U.S. Power Compels Europe to Act

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

February 14, 2002

Five months into the war on terrorism, European doubts about the wisdom of U.S. policy are growing. The French foreign minister castigates it as “simplistic.” His British counterpart dismisses President Bush’s description of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” as a bid to score domestic political points. German officials urge diplomatic rather than military action to deal with Iraq.

Running through these and other recent European statements is a sense of disappointment, if not betrayal. After Sept. 11, Europe expected a different American foreign policy-one grounded in a greater appreciation of allies and multilateral institutions and norms.

This expectation initially seemed justified. The United States did not lash out blindly after the attacks, but instead sought the support of NATO and the United Nations. It assembled an impressive international coalition to the war on terrorism. Even the fighting in Afghanistan was measured in means and limited in scope.

But now Europe sees the reemergence of a unilateralist American foreign policy oblivious to the views of others. They see an America that disregards basic international law by refusing to recognize that the Geneva Conventions apply to anyone captured in war. They see a president spouting belligerent rhetoric and unilaterally broadening the war on terrorism to include Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. And they see an American strategy that at nearly every turn emphasizes military solutions over everything else.

What happened to America’s more enlightened foreign policy?

Truth be told, there never was one. Europe’s hope that Bush would change his ways after Sept. 11 was just that—a hope.

Sept. 11 did not, contrary to what Europe thought, shake the fundamental foreign policy beliefs that had guided Bush and his senior advisers. Quite the contrary. It confirmed them. They had long described the world as being populated by evil people and regimes. They had repeatedly warned against the terrorist danger and the threat weapons of mass destruction. So while the terrorists’ methods may have surprised them, the fact that they tried did not.

With their worldview confirmed, it not surprising that Bush and his advisers have stuck to the foreign policy that guided them before Sept. 11. It is a foreign policy of hard-core realism, a world where power is what matters—and where those who are the most powerful get their way. It is a view that sees the world like a billiard table with many balls of different sizes. The United States is by far the biggest ball of all. Whatever it hits moves in the direction it wants. This is as true for friends, as it is for foes.

This brute foreign policy logic applies especially well when the fight can be cast in clear moral terms. As President Bush has stated many times, he—and most Americans—see the war on terrorism a fight between good and evil. Other nations have only two choices: “You are either with us or you are against us.” There is no third way.

Hubert Védrine may be right that this is a simplistic way to view a world. But it is the view that now reigns in the White House-and because America is uniquely powerful, it is a view that cannot be dismissed or wished away.

What, then, should America’s friends do if they worry that Washington is too quick to resort to military force? They can complain, but if that is all they do they will be ignored. The Bush administration can live with Europe’s criticisms. The big ball beats the smaller balls every time.

Europe’s only chance to influence U.S. policy is to take seriously the administration’s view that the status quo on Iran, Iraq, and North Korea is no longer acceptable and be willing to do something to change it.

That does not mean blindly endorsing U.S. military action. It does mean being willing to make all three countries pay a price if they refuse to mend their ways. Europe must tell Iraq to allow weapons inspectors unfettered access or face a war in which Europe participates. It must be willing to cut economic ties if Iran persists in supporting terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction. And it must tell Pyongyang that political engagement cannot proceed unless it immediately halts its missile technology exports.

If Europe makes clear that it is willing to act and not just talk, it will get a hearing for its views in Washington. Which would be for the good. When it comes to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the United States and Europe can accomplish far more working together than either can working apart.