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J. Carter Wood © 2002

 

 
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Measured in terms of quantity, if not quality, the Bush administration has since last September been breaking records in the production of foreign policy platitudes. However the script they’re working from is firmly rooted in the twentieth-century classics. Beginning with attempts at striking Churchillian notes in the immediate days and weeks following the terrorist attacks, they borrowed, arguably inappropriately, the phrasings of a besieged island standing alone. Somewhat later, in time for the State of the Union Address, White House speechwriters forged what must have seemed the perfect elision of the two twentieth-century keynotes that have defined US identity—World War II and the Cold War—in the comic-book phrase "Axis of Evil." More recently, the foreign policy establishment seems to be taking its inspiration from the film Gone With the Wind. In response to French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine’s accurate evaluation of Bush’s "Axis of Evil" speech as "simplistic," Colin Powell retorted that Védrine must be "getting the vapors."

This is the sort of rebuke that evokes images of fragile and fainting southern belles, and the clear implication echoes long-standing and standard clichés of American masculine resolve and decadent European effeminacy. In a similar effeminizing vein, an article in Newsweek (2.25.2002) referred to European opposition to an expanding "War on Terror" as "hysteria." Such views are odd, considering that most European countries have long-term experience dealing with terrorism, and, for that matter, coping with the costs of war. Nonetheless, Rhett Butler’s famous quip, "Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn" sums up nicely the apparently dismissive view the American government holds toward its European allies. Truth be told, the same view is probably not uncommon among Americans in general.

This growing rhetorical rift was hardly to be expected late last year, judged by the outpouring of spoken (and practical) support from European governments and people for the United States following 11 September and the energetic "coalition building" undertaken by the Bush administration preceding the military assault on Afghanistan. In myriad statements on both sides of the Atlantic, the terrorist attacks were taken to have deepened the ties between the EU and USA. Such a view was also apparent on a personal level. My wife and I were in the US on 11 September, having been scheduled to fly back to Germany the following day. When, much later than planned, we arrived at Frankfurt airport, we found the papers full of advertisements from German companies and even local governments expressing Mitgefühl (sympathy) with the people of the United States. Subsequently, as happened to other Americans in Europe, I received personal expressions of concern, both from friends and people that I met, simply for being American. In Germany, schoolchildren were observing moments of silence. In some towns, the buses even paused to mark the memorial minutes.

The depth and seriousness of the European reaction was genuine and moving, and it reached from the newspapers to the highest levels of European government. In line with other European leaders, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised "uneingeschränkte Solidarität" ("unlimited solidarity") with the American people in the Kampf gegen Terror ("struggle against terror," a phrasing that seems more appropriate than White House descriptions of "war"). The almost immediate revelations that some of the leading terrorists involved in the 11 September attacks had spent long periods of time and even studied in Germany (as it was later to emerge, their network stretched through most European countries) seemed only to increase the sense of unity in facing a newly-apparent threat, especially as Europe was wracked by its own series of Anthrax scares and stories of narrowly averted terrorist attacks. For the first time in its history, NATO invoked its mutual self-defense clause and shortly thereafter, European forces, including German pilots, began participating in operations to watch American airspace.

As time passed and American preparations for military action gathered momentum, there were a few visible signs of "anti-war" sentiment, with demonstrations taking place in various European capitals. However, opposition to American militarism—long a popular and justified cause in Europe—was strikingly muted. In Germany, most visibly in Berlin, turnout at demonstrations to oppose a military response was smaller than many organizers expected. As the German Bundeswehr geared up to support Afghan military action, there was an absence of the guilt, shame and fear—summed up in the German word betroffen—that greeted the Gulf War and the deployment of German peacekeepers to the Balkans. Here in Trier, small candlelight vigils camped out in front of a local church to oppose "the war" before it had begun, then quietly faded from view soon after actual bombs started falling. There was a debate in the Bundestag about military participation, but it was, by German standards in these matters, fairly cursory. Concurrently, Interior Minister Otto Schilly presented a raft of new internal security measures, which strikingly raised more argument than the deployment of German soldiers in their most far-flung operation since the foundation of the Federal Republic. The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), having been founded more than 20 years ago in a mixture of ecological consciousness and pacifism, were the party that faced a real dilemma; however partly due to sustained efforts from German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a leading Green Party member, the party ended up standing behind the policies of their governing coalition partner, the SPD. The only party opposed to German military deployment was the former-Communist PDS.

All of the frenetic activity in the military, intelligence and policing spheres was undertaken within the context of the cooperative, standing-together imagery that had followed the terrorist attacks. There was talk of a change in American policy, the waning of unilateralism, the dawn of a new era in American-European relations and the like. On the surface, this appeared to have some validity.

The rapid victory of American and American-allied Afghan forces (at least for now) seems to have engendered a different feeling in the United States toward its European friends, one that Die Zeit (21.2.2002) identified as "indifference." The allies that had been so vital before seem to have become dispensable (Europe was not even mentioned by name in the State of the Union address) while the sympathies and offers of solidarity have faded into the acrimony that has now and then begun bursting through the diplomatic façade. The spat between Powell and Védrine is among the vitriolic evidence of these tensions, but one can also sense the frustration behind Fischer’s statement in February that "alliance partners are not satellites." Even the British government, by far the most enthusiastic of America’s military partners, seems to be facing some internal hesitation in following America wherever it may lead next.

In retrospect, American and European differences in reacting to 11 September should have been visible from the beginning. American responses to the attacks were dominated by an inward-looking nationalism signaled most visibly by flag-mania and countless choruses of "God Bless America." Such reactions sat uneasily with the multi-national origins of the victims of the attacks, the evidence of a global terrorist network that prepared them and the trans-national rhetoric about the threats facing the "civilized world," "freedom" or "America and its allies" that periodically emanated from the White House. But for anyone traveling between the US and Europe in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the differences were immediately apparent.

If American clichés about European ineffectiveness and indecision are not new, neither is European hostility to American global hubris, emphasizing that 11 September, for all its shock-effect, did not usher in a new world. Recent European frustrations have long roots. Unilateralism, although it’s become even more explicit and pronounced under Bush, was, after all, also a hallmark of the Clinton administration. America’s continuing double-standard in addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has long been a sore point for Europe, which has been more willing to criticize Israel, particularly recently. (Védrine has recently spoken of Ariel Sharon’s "politics of pure repression.") Disputes over trade and global warming too have taken place within the wider context of the waning of the Cold War and the resulting European resolve to act as a counterweight to American power. Furthermore, now that, at least for the time being, attention has shifted from Afghanistan to America’s next likely military target, Iraq, European leaders are expressing their reluctance to join in, as Fischer’s comment about "satellites" suggests. As Die Zeit has declared (14.2.2002), "a military attack against Iraq would be the wrong war, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time."

Indeed, in the Independent Robert Fisk has made an impassioned plea for Europe to "become involved" in standing up to American power and to "demand" that it have a say in American policy. Well intentioned, to be sure, but the question, of course, is how? The February 18th edition of Der Spiegel (sporting its own classic collection of American stereotypes on the cover) paints a stark picture of American military superiority, reporting planned 2003 spending on military armaments for the leading military powers in the world. According to the article "Die Herren der Welt," ("Masters of the World"), the US intends to spend the equivalent of 354 billion euros on armaments. Its nearest competitor, Russia, plans to spend a comparatively restrained 50 billion. Putting together Great Britain, France and Germany, one reaches the figure of 92 billion. China comes in at relatively paltry 19 billion. To put this in more concrete terms, Die Zeit (7.2.2002) notes that the additional 48 billion dollars Bush seeks to add to the American military budget is itself more than twice the total defense spending of Germany. Further limiting for European military power, its command and control structure is hemmed in by the framework of the US-dominated NATO and differing national priorities within the EU. Europe, as it stands, is clearly without the ability to project military power in any way competitive to that of the US. Certainly, this is a goal that it would be fiscally unfeasible, and morally unwelcome, for Europe to attempt. Economically, Europe is more of a rival, but recent economic weaknesses and the fragmented and unclear nature of European constitutional arrangements and decision-making apparatuses have, at least for now, made putting that power into practice more difficult.

Some might argue that European support for US military action in Afghanistan was misguided, that the Europeans are now getting what they deserve for blindly following the American lead. For myself, what I read as the general outline of mainstream center-left European political opinion—military action to remove the Taliban from power was justified, but an endless expansion of the "War on Terror" that cloaks a general expansion of American global supremacy is not—has much to commend it. Mass murder on the scale of 11 September was a crime (as were other attacks), and one with at least tacit support of the former Afghan government. Organizations such as al-Qaida should be seen as international criminals rather than in any way the avenging voice of the oppressed developing world. Arguably, some kind of military force may be appropriate and necessary in dealing with such threats. That most of the rhetoric coming out of Washington is facile and laughable, doesn’t mean that the threat it points to is imaginary, and as social-democratic or Green parties in Europe have found out, an absolutist position on pacifism is unworkable once in power.

However, what Bush & Co. have in mind is to use the September tragedy to further their own ends (domestic as well as foreign) and pursue objectives that have little to do with terrorism or defense against it. The billions intended to be spent next year on the "Joint Strike Fighter" and other such programs—let alone attacks on domestic civil liberties—will do absolutely nothing to prevent another attack such as that on the World Trade Center. Such actions are, beyond being a threat in their own right, an insult to the victims that they so loudly claim to be avenging. More decisive in the struggle against terror will be, first, the cooperative security efforts of many countries and, secondly, an increase in social justice on a global scale. In both spheres, Europe may have much to offer. This is not for a moment to suggest that Europe serves as a flawless example in any economic, political or cultural regard: after all, "European politics" at the moment includes Silvio Berlusconi as well as Joschka Fischer. It is possible, however, that Europe has the potential to put forward alternative models in both interior and exterior politics. At the very least, there is a space within the European political and cultural sphere to have the kinds of discussions about such issues that are virtually impossible in the present environment (or, indeed, before 11 September) within the United States. In more concrete terms, with a recent history of more even-handed treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, European representatives may yet be able to play a constructive role in forging some kind of workable solution. Furthermore, European politicians have been forwarding seemingly constructive policies of engagement with two of the charter member’s of Bush’s "Axis of Evil," Iran and North Korea, while working toward a more effective policy toward Iraq.

"European" politics—at the moment an admittedly deceptive shorthand term for a very diverse situation, for, of course, "Europe" as a united political entity is still in the process of emergence—holds relatively few powerful cards in its dealings with American power. Given that position, the divergent pressures and voices within Europe, and the tendency of its component nations to disagree, there might be little that the EU is able to achieve. However, in the struggle against terrorism, as well as that against overbearing American hegemony, there is perhaps something that rhetoric, economic pressure and advocating a different model for social and global justice can do. The alternatives, as things stand, seem few.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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