What Europe Knows

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

February 2, 2003

The Bush administration and “Old Europe,” as Donald Rumsfeld called France and Germany, disagree on Iraq because they use different historical analogies to account for the situation and have different views of the natural course of history and what they can do about it. That may be the key to the transatlantic disagreement over going to war. Understanding this could open the way to a more peaceful, more permanent resolution of the crisis.

President George W. Bush made clear in his State of the Union address Tuesday that he compares a war in Iraq to the fight against Hitlerism and that he sees himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, persevering against evil. “If this is not evil,” he said after listing Iraqi methods of torture, “then evil has no meaning.” Actually, he goes further than Churchill, pledging not just to react against an imminent threat or already committed aggression, but to prevent a future war, a future Munich or even a North Korea-type situation, from ever happening (“America and the world will not be blackmailed,” said the president).

We know from the buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region that Bush’s military models are the first Gulf War and Afghanistan—swift and overwhelming military action with high-tech weapons and few casualties on the U.S. side. As for the aftermath, to the extent that Bush discusses this, the analogies are to post-World War II Germany and Japan: a vague sense of installing a form of democracy and market economy. Many in the Bush administration believe they can provide a sort of shock therapy to the Muslim world, to bring a sudden awakening to a dormant and troubled civilization that needs to confront modernity. “Americans are a free people who know that freedom is the right of every person and the future of every nation,” Bush said. “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”

The French and Germans are much more pessimistic. So are the populations of many European countries, according to recent polls, even though in some cases—as with a letter signed by eight countries last week—their governments are rallying to Bush. Europeans remember America’s failure to install successful democracy after interventions in Cuba, the Philippines, Haiti and even the South after the Civil War.

Struck by American overconfidence in bringing peace to a tormented region and a torn country, they remember Vietnam. In the early 1960s, many in the United States thought American military might and economic know-how would turn South Vietnam into a flourishing democracy. America would not only repel North Vietnam militarily, it would create a model for other developing economies, applying New Deal and Keynesian recipes such as a huge Mekong Valley Authority to oversee development.

But these dreams never materialized. The French recall a famous speech in 1966, in which Charles de Gaulle warned Lyndon Johnson that he would get bogged down in Vietnam—not unlike Jacques Chirac, who knows the Gulf region well, warning George W. Bush about the potential dangers of a post-Saddam Hussein Mideast.

The “Old Europe” also remembers its colonial history, having learned the hard way how difficult it is to run different societies from afar. (This goes also for the general population in other former colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal, where the governments are supporting the United States.) After the many painful social and political transitions that have occurred in their long histories, these countries are more sensitive to the long-term evolution of civilizations. They chafe at the idea that the United States could change the course of Arab-Muslim history just by getting after Hussein and bringing the American way of life to Baghdad.

These diverging visions are not only a result of differing histories but of the de facto international division of labor. Americans look at the war; Europeans look at what happens after because, whether they like it or not, in the current world, America does the heavy fighting and Europe keeps the peace—and pays for most of it.

Post-war nation-building is hard and costs a lot. The Europeans learned this in Bosnia and in Kosovo, two small developed regions with a diverse civil society, but where peace is still fragile and European troops now make up the bulk of the peacekeepers, along with some U.S. forces. And they see it again in Afghanistan, where Western troops last week were under the fiercest attack in many months.

What would a post-Hussein Iraq, torn between ethnic and religious minorities attracted by the prospect of a secession, look like, the French and Germans ask Washington? Americans, on the other hand, tend to be optimistic because they will wage war with superior military capabilities and reap the glory of victory and post-war diplomatic settlements, possibly including gaining better leverage to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The American “can-do,” proactive attitude of this decade is very much related to U.S. military capacities and its wealth acquired in the economic boom of 1990s. There is a relationship between capacities and intentions at work. For example, if you buy a home computer just to do word processing, chances are you will end up using it also for photos and music just because the computer can do it. Having discovered this wonder, the next computer you will buy will be even more powerful and you will discover even more functions for it.

Having discovered the unrivaled might of its military, America has moved from a policy of intervening only where it was urgent, to pre-emption and regime change. Why stick with containment when you can do roll-back at low political cost and with decent chances of success?

But while Washington can capitalize on military might, Europeans can’t. They have much smaller armed forces, less ability to deploy large numbers of troops abroad and have trouble working together. Europeans try to manage problems over time, or address root causes in a slow but sustained way, because that’s what their most effective tools, such as cooperation programs and development aid, lead them to favor.

How does this play out in the debate about Iraq? Because they have the option of changing things, Americans tend to emphasize the cost of the status quo in the Middle East: suffering of the Iraqi people, American presence in Saudi Arabia and regional instability fostered by Hussein. The United States also emphasizes the chances for a brighter future after military intervention. Europeans tend to emphasize the cost of change—the human and political cost of the war—as well as the possibilities of change without war. They point out numerous hazards ahead, such as discontent in Arab populations, more recruiting for terrorist networks, destabilization of friendly regimes, secession of entire regions of Iraq. They also believe that keeping Hussein in a box would ultimately bring down his regime, as it did the Soviet Union.

These different visions need to be reconciled. Americans are right to point out that always emphasizing risks and dangers rather than opportunities can lead to defeatism, sometimes even appeasement. But Europeans are right to remind the Bush administration that overconfidence can lead to recklessness and trouble in the long term.

If the two sides understood the roots of their differences, they could achieve much more together. Europeans could see the positive prospects of regime change. America needs allies to help share the enormous political and financial costs of reconstruction, peace and prosperity. Perhaps the two sides should consider a joint U.S.-European Union commitment, before the war, to stay in Iraq for as long as necessary, ensure the territorial integrity of the country and pay for its stabilization. Americans can win the war, but certainly will need the Europeans to do the hardest part—win the peace.