America, Europe and the War on Terror: Where is the Threat?

Since the fall of Baghdad, transatlantic debate continues unabated.

 Since the fall of Baghdad, transatlantic debate continues unabated.  Having a serious dialogue about the nature and extent of the threats faced by members of the Atlantic community and the proper ways of dealing with them is a good thing. It certainly can lead to at least a partial amelioration of the mistrust and bitterness caused by the Iraq-related contretemps and foster a restoration of the intra-Alliance strategic consensus, which was in place during most of the Cold War period. Unfortunately, the recent articles by J. Orstrom Moller (The Shape of Things to Come: Toward a Unified Europe 07-2-03) and Justin Vaisse (Regime Change in the Transatlantic Relationship: Part I: Making Sense of French Foreign Policy (07-2-03) Regime Change in the Transatlantic Relationship: Part II: From Transatlanticism to Post-Atlanticism (07-15-03) indicate how difficult the dialogue has become and how uncertain are the prospects for success.

The most obvious problem is that neither author manifests any awareness that despite the demise of the Soviet Union, not just the United States, but the entire community of Western democracies, still faces a serious, perhaps even an existential challenge. This threat is posed by trans-national terrorist groups and rogue states, which view modern democratic societies (built upon religious tolerance and freedom) as the obstacle to reordering, worldwide, the relationship between the government and the people and building a new kind of society, animated by the tenets of radical Islam.

As demonstrated by the events of September 11 and subsequent attacks, these forces are perfectly willing to kill thousands of innocent civilians and are relentlessly seeking access to weapons of mass destruction, so as to be able to slaughter millions. They are not bound by any normative restraints in their use of violence. The fact that they are misguided in the interpretation of Islam and that their zeal and xenophobia are utterly anachronistic in the 21st century world, while intellectually scintillating, does not detract from the seriousness of the threat they pose, any more than the claims that the Soviet brand of socialism somehow deviated from the true intellectual legacy of Marxism-especially as exemplified by the early, more "humanistic" Marx-diminished the threat posed by Moscow's foreign and defense policies. The problem is made more acute by the existence of failed states like North Korea, which specialize in selling weapons to the highest bidder and blackmailing the world.

Reasonable persons, on both sides of the Atlantic, can disagree about the particulars of this threat and about the best strategies for dealing with it. Pretending that disagreement does not exist is not a good basis for a serious transatlantic debate. In this regard, noting that the Europeans have had more than a passing experience with terrorism, a point made by Vaisse and virtually every other European critic of American policies, does not amount to a particularly convincing argument.

Being a victim of agiven phenomenon does not necessarily imbue one with a superior wisdom on how to confront it. And lest we forget, as opined by Harvard's Richard Neustadt and Richard R. May, mechanically applying the lessons of history often produces worse results than historical ignorance. Yet, the closest that Moller's piece comes to dealing with the threat assessment is the statement, which comes after his observations that the EU is neither interested in projecting military power in the same manner as the United States, nor sees any need to do so, that "[h]opefully, the world develops in a way compatible with such reluctance to use force-commendable in itself, but relying on a similar attitude gaining ground around the globe."

This, of course, begs the questions of what to do if his hope does not materialize. Elsewhere in the article, Moller opines "that the EU and U.S. no longer face a military threat so obvious and lethal that it forces them to ignore and disregard the differences in opinions and policies which evidently are also present."

Meanwhile, Vaisse's two-part article describes in some detail how the old, Cold War-style Soviet threat is no longer with us, but is utterly silent on what threats are facing us now. This is, to put it mildly, unfortunate, since most of the world does not seem to emulate the EU countries' subjugation of aggressive instincts and a related, exquisitely weary derision for military power.

The use of force is virtually an every day occurrence in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and, as demonstrated by the continuing bloodletting in Chechnya and the wars of the Yugoslavia's dissolution, even Europe is not immune from this phenomenon.

Even more depressingly, to the extent that there is a threat assessment which permeates both articles, it has to do with the authors' evident preoccupation with, and concern about, American power.

Moller's piece is the more diplomatic of the two, but even he is troubled by the possibility that the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain poses problems for the EU's quest to develop the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Moreover, when he poses the two key strategic questions for the future, both deal with U.S.-European relations and one of them has to do with the level of European discomfort with the American ability to operate unilaterally, without needing to seek European support. In this world, North Korea and Iran do not loom as serious security problems.