After Iraq: Permanent Transatlantic Tensions
by Ted Galen Carpenter
America’s longtime European allies have become increasingly disturbed by aspects of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Criticism of U.S. actions are most pronounced in France and Germany, the core of what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld derisively refers to as “old Europe.” Disagreements about Washington’s drive to war against Iraq have been the most acute sources of transatlantic tensions, but they are hardly the only ones. Indeed, early in President Bush’s term, acrimonious disputes arose between the United States and the leading European Union countries over such issues as the Kyoto protocol on the environment, the international criminal court, and ballistic missile defense. The gap between U.S. and European policy preferences became even more pronounced following the issuance of the Bush administration’s new national security strategy document in September 2002, with its emphasis on “preemptive action.”
Those transatlantic tensions are not likely to go away merely because the guns in Iraq fall silent. One especially potent source of animosity will occur if the administration decides that preemptive action is justified in cases other than Iraq. There are worrisome signs. Not only did the new national security strategy document point to that course, but in the years before they joined the Bush administration, key officials were on record as arguing that Iran was as dangerous (if not more dangerous) to regional and global peace than was Iraq. That antipathy suggests that, with Saddam Hussein’s regime ousted from power, the United States may turn its attentions toward the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Tehran.
Iranian leaders have ample reason to worry about U.S. intentions. Not only did President Bush explicitly include Iran in the “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address, but U.S. military deployments since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks must seem menacing from an Iranian perspective. It would not require an abundance of paranoia in Tehran to conclude that the United States is carrying out an encirclement strategy and that Iran is next on Washington’s list of rogue state targets.
The logic of the “Bush doctrine” outlined in the national security strategy suggests that a war against Iran is a serious possibility in the next few years. In addition, the doctrine increases the risk of tense, highly confrontational relations with such countries as Syria and Saudi Arabia. The former has long been regarded by many in the American foreign policy community as a rogue state, and negative attitudes toward the latter have soared in the months since September 11 as evidence has mounted about Saudi flirtation (financial and otherwise) with Islamic extremist forces. Indeed, some members of the American foreign policy community now argue openly that Saudi Arabia is part of the Islamic terrorist threat and that the desert kingdom should be targeted for military action. Although the Bush administration has not embraced that view, relations between Washington and Riyadh have grown noticeably cooler in recent months. A hostile relationship between the United States and its nominal ally can no longer be ruled out.
The application of the Bush doctrine in the Middle East has major implications for the transatlantic relationship. It is increasingly evident that the Bush administration wants–and expects–the European allies to be junior partners in its interventionist ventures throughout that region. Washington’s strong lobbying effort to create a rapid response force within NATO is clear evidence of that goal. Moreover, in the final months of 2002 and the initial weeks of 2003, Washington pressed the NATO allies to participate in the coming military campaign against Iraq. True, the United States did not expect the Europeans to provide large numbers of combat forces for the conquest of Iraq. Rather, Washington’s principal objective was to have a European military presence in the postwar phase of garrisoning and stabilizing the country. U.S. officials also hope that the NATO members will contribute financially and otherwise to the postwar nation-building task in Iraq.
Washington’s enthusiasm for a rapid response force reflects the expectation that it will be needed for other interventions in the Middle East in the coming years. The concept of a NATO rapid response force is not new, nor is the believe that the Alliance’s primary focus in the 21st century should be on “out of area” security missions–that is, missions outside Europe. In an important article in the New York Times in 1997, former secretary of state Warren Christopher and former secretary of defense William Perry suggested that NATO be transformed into an instrument for the projection of force wherever in the world the West’s “collective interests” were imperiled. In a moment of exuberance, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged that NATO become a force for peace “from the Middle East to Central Africa.” The Clinton administration presented a proposal in late 1998 to have NATO play an active role in countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction–the principal rationale today for the hardline U.S. policy toward Iraq. It was as clear at the time as it is today that the probable arenas for WMD proliferation lie far beyond Europe.
Washington’s policy is a snare for the Europeans. The successful effort to have NATO agree to create a rapid response force, the continuing U.S. lobbying campaign to have the Alliance play a role in Iraq, and the desire of the Bush administration to make the war against terrorism the raison d’etre for NATO in the 21st century are initiatives that point to the same policy goal. Washington is expecting the European allies to sign on as junior partners to implement U.S. policies in the Muslim world.
Therein lies the major problem. The European members of NATO often disagree with the substance of U.S. policy in that part of the world. It is not coincidental that, with the partial exception of Great Britain, the key EU governments expressed reservations about the policy the United States pursued toward Iraq. European publics seemed even more hostile than their governments toward that policy.
Iran threatens to become the next arena for transatlantic squabbling. Washington has long pursued a hardline policy toward Iran, seeking to isolate that country and subject it to economic sanctions. America’s NATO allies have been monumentally unenthusiastic about that approach, believing it to be counterproductive. Such key European powers as France and Germany favor a strategy of engagement with Iran, and both countries have developed thriving economic relationships with the Islamic republic. Chris Patten, the EU’s commissioner for external affairs, urged the United States to emulate the EU’s policy of engagement with Iran. “I hope both Tehran and Washington take into account the developing relations between Tehran and the EU and accept it as a pattern for developing relations with each other.”
Given the differences between the United States and the EU on this issue, forming a common NATO strategy toward Iran would verge on being impossible. That is especially true if the United States, after finishing military operations against Iraq, targets Iran for military coercion as another member of the axis of evil. Many of the European allies have been reluctant to go along with Washington’s policy toward Iraq; they might well join France and Germany and erupt in open rebellion if the United States sought to apply a similar policy against Iran.
If policy disagreements regarding Iraq and Iran were not enough to make transatlantic unity problematic in dealing with the Middle East, there are profound U.S.-European differences about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. European governments and publics view U.S. policy as horridly one-sided in favor of Israel. In late 2002 EU foreign ministers issued a very strong statement demanding a freeze on Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, while Washington’s pronouncements on the settlements issue have been noticeably tepid. U.S. policymakers and opinion leaders, for their part, regard the European countries as dangerously pro-Palestinian. Some members of the American opinion elite even believe they detect a whiff of European anti-Semitism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The divergence of U.S. perspectives and interests should not come as a surprise. Indeed, it may be surprising that the trappings of policy unity lasted as long as they did once the Cold War came to an end. Nearly a decade ago, Owen Harries, the editor of one of America’s leading foreign policy journals, wrote presciently that the concept of a unified West was dubious. Harries pointed out that despite the many common roots of their civilizations, there was little concept of political unity between the United States and Europe before World War II. Indeed, each side tended to view the other with contempt. Despite the rhetoric of solidarity by U.S. and European officials and the continued expansion of that quintessential transatlantic institution, NATO, that is a fair description of U.S. and European attitudes toward one another in recent years. It is therefore more than a little likely that relations between the United States and the European countries are returning to their “normal” (i.e., pre-World War II) pattern.
It is not apparent that such a result can be averted. U.S. policymakers hope that the terrorist threat can play the role of alliance unifier that the Soviet threat did during the Cold War. But there is reason to be pessimistic on that score. Although most European governments have cooperated enthusiastically with the United States in tracking down Al Qaeda cells and attempting to disrupt the financial resources of terrorist organizations, they resist Washington’s attempt to broaden the definition of the terrorist threat. The divergence of U.S. and European perspectives and interests is likely to intensify regardless of the intentions of statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic.
The European powers face a fundamental choice. One option is accept the role as America’s junior partner in various military and nation-building ventures in the Muslim world. But the Europeans are going to dislike many (perhaps most) of those ventures, and most of the interventions will not serve tangible European interests. In addition, the European powers will have to tolerate an increasingly arrogant “take it or leave it” attitude on the part of U.S. leaders. (That point became especially evident in January and February 2003 in the lead up to the military confrontation between the United States and Iraq.) Members of the American foreign policy community already speak contemptuously of European military capabilities, and they ask why the United States should take criticism from its allies seriously when those countries add so little to American power. Increasingly, the prevailing attitude will be that if the Europeans wish to support a specific U.S. policy, fine, but if the Europeans choose not to support that policy, it is a matter of no great consequence. Most significantly, the United States will exhibit little willingness to alter any significant aspect of its policies to suit the Europeans. As America’s junior partner, the European powers can expect to experience a growing amount of impotent rage as it becomes evident that Washington does not take their criticisms seriously.
European attitudes toward U.S. power have a fatal flaw. Too often, Europeans want an activist United States that will be responsible for global security and take a leading role in resolving Europe’s specific security problems, such as the Balkan crises of the 1990s. Yet many of those same Europeans want the United States to defer to the wishes of its allies on key policy issues. They seek a United States that is powerful enough to be a hegemon, but humble enough not to exercise that awesome power unilaterally. In essence, they want the United States to be a tethered hegemon. That, however, is an inherently contradictory concept.
If Europe wishes to avoid the fate of being Washington’s barely tolerated junior partner, it must choose an alternate course: to build a coherent, cohesive security identity of its own and back it up with serious resources. Both elements are crucial yet difficult to implement.
Developing the necessary cohesion on security issues within the EU would be a daunting task even under the best conditions. But the split that developed between France and Germany on the one side and Britain on the other over U.S. policy toward Iraq has intensified the difficulty. Moreover, the role played by the so-called Vilnius Group–the eight European governments that signed a statement emphasizing solidarity with the United States–has added a new dimension to European disunity. There is little doubt that Washington encouraged (perhaps even suggested) the statement by the Vilnius Group. That is consistent with longstanding U.S. attempts to scupper European efforts to build a coherent security and defense capability that could eventually balance American power. U.S. officials see the new Central and East European members of NATO and the European Union as Washington’s proxy votes in both institutions. Overcoming that self-serving meddling by the United States will be one of the great challenges facing the statesmen of “old Europe” in the coming years.
Building credible military power to back up a common EU foreign and security policy is equally crucial. Unfortunately, the signs are not encouraging. Spending in Germany and other key EU countries is woefully inadequate and continues a downward spiral that began almost as soon as the Cold War came to an end. Those trends must be reversed if the EU hopes to be taken seriously in the realm of security affairs by the United States or anyone else.
Whatever the course the European countries choose, the Cold War era of transatlantic solidarity on security issues is over. The task facing statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic is to manage the ever more frequent disagreements and prevent them from poisoning the entire relationship.
Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs including Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.