Politics & Policy

Communication Gap

Eurotalk vs. Ameritalk.

Like many Americans, I have been dumbfounded by the surrealism of the U.N. Security Council deliberations over Iraq. It should be simple. When President Bush stated his intention to disarm Saddam, he was urged to seek international legitimacy by obtaining Security Council approval. Bush acceded. The result: Resolution 1441, demanding that Iraq proactively disarm or face “serious consequences,” a diplomatic euphemism for war.

As expected, Iraq openly defied the United Nations. So, pursuant to 1441, President Bush now believes that the promised serious consequences should flow like a river. But “Old Europe” has said no. It sees 1441 quite differently than do the Americans. Rather than war, the French, Germans, and others say 1441 means the weapons inspectors should be allowed to continue “doing their job” of “disarming Iraq through inspections” — even though everyone knows no such thing is taking place.

Until a week ago, the Old European approach was utterly inexplicable to me. Then I participated in a Fulbright Commission bioethics conference in Lisbon, where, after three days of rubbing shoulders and crossing verbal swords with European thinkers about issues such as euthanasia and cloning, I experienced one of those “Voila, Je comprends” moments. I now understand why the United States and our allies in Old Europe have such dramatically different approaches to what all agree is the serious problem of Iraq.

The dispute isn’t really about facts, but about process.

For Americans, “process” is primarily the means used to achieve a desired end. Thus, the obtaining of 1441 was intended to actually lead to immediate Iraqi disarmament. But to Old Europeans, immediate disarmament wasn’t the primary point of the Security Council exercise. Rather, the primary goal was to go through a proper procedure and accommodate all perspectives on solving the problem.

Let me put it another way. For Americans, creating public policy is mostly about different sides competing to implement their ideological principles and goals. While compromise is certainly part of our system, for us, politics inevitably involves open conflict, heated debate, winning or losing, succeeding or failing. But Old Europeans distrust win-or-lose political processes and generally avoid principled debate — precisely because it leads to overt political conflict. They have developed a system that implements public policy by means of forging a “consensus” that generally accommodates some aspects of most respectable points-of-view. Thus, Resolution 1441 actually means one thing in “Ameritalk,” but something quite different in “Eurotalk.”

In Lisbon, I began to comprehend the dramatic differences between the American and Old European approaches during a panel discussion I participated in on euthanasia. I was invited to the conference to argue against legalization. During my presentation, I made the point that the regulatory guidelines don’t protect against abuses but merely provide an appearance of control, to calm public unease.

As proof, I referred to several studies on Dutch euthanasia revealing that about 1,000 patients who have not asked to be euthanized are killed by doctors each year. Though such killings are considered murder under Dutch law, I explained that those doctors who engage in “termination without request or consent” in the Netherlands are almost never prosecuted. Moreover, the very few who are prosecuted are usually found not guilty. And the exceedingly rare conviction, when it happens, never leads to criminal sanction, or even professional discipline against the offending doctor.

When I make this point in debates with American euthanasia advocates, their response is usually to angrily accuse me of exaggerating, or else to excuse the conduct owing to the poor condition of the patients involved. But the Dutch advocate was not offended or upset. Rather, he calmly admitted that my point as unremarkable, stating, “Well, it is important that we have laws to tell us what constitutes good medical practice in this area. But, of course, these laws should not be enforced.”

My jaw dropped. What’s the point of passing laws if they’re not going to be enforced?

To the Old European way of thinking, though, it apparently makes perfect sense. The guidelines don’t exist to punish those who break them; rather, they’re a vehicle for maintaining consensus and comity between those who support euthanasia and those who oppose it. Supporters have the satisfaction of knowing that euthanasia is available in many circumstances. Opponents have the satisfaction of knowing that legal restrictions limit the actual practice of euthanasia, at least to some degree. Hence, a controversial public policy that is an emotional flashpoint of the culture war in the United States is generally accepted with quiet equanimity by the people of the Netherlands — even though it has led to many thousands of Dutch patients being murdered without legal consequence.

This point of understanding crystallized for me as I pondered a private conversation I had with someone who had heard my presentation and who told me he didn’t think I believe in “dialogue.” I was taken aback. “How can you say that?” I asked. “I flew 6,000 miles to be here. I sat next to people with whom I profoundly disagree. I was cordial and collegial. I did not raise my voice. I engaged in no ad hominem. I backed up my assertions with evidence. Now it’s up to the audience to decide whether they agree with me or not.”

“But you do not believe in dialogue,” he repeated testily. “You only care about what you believe.”

We were clearly not on the same page about what it means to have a dialogue. To me, engaging in a political dialogue means participating civilly in the rough-and-tumble, the give-and-take, of political debate. The aim of dialogue isn’t simply to exchange views, but also to persuade and, yes, prevail if agreement cannot otherwise be reached. What I gleaned from my non-American conversationalist is that to him, dialogue apparently means participating in the process of achieving a consensus that can somehow accommodate all points of view. Not only that, but the act of abiding by a consensus seems to be more important than whatever policy is finally implemented. My protagonist wasn’t offended by my opinions but by my approach.

Or, to put it another way: In his own way, he was accusing me of being a unilateralist.

This is what I think is going on in the United Nations between the United States and our erstwhile allies of France and Germany, albeit at a profoundly more consequential scale. Before President Bush’s speech to the General Assembly, Old Europe really didn’t care much about disarming Iraq. It certainly didn’t think it was worth fighting a war over. But after 9/11, the United States came to care very much about disarming Iraq — through the use of force, if necessary.

When President Bush appeared before the General Assembly, it became suddenly clear to the world that something must be done about Iraq. And so, true to form, the Security Council worked toward a consensus. The result was the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1441.

Now that it’s clear Saddam won’t disarm, President Bush wants to enforce the letter of the law. But instead of meeting its obligations, Old Europe is appalled. To them, the actual content of 1441 isn’t what matters — it’s the consensus the resolution represents that they hold dear. Just as the Dutch don’t want their lawbreaking doctors actually punished, President Bush is expected to allow the inspections to continue until such time — should it ever come — as a consensus permitting forced disarmament and regime change is actually achieved.

This European approach was the one pursued by the first President Bush during the Gulf War. Though lacking a consensus on removing Saddam from power, Bush 41 was able to lead a massive coalition precisely because he agreed to restrain the use of American military power and remain within the permissible parameters of action, as established by the international consensus. As a result, Kuwait was quickly liberated. But because regime change was not in the cards, Saddam remained a festering, dangerous malignancy — and a far greater threat now then he was then.

President Bush appears to have learned an important lesson from that fiasco. Unlike his father, he is engaging in “dialogue” in the American rather than the European sense of the term. Having shown that Saddam is in material breach, the president insists that the time has come for results, not more process. Which is precisely why he is vilified as an arrogant unilateralist, an unsophisticated cowboy, a bloodthirsty imperialist. To Old Europeans, acting outside of the consensus is a far greater sin than merely being a vicious dictator threatening the safety of the world with weapons of mass destruction.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America.


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