In their recent attempts to dampen criticism of France and Germany regarding U.S. policy toward Iraq, both President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have recited history back to World War II, when America helped to rescue Europe from Hitler’s tyranny.
But World War II ended over half a century ago and gratitude has a short shelf life in world politics. It should not surprise us that alliances forged in the 1940s, and the institutions that were built on those alliances, would take on new configurations as the world situation evolved and became more fluid.
The pattern of alliances and alignments during the 20th century was never stable. In World War I, the United States intervened late in the conflict on the side of England, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia against the Central Powers of Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Turkey. Less than a quarter century later, World War II saw the U.S. again allied with England, France, and Russia; but Japan and Italy had joined Germany in the Axis. The Austro-Hungarian empire no longer existed, Turkey stayed neutral, and an emerging China was with the Allies.
The United Nations was formed by the victorious Allies, with the U.S., England, France, Russia, and China holding permanent seats on the Security Council with veto power. Like the League of Nations created at the end of World War I, the U.N. was meant to build on the status quo established by the Allied victory and prevent another world war from overturning it.
The League of Nations failed despite all the rhetoric and peace conferences of the 1920s because the major states were still concerned first and foremost with protecting their own interests and acquiring, when possible, power and material advantages from others. When the League called on Japan to cease its expansion into China, Tokyo knew no one was willing to back up the demand with action, and so continued its imperialist policy. When France brought the issue of Germany’s “illegal” rearmament to the League in 1935, nothing was done. And when Abyssinia brought up the issue of Italian aggression, Britain and France were more concerned about recruiting Mussolini into an anti-German alignment. Geopolitics was back in vogue.
The world into which the U.N. was born was even less suitable for the realization of lofty ideals than during the early days of the League. The Cold War started even before World War II was over and saw another major shift in alliances within what was widely seen as a contest for the future direction of the entire planet. The defeated Axis powers, after suitable regime changes, joined with the western democracies. China, after a regime change gave it a Communist leader, aligned with Soviet Russia to overturn the status quo of Western dominance.
When the Korean War broke out, President Truman went to the U.N. to condemn Communist North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. The U.N. was able to function in that test case only because Soviet Russia was boycotting the Security Council and the nationalist regime in Taiwan still held China’s seat. It should also be remembered that at the time, the U.N. was not yet a “universal” organization. It had only 51 members, drawn mainly from the wartime coalition.
As U.N. membership expanded, its role became increasingly convoluted and irrelevant. During the Cold War it was relegated to peripheral regions of the world, a series of pompous declarations and endless conferences in luxurious settings that primarily benefited delegates and their entourages.
In the afterglow of the collapse of the Soviet empire, the notion of a new world order was reborn in cosmopolitan circles. The first President Bush turned to the U.N. for support before liberating Kuwait from Iraqi aggression, a fateful decision that haunts his son as a new crisis looms. The Gulf War and the terms of its settlement became entangled in a series of U.N. resolutions that involved both the organization’s bureaucracy and other member states (including those who were not members of the U.S.-led coalition) in any process of change or enforcement.
President Clinton came into office with the typical liberal uneasiness about America’s dominant position in world affairs. Believing that “for the first time in history, the world’s leading nations are not engaged in a struggle with each other for security or territory,” he sought to strengthen international institutions as a source of legitimacy and restraint. But even he became frustrated with the U.N.’s bungling in the Balkans. Clinton turned to the NATO military alliance to conduct the 1999 Kosovo campaign. The U.S. commander of the operation, Gen. Wesley Clark, stated in his book Waging Modern War: “We wanted to make clear and unchallengeable that NATO was in charge,” otherwise “we would be as powerless as UNPROFOR [U.N. Protection Force].” The Serbs understood this, and were always trying to bring the U.N. back into the picture to frustrate American objectives.
Yet even NATO often seemed too large a coalition to handle a situation for which it had not been formed. The restraints Germany and France tried to apply to U.S. actions in the Balkans were a prelude to their current opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq.
French and German opposition at the U.N. is not just about their economic ties to Saddam Hussein, or even to their longstanding dispute with America over broader Middle East policy — it’s about their vision of Europe’s position in the world vis-à-vis the United States. Like the Russians and the Chinese, many Europeans see American “hegemony” as a constraint on their freedom to act on their own behalf as a peer power. Thus their approach to Iraq has little to do with any reference to the lofty principles supposedly embedded in the U.N. process. They look at every event through the lens of their own interests, which are centered more on containing Washington than Baghdad.
The European Union was created to match the power of the United States. It may have democratic roots, but its “father” was French socialist Jacques Delors. As an institution, the EU has its own ideology and ambitions, which sometimes set it at odds with American interests and values. Secretary Powell does not seem to recognize this development, as he repeated at the World Economic Forum last weekend the old Cold War mantra that Americans “continue to support a strong, united Europe, and congratulate Europeans on the recent enlargement of the European Union.”
A stronger, more centralized EU is not good for the United States. American leaders need to be able to approach governments individually to build new alliances to meet new dangers.
On January 30, the Times of London and other newspapers printed an open letter signed by the leaders of eight European nations — five of them EU members — supporting the U.S. demand that Iraq disarm. Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, Tony Blair of the UK, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, José Manuel Barroso of Portugal, Péter Medgyessy of Hungary, Leszek Miller of Poland, Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, and Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic argued, “the Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction represent a clear threat to world security.” The letter further stated that “we know that success in the day-to-day battle against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction demands unwavering determination and firm international cohesion on the part of all countries for whom freedom is precious.”
Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld had caused a stir when he called France and Germany the “Old Europe” out of touch with the “New Europe” but he put a great number of capitals on notice that the United States is serious about winning in this more fluid geopolitical environment.
The history of both the League of Nations and the United Nations shows that it is not possible to run the world by universal committee. Every nation has the duty to protect its own people and interests using all the traditional methods of statecraft — diplomatic, economic, and military. In his State of the Union address, President Bush again pledged to lead a coalition to disarm Iraq, claiming that “the decision of others” would not prevent the U.S. from pursuing its own security interests. This is the line that American officials will have to become adept at walking in a dynamic world with many competing players.
— William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national-security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, Washington, D.C.