditionally cordial ties, of continued support, while telling Washington that it shares U.S. fears about terrorism and the threats posed by Iraq.

The Europeans, particularly the French and the Germans, stress the need for legitimacy for such an attack, which they believe will come from as broad an international coalition as possible and with the approval and involvement of the U.N. By distancing themselves from the U.S. on this issue, the Europeans are also seeking to buy some insurance from any future attacks by West Asian Islamic terrorists.

The quarrel over whether or not to invade Iraq is just one in a long string of differences that have been pulling Europe and the U.S. apart. The Europeans are upset over the U.S.' "cowboy approach to politics where might is fight is right," and where the world's only superpower arrogates to itself the right to break treaties, go back on its word and overrule its allies. The decisions to subsidise its own farmers and steel-makers (while decrying such subsidies in Europe and the developing world), scuttle the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, reject the Kyoto Protocol and demand immunity from war crimes charges for its own peacekeeping troops have ignited deep anger in Europe.

IN a perceptive paper on U.S.-European relations, conservative U.S. thinker Robert Kagan contends that this divergence is a reflection of the present power equation between the two. That Europeans opt for negotiations, legal instruments, diplomacy, tact, guile, in short the carrot method, because they are weak, while the U.S. "behaves as powerful nations do", is resulting in differing and sometimes conflicting assessments of threats and the proper means of addressing them.

Europe grouses about U.S.' economic and military might, its own strategic centrality having faded with the fall of the Berlin Wall. If Europe has been unable to emerge as a true counterweight to the U.S., it is because the Europeans plumped for the soft option. Since the 1990s, European defence budgets have shrunk to less than 2 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product). Europe, as proved by the hostilities in the Balkans and later in Serbia over Kosovo, was incapable of sustaining a fighting force within its own boundaries, let alone elsewhere.

Kagan argues that Europe has abdicated its defence options to the U.S. by accepting U.S. domination of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and is guilty of over half a century of freeloading. "Rather than viewing the collapse of the Soviet Union as an opportunity to flex global muscles, Europeans took it as an opportunity to cash in on a sizeable peace dividend." Despite talk of establishing Europe as a global superpower, he says, European military capabilities steadily fell behind those of the U.S.

Europe can, in fact, talk of multilateralism and respect for international law because its security concerns are met by the Atlantic Alliance. Kagan accuses Europe of rank opportunism. "Europeans oppose unilateralism because they have no capacity for unilateralism," he says. "For Europeans the appeal to multilateralism and international law has a real practical payoff and little cost."

Since 1992, when the E.U. opted for integration and a single currency, it has been struggling to establish a common foreign and defence policy. In Kagan's view, if Europe were saddled with the cost of its own defence, its propensity for the soft approach, for cajoling and lengthy negotiations would drop severely, in direct proportion to the increase in its power. This, however, is not inevitable. Unilateral action need not be the inevitable corollary of strength, as Wilsonian doctrine has attempted to show in the past and as Europe itself, an economic if not political superpower, is attempting to prove by opting for legal international instruments rather than force.

The U.S. would like the Europeans to show more stomach, if not a positive appetite, for its proposed war on Iraq. Europe, however, finds itself in a dilemma, indulging in some of the worst fence-sitting in its post-War history. Despite its avowed distaste for human rights abuses, it maintains cordial ties and carries on a brisk trade with some of the worst dictatorships in the Arab world, while dishing out sermons to others in the developing world who are not as important to its survival. Europe accounts for 38 per cent of the Arab world's exports. Sixty per cent of these consist of oil and gas, and the figure is likely to triple by 2020. Clearly, Europe, more dependent on Arab oil than the U.S., cannot risk such a situation.

Nor can Europe risk annoying the U.S. altogether, for one of the fears dominant on the old continent is that of U.S. disengagement from NATO. Although Europe sincerely believes in the importance of renewed engagement to resolve regional problems such as Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is unlikely that the Europeans will take measures to counter an illegal invasion of Iraq, whether in the U.N. Security Council or through other bilateral or multilateral means.

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