The Crisis in the Alliance

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

February 24, 2003

The debate about whether or not to invade Iraq has provoked one of the worst transatlantic crises—and one of the worst intra-European crises—of the entire post-World War II period. Less than a year and a half after the outpouring of Euro-American solidarity following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the tone of the transatlantic debate has degraded to levels not seen in recent memory: the U.S. Defense Secretary referring to France and Germany as “old Europe” and comparing Germany’s Iraq policy to that of Libya and Cuba; the French President berating Central European countries for their support for the United States and threatening to block their accession to the European Union because of it; eight NATO members and ten EU candidates publicly lining themselves up with Washington rather than with France, Germany, or their domestic public opinion; and the U.S. Secretary of State calling the NATO policy of three alliance members “inexcusable.” The alliance, of course, has weathered many serious crises before—but without the common purpose of the Cold War to hold the allies together, this time the damage could prove far more lasting.

There is still an outside chance that Europe and the United States will come together over Iraq—particularly if weapons inspections are seen to fail and the Security Council passes a further resolution authorizing the use of force—but no one should have any illusions about the depth of the current crisis or the potential for things to get even worse. While many European governments will likely support the United States on Iraq regardless of whether the Security Council explicitly authorizes action, European public opinion remains deeply hostile to the use of force under current circumstances, and France and Germany seem unlikely to waver in their opposition, especially if they manage to get other Security Council members on their side. Much will also depend on the outcome of an eventual war: if an invasion proves to be a quick and easy success and leads to a stable Iraq, the current recriminations will fade and Europeans and Americans could well make a positive joint project of working together on the country’s reconstruction. If the operation proves messy, on the other hand, and Americans get stuck with the costs and risks of a difficult occupation, the current divisions will only worsen, and the Atlantic Alliance may not recover.


Considering the depth of the current ill will across the Atlantic, it is worth recalling that only a few months ago, the allies—and France and the United States in particular—seemed to have overcome their differences and agreed on a common approach to Iraq. UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which on November 8 gave Iraq a “final opportunity” to disarm, passed in the Security Council by a vote of 15-0 and was strongly endorsed two weeks later by a unanimous NATO alliance—including France and Germany. At its Prague summit, NATO allies not only claimed to “stand united” in their commitment to implement 1441, but announced the historic enlargement of the Alliance to seven new members and the development of a rapid reaction force that would enable member states to conduct joint military operations abroad. While no one pretended that U.S. and European views of the Iraq crisis (or NATO’s potential role in it) were identical, a basic agreement seemed to have been reached—if Iraq willingly disarmed Washington would forego regime change; if it did not, the United States would lead a coalition to disarm Iraq by changing the regime by force.

The current dispute arises from the interpretation of those commitments. For the United States, the essence of Resolution 1441 was voluntary Iraqi disarmament—if Iraq failed to demonstrate that it was free of weapons of mass destruction, the threat of “serious consequences” meant the use of military force. Many Europeans, on the other hand—including at least the French, German, and Belgian governments—instead put the emphasis on weapons inspections. While accepting that Iraq has failed to fully account for its past programs, they argue that this need not yet be considered a casus belli, that 1441 contains no timetable for action, and that more intrusive inspections, so long as they can be maintained, remain a better approach than war. These European governments seem to be making the case for an enhanced form of containment, even though the approach they accepted in 1441 appeared to be a choice between genuine disarmament and war.

If these were just the views of a small number of European governments—even including veto-wielding France and current Security Council president Germany—it would not pose the Bush Administration much of a problem. France and Germany would be isolated and the United States could move ahead to implement 1441 according to its own interpretation. The problem, however, is that a vast majority of European public opinion—around 82 percent according to recent polls—along with key foreign governments like Russia and China, shares the French and German perspective. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s political need for another UN Security Council resolution, recent antiwar demonstrations by millions of European citizens, and the unprecedented spectacle of an audience at the Security Council greeting the French Foreign Minister’s call for more time for inspections with applause, all suggest that European opposition to use of force in Iraq right now may be more than the minor irritation caused by one or two European governments. Whatever one’s own reading of 1441—and it is difficult to argue with the Bush Administration’s case that Iraq remains in material breach of that resolution—European opposition to the American case for war has become a significant problem.


The depth of European opposition to war in Iraq has left many Americans both deeply resentful of the European position and puzzled about the reasons for it. Having seen on September 11, 2001, what terrorists can and will do, and given the Iraqi regime’s track record, why should the international community not join together behind the United States to use force to get rid of Saddam Husayn? The question is asked in particular about France and Germany, who are leading the charge against war in Iraq.

Two of the most commonly suggested explanations for French and German policy—commercial interests and anti-Americanism—are incomplete at best. While both countries once had significant commercial relationships with Iraq, twelve years of sanctions on that country have reduced business interests to a minimum. French exports to and imports from Iraq account for 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent of its overall exports and imports, and for Germany the figures are 0.004 percent and 0.0000067 percent. France is indeed owed approximately $5 billion from Iraq from previous deals, but it also understands that this money is highly unlikely to be paid so long as Saddam Husayn is in power. The same is true for oil contracts that have reportedly been agreed between French oil companies and the current regime; so long as sanctions remain on Iraq—and no one believes the United States will ever agree to lifting financial controls while Saddam is in power—the deals will never be realized. The bottom line is that if commercial interests were the main factor driving policy, the appropriate strategy for France and Germany would be to back the U.S. threat of force, join the coalition, and insist on a share of the spoils—including debt repayment and the honoring of oil contracts.

It is also hard to ascribe French and German policy to “anti-American” motivations. To be sure, anti-Americanism exists in both countries, and is clearly growing. But as a primary explanation for why France and Germany are opposing U.S. policy in Iraq while other governments in Europe are supporting it, “anti-Americanism” does not hold up. Only 15 months ago, when the United States used force in Afghanistan, France and Germany strongly supported the action, which was backed by 73 percent and 65 percent of their respective populations. A Social Democratic/Green majority in the German Bundestag supported sending 3,900 German combat troops to fight alongside the Americans, and a Socialist-Communist-Green coalition in France authorized the sending of French troops. Clearly the degree of European support for or opposition to U.S. policy has something to do with what that policy is, as opposed to a systematic opposition to whatever the United States does. Attributing European opposition to French and German anti-Americanism also fails to account for the fact that large majorities of the population in traditionally “pro-American” European countries—84 percent in Britain; 80 percent in the Netherlands; 75 percent in Poland and over 90 percent in Turkey—also strongly oppose U.S. policy in Iraq.

There are better explanations of the widespread European opposition to war, the first and most obvious of which is the broad aversion to war itself among European public opinion. Having experienced military conflict on their continent within living memory, Europeans feel they know more about its horrific consequences than Americans, and their threshold for deciding when war as a last resort becomes necessary is consequently higher. This holds true more for a country like Germany that suffered most from the devastation of World War II, but it is even true for a traditionally less pacifist country like France, which has also experienced “war, occupation, and barbarity,” as Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin reminded the Security Council on February 14. After 50 years of integration and the overcoming of past enmity, Europeans have also come to place more faith in diplomacy and cooperation than Americans, whose lessons of the Cold War include a greater respect for the need to threaten or use military force.

The second key factor is terrorism. Most Europeans believe that a U.S.-led invasion of an Arab country—with its consequent civilian casualties and likely need for a long-term occupation—will more likely be a recruitment tool for Al Qaeda than a blow against terrorism. Osama bin Laden’s February 12 tape calling on Iraqis to rise up and attack the country’s invaders may have been cited by Secretary of State Colin Powell as proof of Al Qaeda’s ties with Iraq, but for most Europeans it demonstrated the opposite: the terrorists’ desire to try to incite the Iraqi people and entire Arab world to oppose an American presence in the region. If the next large terrorist attack takes place in a European capital of a country that supports the United States on Iraq—London, Madrid, or Rome, for example—many Europeans may well blame American policy for having provoked the result.

Third, Europeans are far more pessimistic about being able to stabilize Iraq than Americans, or at least the Bush administration. Spurred on by their immense power and general historical optimism, Americans seem confident that they can meet the challenge of bringing freedom, stability, and democracy to a post-Saddam Iraq. Europeans, on the other hand—especially the British and French, the Mandatory Powers for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine after World War I—see little reason to expect the project to be a success based on their colonial experience in the Arab world. Even if they support the goal of removing Saddam’s dictatorial regime, they doubt that Iraq’s ethnically divided population, artificial borders, and unequally allocated natural resources lend themselves to future stability, and fear that disorder there could prove disastrous for the entire Arab world. Europeans are therefore deeply skeptical that the invasion of Iraq will produce the stable, liberated democracy that Americans hope will prove a catalyst for democratization and reform throughout the region.

Finally, European opposition to the United States on Iraq—especially from the French and the Russians—is a question of world order. Whereas many European leaders are willing to back the United States on Iraq even if most of their public is opposed to war, French leaders in particular are simply not prepared to accept that decisions about global war and peace should be decided unilaterally in Washington, especially if much of international opinion would prefer to follow a different course. It is not anti-Americanism in the sense of systematic hostility to whatever the United States does, but it is a refusal to accept U.S. leadership simply because America is the great power. Europe’s internal divisions over Iraq, in this sense, have as much to do with different countries’ attitudes toward American leadership as they do with different views about what to do about Iraq.


One of the unexpected—and arguably unnecessary—casualties of the current transatlantic dispute has been NATO. Seeking to calm fears in Turkey about the effects of an Iraq war, and stung by the criticism that it snubbed its NATO allies during the Afghanistan operation the previous year, the United States in late 2002 asked NATO to consider planning for the defense of Turkey in case of retaliation by Iraq. Most of the NATO allies supported the preventive measure, but France, Germany, and Belgium argued that taking action at NATO would be a premature acceptance of the notion that war was inevitable, and blocked planning from taking place. After a nearly three-month standoff, and a request by Turkey itself under NATO’s consultation mechanism (Article 4), Germany and Belgium finally agreed to let NATO plan for the deployment of NATO AWACS, air and missile defense systems, and chemical and biological weapons detection units to Turkey. France, not a member of the Defense Planning Committee where the decision was finally taken, stood aside.

The NATO dispute demonstrated just how tense Atlantic relations have become, and also showed how the differences over Iraq can spill over into other areas. Both sides share some of the blame for a crisis of confidence that will be difficult to overcome. Knowing that several allies were not yet willing to proceed with NATO plans for Turkey’s defense, the United States could easily have avoided the controversy and ensured that the defensive measures were taken on a bilateral basis. During the Cold War, Washington never made support for its “out-of-area” activities—such as the Korean or Vietnam wars—a litmus test of loyalty to the Alliance as a whole. This time it did so, and NATO did not pass.

That said, it remains difficult to understand how some allies could fail to heed a request by another for contingency planning for a possible attack. Given that France itself had consistently said that the use of force remained an option, it was hard to argue that contingency planning in NATO would be anything other than an expression of solidarity and prudent preparation. No matter how much the French, Germans, and Belgians insisted that their solidarity with Turkey was complete, the impression left has been one of allies unwilling to stand together in a time of need. Americans who were already skeptical about relying on NATO to pursue common transatlantic interests will now be even more reluctant to do so.


The next several weeks will go far toward determining how deep and lasting the damage to transatlantic relations will be. Arguing that time for Iraqi compliance is running out, the United States and Britain plan soon to put forward a new UN Security Council resolution declaring that Iraq has failed to meet its obligations. France has already said that it opposes such a resolution and has threatened to veto it. If neither side changes its position, a serious transatlantic clash seems likely.

The depth of the clash will depend to a large extent on the positions of Russia, China, and other Security Council members. If France and Germany are isolated in their efforts to stop the United States from using force, the Americans and British could either try to win a majority vote against them or simply withdraw their draft resolution and proceed on the legal basis provided by 1441 and with the support of other allies. If, on the other hand, France and Germany win backing from Russia, China, and a majority of other Security Council members to call for more time for inspectors, the United States would be in the very difficult position of having to act not only without explicit UN support but actually in the face of Security Council opposition, a huge political problem for Tony Blair. Under those circumstances, the transatlantic—and intra-European—resentments and recriminations would be enormous, and their consequences difficult to contain.

Can such a crisis be avoided? Whereas the previous conventional wisdom assumed that France would ultimately back down so as to preserve its own interests and the authority of the UN Security Council, President Jacques Chirac has so far showed no sign of a willingness to do so. France apparently either still believes it can prevent the United States from acting, or is determined to maintain its opposition even to a war it knows it cannot stop. Nor, however, does it seem possible for President Bush to back down, even in the face of widespread opposition. There is still a remote possibility that the United States and France can agree on an ultimatum, whereby Iraq would be given a few more weeks to finally comply with specific UN demands or face the use of force by a united international community. Given current French and German policy, however, there seems little chance they would accept such an approach—if they do not believe there is a case for war today, why would that case be better after several more weeks of even more rigorous inspections? At the same time, given the lack of American trust in France and Germany, there is little chance the Americans would agree to it either. As a result, the only real prospect for avoiding further crisis would seem to be a clear misstep by Saddam Husayn, which would lead to a denunciation by the weapons inspectors and perhaps lead to a French turnabout. Barring that, the most likely outcome of the crisis is that the United States will remain on a collision course with France, Germany, and much of European public opinion, and that transatlantic and intra-European tensions will get worse before they get better. It is perhaps only in the aftermath of an invasion of Iraq that the transatlantic allies will be able to begin to pick up the pieces.

* Philip H. Gordon is Director of the Center on the United States and France and a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program and the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution.