Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Recent events in Europe, North America, and the United Nations serve as a warning of serious dangers ahead for trans-Atlantic relations, and for European unity.

A probable war in Iraq is the immediate cause of growing fissures in U.S. relations with Europe, in particular with Germany and France. The root of the problem, particularly for Europeans, lies in their anxiety that the Bush administration is determined to subdue Iraq and other "rogue states" even if the NATO allies and the United Nations so not support it. Europeans want a multilateral approach to NATO decision making, not unilateral American moves..

Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist, observed on February 2 that for Europe, "being weak after being powerful is a terrible thing. It can make you stupid. It can make you reject U.S. policies simply to differentiate yourself from the world's only superpower."

Two weeks ago President Bush stated in his State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein has refused for twelve years to comply with U.N. resolutions that Iraq disarm. Bush concludes that new U.N. inspections confirm that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been hidden, in violation of a U.N. demand last November that Baghdad disclose either their location or evidence that the weapons were destroyed. Saddam denies he has prohibited weapons.

The issue before the U.N. Security Council today is this: should the inspectors have more time, perhaps six months, to determine whether Iraq is stalling, or is the United States justified in using force soon? Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the Council last week laid out the case for early military action.

On January 30 a remarkable letter, signed by eight leaders of European governments, appeared in The Wall Street Journal under the heading. "United We Stand." It declared: "The U.N. Charter charges the Security Council with the task of preserving international peace and security. To do so, the Security Council must maintain its credibility. We cannot allow a dictator to systematically violate those resolutions. If they are not complied with, the Security Council will lose its credibility and world peace will suffer as a result. We are confident that the Security Council will face up to its responsibilities."

France and Germany, Europe's two largest countries, did not sign the letter, with its implicit support for President Bush's hard line on Iraq. It was endorsed by the leaders of Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary.

The importance of this split in the Europeans' view on Iraq is twofold. First, if Germany, which chairs the Security Council this month, and France, which holds a veto power, decide to block action in the world body , the future of NATO will be in jeopardy. In addition, a split in Europe on the issue of Iraq could affect the European Union's cohesion, and perhaps lead to its disintegration.

German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder declared six months ago that his government would not join a U.S. "adventure" in Iraq even if the U.N. Security Council approved of military action. Germany does not have a veto, however, as do the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China. Still, German participation would be desirable for rebuilding of Iraq after the war.

The real challenge to U.S. policy, and possibly European unity, comes from France. It argues that there should be no hurry to use military action against Iraq, that inspections should be given more time to find the prohibited weapons, and that no action is legitimate without a second Security Council resolution authorizing it. Russia and China are reluctant to support military action in Iraq, but the State Department believes neither of them will exercise a veto.

France carries significant influence in the U.N. on how other members will. vote on authorizing war against Iraq. When France supported Resolution 1441 in November forcing Iraq to accept new inspections, undecided members joined and provided a unanimous vote in favor..

Optimists among diplomatic observers suspect that French President Jacques Chirac and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, are playing a clever game of resisting agreement with Washington and London until the very last minute, in order to squeeze concessions that will ensure France a prominent role in the rebuilding of Iraq and controlling its oil exports..

Skeptics, I among them, suspect that France may have gone too far in its resistance to Washington and London, that a serious split is about to occur in the NATO relationship. This would not be new for France; which withdrew in 1966 from NATO's military structure, at the insistence of President Charles de Gaulle, but resumed that relationship in the 1990s.

What makes the current disagreement dangerous is that France is acting on the Iraq issue in concert with Germany against the United States and Britain. If France and Germany, two founding members of the European Common Market, now part company with the United States, Britain, and other European states on an important defense issue, it could lead to a political crisis in NATO, and perhaps the European Union that leads to its collapse of European unity.

France is motivated by achievement of a long-sought goal: to be Europe's spokesman in dealing with the United States on foreign and defense policy. Current anti-American sentiment in all the European countries results in large measure from the Bush administration's tough, even bellicose, talk toward the "axis of evil" countries, particularly Saddam Hussein's regime. Most Americans are only dimly aware of the depth of public anger, even outrage, which has swept across Western Europe in the past year, including in Britain..

President Chirac, reelected last spring to a five year term, believes that France now has a good opportunity to capitalize on this widespread fear of the United States, and he may also see it as a means to exert French primacy in the European Union. The risk for Chirac is that if he waits much longer to support military action on Iraq, France may be ignored by the United States and Britain in the post-Saddam rebuilding of that oil-rich country..

One additional problem on the horizon for U.S.-European relations is the issue of dealing with Iran, another country seeking nuclear weapons and a supporter of terrorism. As one of the countries singled out by President Bush as the "axis of evil," Iran has been relatively quiet since the war in Afghanistan. Therefore, President Bush's inclusion of a paragraph on Iran in his recent State of the Union address is intriguing:

"Different threats require difference strategies. In Iran we continue to see a government that represses its people, pursues weapons of mass destruction, and supports terror. We also see Iranian citizens risking intimidation and death as they speak out for liberty, human rights, and democracy. Iranians, like all people, have a right to choose their own government, and determine their own destiny and the United States supports their aspirations to live in freedom."

Is the president suggesting that, in addition to dealing with Iraq's nuclear threat, he wants to encourage Iranians to throw off the harsh Islamic rule that was imposed in Iran in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini? That regime seized fifty-two American diplomats and held them hostage for fourteen months. Bush apparently is calling for political change in Tehran as well as in Baghdad.

It is difficult to assess the administration's longer-term intentions in the Persian Gulf, but there seems little doubt that George W. Bush plans to alter the strategic landscape there.

File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST

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