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The other war

Europe's dispute with America is not all about Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

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As the war of words between Bush, Chirac and Schroeder hots up, many imagine that a transatlantic battle is taking place – with profound disagreements over Iraq threatening to tear apart the Western alliance.

Anti-war protesters and liberal commentators imagine a Europe standing up to self-serving America. According to the Los Angeles Times, France has declared ‘a war against the war’ (1). Others have congratulated German leader Gerhard Schroeder for ‘pulling the plug’ on President Bush’s international ambitions. ‘European leaders steadfastly against going to war’, says one headline, reporting that ‘political leaders in European capitals are resolved to slow the Bush administration’s drive towards military confrontation’ (2).

Meanwhile, pro-war writers and US officials complain that America is hampered by lily-livered Europeans. Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld denounced France and Germany as ‘old Europe’ (3). In pro-war circles in the US, European naysayers are referred to as an ‘Axis of Weasels’. As for the French, they’ve have been called many things in their time, but none comes close to ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ for their refusal to back an attack on Saddam (4).

Behind the catfights, is there a principled clash between a pro-war America and an anti-war Europe? Not quite. There are certainly serious splits in the Western alliance. France has threatened to use its position on the United Nations Security Council to veto any decision to attack Iraq, while Germany has made opposing US militarism into a vote-winner at home. But the Europe v America clash is today driven less by determined policies, or even by old-style power politics, than by cowardice and opportunism on all sides.

Both Europe and America agree that Iraq is a threat to the world, that Saddam must be disciplined, and that we in the West should be the ones to do it. Some anti-war types may have delusions about Europe’s supposedly anti-imperialist stance, but France and Germany fully accept the West’s right to determine what should and shouldn’t happen in Iraq. What these states fear, however, are the unpredictable consequences of all-out war.

German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has made a name for himself as Germany’s anti-war-with-Iraq spokesman – but every time he says the West should avoid a military confrontation with Iraq, he adds a rider about needing to find other ways to ‘deal with Saddam’. On 20 January 2003, Fischer declared: ‘We have no illusions about the brutal nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime, therefore we all demand that Baghdad implement the relevant UN resolutions in full.’ (5)

What worries Fischer about war is what might happen as a consequence. ‘In addition to disastrous consequences for long-term regional stability, we also fear possible negative repercussions for the joint fight against terrorism’, he says, describing these as ‘the fundamental reasons for our rejection of military action’ (6). There is no German desire seriously to challenge an invasion of Iraq, but rather a fear of risky war, of the unknowable and unpredictable consequences of invading Iraq.

Likewise, France has issued numerous statements calling on Baghdad to toe the Western line, and has even sent its only aircraft carrier to the Gulf for ‘back up’ (hardly an anti-war act) (7). Yet French ministers are opposed to war with Iraq, on the grounds that it could ‘destabilise the international order’. According to one French politician: ‘It could end disastrously, for many nations. We need to ask what a military confrontation will achieve, apart from making the region less stable and potentially more violent.’ (8)

It is the twin evils of opportunism and fear that are driving French and German opposition to war with Iraq. Even as France and Germany’s leaders take an apparently tough stance against America’s plans for Iraq, they aren’t averse to making some mileage out of the issue for themselves – whether by calling on Saddam to implement UN resolutions or by sending military forces ‘towards the Gulf’. It is fear of unintended consequences, of what might happen if Western forces take decisive action over Iraq, that makes France and Germany ‘anti-war’.

The disagreements between Europe and America are over how best to deal with Iraq – the Bush administration wants to keep the war option open, while France and Germany prefer the UN route. But even then, German leaders are not absolutely opposed to war. Joschka Fischer says that war, even if led by American forces, cannot be ‘ruled out’.

If this isn’t a principled spat over war and intervention, then nor is it a traditional clash of the great powers. There is certainly an expression of conflicting interests in the Franco-German/American divide over what to do about Iraq, but such divisions are now expressed very differently than in the past.

During the Cold War years, there was often tension between America and its European allies. Over issues from Suez in 1956 – where British and French forces invaded Egypt to protect the Suez Canal from being nationalised, only to be effectively ordered out by the USA – to other Middle Eastern and African wars, what appeared as domestic squabbles or wars of national liberation were often a struggle for influence between American and European forces.

Such European/American tensions were contained by the broader West/East framework of the Cold War, where America and Western Europe were allied against the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet Union. But national interests often found their expression in international clashes.

The current squabble between American and European leaders is power clash as pantomime. Today’s divergent interests between France and Germany and the USA are not expressed openly, in hostile declarations or in clashes around the globe. Rather, they tend to be expressed in underhand ways – for example, European opposition to GM technology often looks like an undeclared trade war against US interests, rather than being driven by real scientific concerns about GM.

Similarly, France and Germany’s differences with America over Iraq, their recognition that there isn’t much for either of them in this war, now takes the form of being, apparently, ‘anti-war’. Instead of asserting their own interests against America’s, French and German leaders adopt an anti-war approach to the Iraqi crisis, which has the added bonus of feeding off the generalised anti-war sentiment among European populations.

But seriously – France and Germany as anti-war? Anyone who believes that has a very short memory – these are states that supported the NATO bombing of the Serbs in the late 1990s, and France continues to interfere in the affairs of The Ivory Coast, Algeria and other African states.

France and Germany’s opportunistic opposition to invading Iraq is as much driven by self-serving interests as is America’s war talk. The French and German anti-war stance reflects their belief that they can gain more by stopping the war than by pushing it ahead. In our uncertain, post-Cold War times, some European leaders feel more comfortable with walking the walk in international affairs than with taking any determined action.

Consider the beleaguered German leader Gerhard Schroeder. Even more than its European counterparts, Germany’s Social Democrat ruling elite feels isolated from its population. On 25 January 2003, backing for Schroeder’s party fell to ‘an historic low’ of 25 percent, which, according to the Financial Times, ‘is the lowest figure in the 26 years that the [popularity] poll has been conducted’ (9). German newspaper editorials bemoan Schroeder’s ‘broken election promises and perceived drift’ (10).

In response, Schroeder is attempting to rein in international action that he thinks might threaten Germany’s position in the world order – while exploiting Germans’ and Europeans’ lack of enthusiasm for war with Iraq by cynically transforming it into a domestic policy. Germany’s opposition to war with Iraq may be an underhand stand-off (rather than a heated clash) with the USA – but it also has a certain tone to it, along the lines of: ‘Stop the world, I want to get off!’ European elites’ internal uncertainty and crisis of legitimacy are making them increasingly cautious about rocking the boat internationally – even as they conduct their own international posturing.

For Blair’s Britain, the concealed clashes between America and Europe have stoked up big problems. Britain cannot but support America’s international strategy, however cautious it might be about doing so. At the same time, Britain is tied to France and Germany as part of the European Union. The current transatlantic spat over Iraq has left the UK reeling between an uncertain USA and a standoffish Europe.

For America’s part, its clashes with Europe over Iraq reflect its increasing discomfort with holding world power. For all the American hawks’ claims about ‘determined America’ having to contend with cowardly Europe, in fact America’s constant to-ing and fro-ing with Europe and the UN, and its increasingly desperate attempts to build a ‘coalition of the willing’, suggest an aversion to going it alone on the international stage.

Behind the Bushies’ bellicose rhetoric about the threat of Saddam, American leaders are cautious about taking firm unilateral action in international affairs. Instead of telling the UN – or France and Germany – to get stuffed, Bush officials have gone back to Europe again and again, in an attempt to shore up multilateral support for war with Iraq. Which begs the question – if France, Germany and the rest really are cheese-eating, cowardly surrender monkeys, why is the USA so desperate for their backing?

The Bush administration’s response to France and Germany’s dithering was not to write them off entirely, but almost to come down to their level. After weeks of European leaders expressing their concern about war, Bush officials, in the words of the New York Times, threatened to ‘confront France, Germany and other sceptics of military action against Iraq by demanding that they agree publicly that Iraq has defied the UN Security Council’ (11). Instead of publicly hammering the French and Germans, the US seems to be searching for something, anything, they can all agree on.

In the absence of French and German support, the USA has sought a coalition elsewhere. According to The Times (London): ‘Despite the continued criticism against the use of force, senior figures in the Bush administration insist that a broad alliance is taking shape behind the scenes.’ (12) US secretary of state Colin Powell boasts that ‘at least a dozen’ countries are on board (13). Who are the dodgy dozen?

So far, the Bush administration has got troop commitments from Britain, Australia and the Czech Republic – though British troops seem less than keen, with a BBC report claiming that they are ‘struggling to find the fighting spirit’; Australian troops have said they will ‘offer support’ to US forces, but are not particularly interested in launching attacks; and when the 250 Czech soldiers in Kuwait were offered the chance to go home if ‘they did not feel ready for war’ (an attempt by the Czech defence minister to demonstrate his nation’s commitment to sorting out Saddam), 27 said yes, causing a ‘severe dent’ in the Czech Republic’s national pride (14).

Other nations have offered only tentative support to America. According to one report: ‘Italy was praised by the Americans for its support, although prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has denied that the Italians will be ready to commit troops.’ (15) This is less a coalition of the willing than a coalition of the not-so-willing, from states that are in no position to say no to America. America’s desperate search for willing supporters, anywhere it can find them, reveals much about its uncertain approach to the Iraqi issue, its sense of isolation on the world stage.

For all the stated differences between the American and European camps, there is one thing they have in common – a tendency to internationalise their internal problems and crises. Whether it’s the Bush administration asserting authority over Iraq in an attempt to boost its domestic and international standing, or the Schroeder government trying to offset its declining support at home by putting a rein on risky international shifts – both sides seem to be driven to the international arena to resolve homegrown problems. And this looks like the most cowardly act of all – projecting problems on to the Gulf, rather than facing up to them in the real world.

The end result is that four of the greatest powers on Earth – America, Britain, France and Germany – have become bogged down in clashes over what should be done about a weak and failing state in the Middle East. Europe v America? A plague on both their houses.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Move by France ups the stakes, Los Angeles Times, 22 January 2003

(2) European leaders steadfastly against going to war with Iraq, Chicago Tribune, 20 January 2003

(3) Outrage at ‘old Europe’ remarks, BBC News, 23 January 2003

(4) See Anti-Europeanism in America, Timothy Garton Ash, New York Review of Books, 13 February 2003

(5) Germany says No to Iraq involvement, Deutsche Welle, 21 January 2003

(6) Germany says No to Iraq involvement, Deutsche Welle, 21 January 2003

(7) Substantial coalition takes shape behind the scenes, The Times (London), 27 January 2003

(8) Germany says No to Iraq involvement, Deutsche Welle, 21 January 2003

(9) Schroeder’s travails, Financial Times, 25 January 2003

(10) Schroeder’s travails, Financial Times, 25 January 2003

(11) US set to defy that allies agree Iraq is defying UN, Steven R Weisman, New York Times, 23 January 2003

(12) Substantial coalition takes shape behind the scenes, The Times (London), 27 January 2003

(13) Substantial coalition takes shape behind the scenes, The Times (London), 27 January 2003

(14) Public shames Czechs into staying in Kuwait, Jack Fairweather, Daily Telegraph, 24 January 2003

(15) Substantial coalition takes shape behind the scenes, The Times (London), 27 January 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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