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

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.

Vaisse's article is much more blunt. Having sought to reassure his readers that French policy is not animated by a "reflexive anti-Americanism", and that "France is not obsessed with multipolarity, he proceeds to demolish both of these propositions. Let us ask the same question which Vaisse poses-what are "the real reasons behind the French attitude toward the war in Iraq."

Let us also assume further that the author's portrayal of the alleged French beliefs-that the U.S.-led military occupation of Iraq would actually harm, rather than aid, the ongoing war against terrorism, and that the regime change in Baghdad, even if otherwise justified, should not have been pursued through the use of military power-accurately reflects the thinking of the French national security establishment (candidly speaking, I have some doubts, particularly about the accuracy of the latter assertion, since Paris's policy towards Africa does not seem to exhibit the same degree of aversion to the use of force that Vaisse ascribes to the French élites.)

Even so, the question still remains why Paris, even if it felt that Operation Iraqi Freedom was strategically unwise, instead of just staying out, went out of its way to oppose the U.S. policy, using all instruments of statecraft at its disposal. In the process, it damaged the credibility of both the Security Council and NATO.  A related quandary is why France encouraged the U.S. to believe that the issue of Iraq could be fine-tuned through the Security Council process, (if only more time were allotted for the international arms inspection process to run its course), and voted for the Security Council Resolution 1441, which reflected the view that Saddam Hussein's defiance of his legal obligations, including disarmament requirements, is unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated by the international community.

(I note in passing that Vaisse's own description of the fundamental nature of Paris' misgivings about the regime change in Iraq is utterly incompatible with what President Chirac and Foreign Minister Villepin have been telling for well over 18 months to President Bush and the senior members of his Administration. It is certainly at odds with the private assurances conveyed to the Bush Administration during a December 2002 visit to Washington by senior French officers that France was prepared to contribute significant forces to the U.S.-led anti-Saddam Coalition.)

Overall, it is difficult not to conclude that Paris has acted with an exceptional duplicity vis-à-vis its American ally, the country which, if nothing else, has saved France from national destruction in the two world wars. It is this fact, rather than French unwillingness to aid the US war efforts in Iraq, that has so angered the Bush Administration.  To give Vaisse credit, he does acknowledge that the French conduct vis-à-vis the United States was extraordinary in nature, noting that under "the old transatlantic regime, France would never have so clearly opposed the U.S. on an issue represented by Washington as vital for its national security".

What is far less credible is his explanation-the reason Paris chose to play by the new, post-Atlantic rules, is because Washington, in the aftermath of the Cold War, allegedly chose to practice hegemony as the organizing principle of American foreign policy and stopped consulting with the Europeans. (This explanation, by the way, belies Vaisse's earlier assertion that France is not obsessed with multipolarity, since the best, indeed the only, way to counter Washington's alleged hegemonial efforts is to build a countervailing coalition and create, in the process, a more multipolar world.)

So, it seems that, at the end of the day, at least for some members of the European elite, it is U.S. hyperpower that is today's dominant international problem and the key quandary is how best to weaken and contain Washington. This, of course, is a rather sad conclusion, both because it leads to ever-widening transatlantic discord and because it ignores the very real threat that we all face.