Continental Divides

Continental Divides

Mini Teaser: It took awhile--more than a dozen years, in point of fact--but the natural tendency in international politics for states to balance against the power of a hegemon has emerged. In western Europe, of all places.

by Author(s): Josef Joffe

A German chancellor openly defying the United States? Accusing George W. Bush of "adventurism" and hurling an ever louder "no" across the Atlantic--a "nein" to war against Saddam under any circumstances? During the Cold War, America's trustiest ally would not have dreamed of insurrection, not while Soviet shock troops were ensconced 25 miles outside of Hamburg, whence I write. Thereon hangs a tale that transcends yesteryear's transatlantic troubles of the "Whither NATO?" variety. It is the story of bipolarity lost--the first chapter, not the last.

The Atlantic Alliance has been dying a slow death ever since Christmas day 1991, when the Soviet Union committed suicide by dissolution. Having won the Cold War, the Alliance lost its central purpose and began to crumble like a bridge no longer in use--slowly, almost invisibly. In 1994 the departure of the last Russian troops from Central Europe signaled that the capitulation was complete. The Europeans saw their existential dependence on the United States lifted, the latter its lesser but still vital need for a European glacis.

Only one year later, as the wars of Yugoslav succession began in earnest, NATO as quasi-supranational army was already defunct, for those who fought with the United States were but a loose coalition of willing and able. The most obvious watershed was 9/11. It was not that the Europeans withheld fealty from the United States; indeed, as the Alliance invoked Article 5, numerous NATO members contributed to the American cause. The deeper message of 9/11 and the Afghan campaign was one of systemic transformation.

Above all, the United States demonstrated a surfeit of autonomous power that finally rendered explicit the transition to unipolarity. Moving unopposed, and several military-technological orbits above the rest, it needed merely assistants, not allies. And so Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would famously proclaim that the mission determines the coalition and not the other way around. This spelled the unheralded demise of NATO as we knew it--as a community that would either act together or not at all. Alliance was now formally ad hoc and  à la carte.

Or even less, as the run-up to the second Iraq war would demonstrate. History and theory have always predicted more than just the death of alliances as the price of victory. The larger warning is that the international system abhors imbalances, that power begets counter-power. Surreptitiously, balancing against the United States had already begun in the latter 1990s when Washington regularly found itself alone and on the other side of such issues as the ABM Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Au fond, all of these duels were not about principle, but power. If the United States wanted to scratch the ABM Treaty in favor of missile defense, Europe, China and Russia strenuously sought to uphold it on the sound assumption that a better defense makes for a better offense, hence for richer U.S. military options than under conditions of vulnerability. A less-than-complete test ban would also enhance U.S. options by allowing the development of smaller, hence more useable, nuclear weapons. Naturally, Europe et al. insisted on adherence while the United States balked. And so with the ICC. In the end, even the Clinton team correctly understood the underlying thrust of the ICC. Claiming the right to pass judgment on military interventions by prosecuting malfeasants ex post facto, the Court might deter and thus constrain America's forays abroad.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Europe and others cherished this expansion of multilateral oversight precisely for the reason that the United States opposed it. Great powers loathe international institutions they cannot dominate; lesser nations like them the way the Lilliputians liked their ropes on Gulliver. The name of the game was balancing on the sly, and both sides knew it, though it was conducted in the name of international law, not of raw power.

The contest turned from jujitsu to wrestling in the summer of 2002--once the Bush Administration began to prepare the world for a second round against Saddam Hussein. The first clarion call was Gerhard Schröder's indictment of American "adventurism." It was followed by a categorical refusal to join the American effort--not even under a UN mandate. In the regional government campaigns in Hesse and Lower Saxony in January 2003, the Chancellor went one worse by threatening to vote against a war resolution in the Security Council.

To argue that Schröder tapped into the reservoir of German pacifism to save his sinking campaign is true, but it misses the deeper point. Spawned by strategic imperative, the Federal Republic was practically a child of Truman's and Eisenhower's America. No German chancellor, even of the Left, would have dared play politics with the American connection while Soviet armies were poised to lunge across the Fulda Gap. Better to lose the elections than to lose the Americans. That Schröder chose to save himself and not the American tie provides the most vivid proof of bipolarity lost and dependence unhinged.

Indeed, the demise of bipolarity abroad translated immediately into its collapse "at home" in Germany. For fifty years, there had always been an "American party" in the system--the Christian Democratic and Liberal (Free Democratic) right--and a victorious one, to boot. Yet this time, its leaders did not rush to the defense of the United States; unlike the Adenauers and Kohls, they merely squirmed and waffled. It may be true that all politics is local, but it helps to have a permissive international environment on your side.

The French, an Economy power that always tries to fly Business, played a subtler game. From de Gaulle onward, they have sought to capitalize on their nuisance value. Patiently and skillfully, they went up against the United States in the Security Council to execute (with Russia and China) a supple balancing strategy. The purpose was to entangle Gulliver in the ropes of great power diplomacy. And entangle they did--when the United States consented to prosecute its war against Saddam by way of the UN. The fruit of France's labor was Resolution 1441: dire threats against Iraq, but no automaticity of force; "serious consequences", but UN inspections first.

When Hans Blix returned from his first forays with ambiguous reports in hand, France's stand predictably hardened. The signal, repeated by Moscow and Beijing, was "more inspections"--on the plausible expectation that the approach of spring and summer would close America's window of military opportunity and postpone an attack sine die. Compared to Schröder's foot-stomping, this was a far more subtle performance, but the underlying thrust was the same. The objective was to constrain and contain the United States that had mutated from "last remaining superpower" to "hyperpower" and "empire."

And why not, given that America's might was no longer stalemated by the Soviet Union? The French and the Germans (as well as the Russians and the Chinese) acted as if they feared the "hyperpower" more than Saddam's imperialist reflexes and his vehicles of mass destruction. And well they might in this new era of Gulliver Unbound. Assume an American victory that is swift and sustainable, intimidates rather than inflames Arabs and Iranians, relieves dependence on dangerous clients such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and finally loosens up the pathologies of Arab political culture that spawned Al-Qaeda. Such an outcome would install the United States as arbiter over the Middle East, over its oil and politics. This prospect can hardly enthuse the lesser players, for it would certify what is already the case de facto: the global primacy of the United States. So it should not come as a surprise that America's rivals and quondam allies would try to balance against Number 1 by enmeshing him in the ropes of institutional dependence. These are the ways of world politics.

How will this story of bipolarity lost unfold? As this issue goes to print amid the rumbles of war, we cannot know. But we do know that the past is not over yet. Suddenly, on January 30, those who would fashion a diplomatic axis against the United States found themselves confronted with an equally soft alliance against themselves--when Britain, Spain, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Denmark and Portugal ever so politely told Messrs. Chirac and Schröder to back off.

In diplomatese, the message said of Iraq: "Our goal is to . . . ensure that this regime gives up its weapons of mass destruction. Our governments have a common responsibility to face this threat." Decoded, however, the missive read: "We are not amused that France and Germany are trying to gang up on the United States. Saddam must be disarmed, by force if need be." Repeated more harshly by the "Vilnius 10" on February 5 ("We are prepared to contribute to an international coalition to enforce . . . the disarmament of Iraq"), the message was that 18 European countries (from "A" like Albania to "S" like Slovenia) were not ready to take on the "hyperpower"--and even less ready to submit to the French and Germans as would-be gang leaders.

Essay Types: Essay