An Elective Partnership: Salvaging Transatlantic Relations

James B. Steinberg
James B. Steinberg Former Brookings Expert, University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University

June 1, 2003

When the United States and Britain finally abandoned their efforts to gain Security Council approval for military intervention in Iraq, their leading officials made clear who, in their eyes, was to blame—not Russia, not China, but a NATO ally, France. The harsh words were a culmination of six of the most challenging months in the history of the NATO alliance—beginning with Vice-President Cheney’s speech suggesting that the US might use force unilaterally to disarm Iraq and Chancellor Schröder’s decision, in the waning days of the German election, to stake his future on outright opposition to any form of military action against Iraq. Although the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1441 in November 2002 seemed to offer a way out of the deepening rift, by January it was clear that the Alliance was facing its greatest crisis since Suez in 1956. US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld likened Germany to Libya and Cuba for its lack of support and German Foreign Minister angrily retorted with a blunt ‘I am not convinced’ at the NATO annual security-policy gathering in Munich.

Of course, there were divisions among European governments as well—eight EU members signed a letter to the Wall Street Journal offering support to the United States (pointedly excluding Germany, France and Belgium) and Prime Ministers Tony Blair and José Maria Aznar stood side by side with President George W. Bush on the eve of the war. But European publics were united—in every European NATO country, in the ‘new’ Europe as well as the ‘old,’ huge majorities opposed the war and what appeared to be the most dramatic instance in series of provocative unilateral US moves that flew in the face of international law and international public opinion.

For those who had been predicting that strategic divergence between the United States and Europe would follow the end of the Cold War, the proof was plain to see. The conclusion drawn by these NATO-sceptics was that the transatlantic relationship was a relic of the past, irrelevant at best to the future security needs of the United States, and at worst a shackle on needed freedom of action. Other partners whose views coincided more closely with America’s were available; in any event, the United States possesses the will and the capability to act alone.