When examining American or European views on the use of force and the role of international institutions, it is necessary to speak only of general tendencies. There are, of course, many exceptions to the overall trend on both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, generally speaking, America’s longtime European allies have become increasingly alarmed at aspects of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Criticism of U.S. actions is most pronounced in France and Germany, the core of what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once derisively referred to as “old Europe,” but it is spreading to Washington’s previously enthusiastic new allies in Central and Eastern Europe as well.
The Bush administration’s conduct has heightened the scope of disagreement, but the administration is not the sole cause of transatlantic estrangement. American and European interests and perspectives are diverging on an array of issues and have been doing so for some time. With the demise of the Soviet Union, there is no longer a focal point of unity in the Western alliance, and, although policymakers in both Washington and some European capitals have tried to make the “War on Terror” into a new source of cohesion, that effort has been, at best, a partial success. It has taken more than a decade and a half, but transatlantic relations are beginning to return to their normal pattern—the pattern that existed during the century or so before World War II and the Cold War. Such a development means that, while U.S. and European interests may still overlap on some issues, we are likely to find more and more instances in the future where they do not coincide.
Both the United States and the leading European powers need to adopt more realistic and mature attitudes about these developments. Too often, Europeans want an activist United States that will be responsible for global security and will take a leading role in resolving Europe’s specific security problems, such as the Balkan crises of the 1990’s. At the same time, many of those same Europeans want the United States to follow passively the wishes of her 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, a tethered hegemon, which is inherently contradictory and unrealistic.
Furthermore, if the European countries want Washington to take them seriously, they must forge a cohesive foreign and security policy and back it up with serious military resources. Thus far, the European countries have not been willing to make the hard decisions and the economic sacrifices. In addition to developing a credible security role, the European allies must be willing to challenge U.S. policy and not back down. Finally, they must ask the United States to do less in the security arena and show their own willingness to do more on their own.
Although the Europeans indulge in some unrealistic expectations about U.S. conduct, American policymakers and opinion leaders harbor their own illusions about our allies. They expect the prosperous and proud European countries to act as obedient U.S. clients whenever Washington pursues an initiative. They apparently expect such deference even when the Europeans disagree with the substance of U.S. policy and when European interests may not be served by that policy. Such expectations may have been plausible during NATO’s infancy, when a war-ravaged Western Europe faced a powerful and dangerous threat to its security and desperately needed the United States as a protector, but they are woefully misguided today.
Americans and European can continue the unproductive and demeaning spectacle of transatlantic name-calling until increasing bitterness dashes all hopes of effective cooperation even on those issues where there are common interests. It would be far better for both sides to acknowledge that the United States and Europe are two regions with overlapping but frequently different interests and perspectives and that the divergence is likely to grow rather than diminish. In the future, America and her traditional allies simply may have to agree to disagree on some important issues. Above all, they must learn to disagree without becoming disagreeable.
Acrimonious disputes have arisen between the United States and the leading European Union countries about 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 more acute, however, following the issuance of the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) in September 2002 and the application of that strategy in Iraq.
European critics have been most agitated by the section in the NSS on “preemptive action” (actually, preventive war), in which the United States clearly moved beyond her Cold War-era policy of containing potential aggressors to one of proactive measures. The NSS states that goal succinctly: “We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.” On another occasion, the Bush administration emphasized that the United States would not “permit the world’s most dangerous regimes” to pose a threat “with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
Although the section on “preemptive action” has received the most attention, both in the United States and abroad, it is not the only important component of the NSS. The entire document provides a revealing view of U.S. global objectives. Although administration officials would never use the term publicly, the Bush National Security Strategy is profoundly imperial. It is not merely the section on preemptive war that merits such a description; taken as a whole, the document provides a blueprint for an extraordinarily activist and assertive U.S. foreign policy.
The overriding goal of the Bush administration’s strategy is to shape aggressively the international system in ways that will sustain and perpetuate America’s dominant position and forestall the rise of any serious security challengers or peer competitors. Indeed, one passage in the NSS stresses that one priority of the United States is to “dissuade future military competition.” That approach was foreshadowed a decade earlier in the initial draft of the Pentagon Planning Guidance document that was leaked to the press. The so-called Wolfowitz draft was extraordinarily candid in expressing Washington’s goal of discouraging regional powers–even friendly regional powers–from wanting to play more active political-military roles in international affairs. Although the applicable language was considerably toned down in the final version, there is little doubt that the United States desired global hegemony, and Washington’s conduct in the intervening years has been consistent with that objective. The Bush administration is only a little more brazen than its predecessors in embracing a hegemonic strategy.
During the second half of the 20th century, the United States took preemptive actions on a number of occasions. As Max Boot points out, “we have often sought out war, not waited for it to come to us. Many such interventions have been undertaken as part of America’s long-standing commitment to act as global policeman.”
That has been especially true in the Western Hemisphere–and it is not merely the product of a bygone era of U.S. imperialism in the early 20th century. In the mid-1960’s, the United States invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic to forestall the emergence of a left-wing government that U.S. leaders believed would be overly friendly to Fidel Castro. U.S. military forces stormed ashore in Grenada in 1983 for a similar reason. Six years later, the administration of George H.W. Bush authorized military operations in Panama to oust and capture Manuel Noriega.
Such actions have not been limited to the Western Hemisphere. The United States and her NATO allies intervened in the Bosnian civil war in 1995, arguing that the disorder resulting from the secessionist campaign of the Bosnian Serbs threatened the peace and stability of Europe. In 1999, Washington led a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, justifying that intervention on the grounds that Belgrade’s brutal treatment of the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo also jeopardized the peace and stability of Europe. In both cases, it should be emphasized, U.S. forces attacked an adversary that had not attacked the United States, a U.S. ally, or even a non-allied neighboring state. Indeed, the targeted party had not even threatened such an attack.
Bitter disagreements between the United States and many of our European allies over the Bush administration’s bold and stated commitment to preemption have already emerged with great clarity with respect to Iraq. A similar, and perhaps even more stark, disagreement will follow if Washington contemplates using force against Iran. The EU-3 (and probably most European governments) are willing to endorse fairly strong economic sanctions to get Tehran to abandon its apparent quest for nuclear weapons. They are not prepared to embrace military measures, however. Even the British government, America’s most reliable ally, has clearly stated that it is not on board for a war against Iran.
Washington increasingly wants to transform its alliances into geographically broader instruments of U.S. foreign policy. Thus, U.S. policymakers regard the mission in Afghanistan as a crucial test of NATO’s relevance in the 21st century, even though it is far removed from NATO’s traditional European theater. That is why the Bush administration keeps pressing our European allies for more troops for that mission and for the removal of constraints on their use. Such pressure will likely increase in the coming months.
In addition, the United States seeks to transform her bilateral alliances with Japan and South Korea to cover, as one official put it, “other security contingencies in East Asia.” That is code for a loose containment policy against China. And Washington is getting push back from the South Koreans, just as it is getting push back from many of the European allies on attempts to broaden NATO’s coverage. For most Europeans, NATO is still primarily an institution to deal with European security issues–and as a long-term insurance policy if authoritarian trends in Russia turn more ominous. Europeans are wary of turning NATO into an “out of area” alliance to implement U.S. policy objectives in the Middle East or Central and Southwest Asia. That suggests some fundamental medium- and long-term disagreements between the United States and her European allies.
Washington’s perspective is especially illustrated by its attitude toward the role of the U.N. Security Council. Whatever their official rhetoric about the need to respect the prerogatives of the Security Council, U.S. leaders have always treated it as a marginal and dispensable player. If the other members of the council are willing to support the foreign-policy objectives of the United States, well and good. If not, the council is an institution to be bypassed, ignored, or defied.
True, Washington has preferred to work through the United Nations instead of operating unilaterally. However, that is true only when the United States would indisputably remain in charge of policy. In essence, U.S. leaders want a multilateral patina for American policy initiatives.
That rather cynical approach did not begin with George W. Bush. Indeed, it shows up clearly in both the Korean War and the Gulf War. In the former, Washington sought a Security Council resolution calling on member states to render aid to the Republic of Korea to repel the North Korean invasion. Once the resolution passed, though, the United States ran the subsequent “police action” as one of her own military operations. Crucial decisions, such as whether to cross the 38th Parallel and seek to liberate North Korea rather than just repulse the invasion, were made in the Pentagon and the White House, not the United Nations. Likewise, U.S. officials conducted the negotiations and made the necessary concessions when the armistice was concluded in 1953. Ultimately, the U.N. Security Council played no meaningful role in the conduct of the mission.
The military intervention to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990-91 was barely more of a genuine U.N. operation. It was clear that the United States was willing to work through the United Nations only as long as the other members of the Security Council endorsed Washington’s policy agenda. On more than one occasion, President George H.W. Bush indicated that the United States was prepared to act unilaterally or at the head of an ad hoc coalition if the United Nations was not able or willing to act to reverse Baghdad’s aggression.
Once the war began, the military decisionmaking authority and the command structure remained overwhelmingly American, just as they had in Korea. Washington was more subtle in creating a multilateral façade this time, but it was still a façade.
When Washington has been unable to secure Security Council approval, it has simply regarded the Council as irrelevant. Most notably, it conducted a massive military undertaking in Vietnam, lasting more than a decade, without ever seeking Security Council authorization. And Vietnam was hardly the only U.S. military intervention that snubbed the council. Other ventures during the Cold War included operations in Lebanon (1958), the Dominican Republic (1965), and Grenada (1983). And, of course, the United States bypassed the council to launch military operations against Serbia in 1999 over the Kosovo issue, and to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In the case of Kosovo, both Russia and China opposed military action against Serbia for an assortment of policy reasons. U.S. leaders realized that, if the United States worked through the Security Council, Washington’s policy preferences would not prevail, and they were simply unwilling to accept that result. With regard to Iraq, the opposition to the U.S. position was even more widespread. Not only were Russia and China likely to veto a resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force, but France probably would have done so as well.
The dominant European attitude toward international institutions, especially the United Nations, is that they are essential mechanisms not only for resolving disputes peacefully but for constraining American unilateralism. By making approval of the U.N. Security Council a prerequisite for taking military action, the European powers hope to prevent the United States from running amok. In other words, the goal is to prevent the Iraq intervention from becoming the norm of U.S.-security behavior in the 21st century. That approach is yet another manifestation of the European desire to make the United States a tethered hegemon.
America has her own agenda, however, and she will never consent to play the role that the Europeans desire. Neither the United Nations nor NATO will effectively constrain U.S. power. Only a policy of self-restraint will do that. In light of the bruising experience in Iraq, that self-restraint might reemerge in the coming years, but it is still too soon to be certain.