Mar. 9, 2003. 01:00 AM
Whatever futile, last-minute jockeying takes place at the United Nations this week, the war against Iraq has already counted its first casualty.
The transatlantic alliance that has bound America and Europe together for 50 years has been deeply fractured, perhaps terminally, by the Iraq debate.
Or more precisely, by the debate on whether the United States, as the world's only superpower, has the right to act on its own, bypassing the opinions of others in a supposedly international forum. Especially when some others — veto-wielding France chief among them — were once political powers and would like, intensely, to be so again.
The actual agendas at play in the corridors of the Security Council are multiple, say analysts, and not always what they seem. But neither, in most cases, are they well hidden.
While Germany's revulsion for war is viewed as being genuinely born out of two catastrophic world wars, France's objections are seen as both real and cynically self-serving.
It knows it might lose the Iraq debate but is betting on ultimately winning a far more precious prize, the leadership of Europe. It wants to become an alternative power to the United States, the "Uncola," in one commentator's phrase.
With a permanent seat on the Security Council putting it one-up on Germany, this is the moment to begin the campaign. Or so it thinks.
Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin staked out the French turf last month, declaring that, "in the temple of the U.N., we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of conscience." Whether it was calculated opportunism or folie de grandeur, as U.S. critics charged, France grabbed and held on to the international spotlight.
"Real and self-serving" is also how most analysts describe America's U.N. stance — its conviction, hardened by 9/11, that "evil" must be confronted, even at the risk of war or other nations' objections.
Whether it's helped by "a coalition of the willing" or of the sullenly acquiescent — or no one other than the British and a platoon of Australians — is a roll of the dice it's prepared, and militarily able, to take.
"The difference between the two is that the French are looking two or three steps beyond Iraq," says David Rudd, director of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies. "Looking ahead doesn't seem part of the U.S. modus operandi."
Without substantial military might of its own, France "has the luxury of playing good cop to America's bad," he adds.
Either way, the impasse has forced to the surface long-festering resentments between the two. Which, in turn, means there's a lot more at stake for the world right now than just the disarming of Saddam Hussein.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw put it this way last week: "What I say to France and Germany, and all my other European Union colleagues, is: Take care. We will reap a whirlwind if we push the U.S. into a unilateralist position."
However the Iraq crisis plays out, the French-led challenge to the U.S., more so than the Russian or Chinese, signals a fundamental sea change for the West and possible death for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
At best, if the war is swiftly won, the rupture may be patched up, to be dealt with another day. But if, as many believe, it turns ugly and the aftermath becomes a debacle, the fissure will deepen, with the consequences felt the world over.
"The distrust the U.S. has sown is not going to evaporate, especially if there is massive destabilization after the war," argues Rick Halpern, acting director of the Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Toronto.
"It doesn't seem to realize the depth of feeling in Europe against U.S. unilateralism."
Unilateralism not just regarding Iraq, but on the Kyoto accord, the world criminal court, the international landmine and antiballistic missiles treaties — and all the other multilateral agreements from which America has walked away in recent years.
But it's the current Iraq debate that "gives us a quick flash of the future and it's a complicated picture," says former politician John English, director of the foreign policy and federalism program at the University of Waterloo.
It seems clear that there "is going to be a widening of the Atlantic with the U.S. and Europe moving further apart. That will be tough on Canada. We didn't contribute much to it, but psychologically for us, NATO was a counterweight to U.S. dominance."
Not that the Europeans cared about that, University of Toronto historian Robert Bothwell says dryly.
"They don't take Canada seriously. They don't see it as anything but a large blob on the top of the U.S., and on its way to becoming part of it."
Cynics might say that at least the United States and Europe still have that in common. Otherwise, their joint worldview ended with the Cold War when the Soviet Union crashed and burned, removing their mutual enemy. It was then that first death knell of the Atlantic alliance was sounded.
Experiencing two world wars on their continent had soured Europeans' taste for power politics, and a central tenet of the new European Union was that members not wage war on each other.
NATO managed to remain in place through the 1990s, with Washington ever more reluctantly footing the bill for military hardware, the 15 EU countries ever more reluctant to accept American domination of the members, and neither side being happy with its force's performance in the Balkans conflict.
Long before that, however, the two sides were on divergent political paths, differing on everything from the state provision of health care to the death penalty, with the United States becoming culturally less attuned to the other side of the Atlantic as its population grew more non-European in origin.
Today, says James Reed, Harvard University historian and president of the Boston branch of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, "Europe is a far more advanced society."
While there may be hypocritical self-interest in France's anti-war position, given its policies in Algeria and other parts of Africa, Reed says, "there is also sincerity. This generation of European leadership is ashamed of what their parents did.
"The EU has developed a different philosophy of politics, a pan-European consciousness that is multilateral. The U.S., since 9/11, has reverted to all the old traits Europe has outgrown."
The estrangement between the two is real, and will deepen in the next decade, Reed predicts, as Europe sets about converting its economic strength into political clout: "A new balance of power always emerges when one country gets too strong."
The new transatlantic order is unlikely to affect Canada, however, because location has already determined its place in the global scheme of things: "Canadians think of themselves as more European than we Americans do, but North America is moving in one direction, and Canada will be dragged along, even if kicking and screaming."
European desires to redefine the Atlantic alliance pre-date the Iraq debate but have been exacerbated by it. Despite its opposition to American use of force, analysts note that:
The EU has begun work on the creation of a security and defence policy that will have a 60,000-member, rapid-reaction military force autonomous from NATO.
A German official recently put Washington on unofficial notice that as Europe becomes an "independent actor," it intends to forge its own security relationship with Russia. He warned that "development of the union's defence identity is an accelerating process that it would be a mistake to oppose."
In a meeting in Brussels last month, former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, now head of the convention on the EU's future, called for a common foreign policy that "unreservedly obligates" all members to act in solidarity.
With Britain, Spain and Italy — and membership candidates such as Bulgaria and Slovakia — earning French wrath for backing the United States, de Villepin cautioned at the meeting, "Now more than ever, we have to reconfirm our common position."
They can try, says U of T's Bothwell, "but Europe doesn't yet have a coherent core. The different countries have divergent interests. Membership hasn't diminished individual sovereignty."
Analysts say there are no permanent alliances, only permanent interests and, with eastern European nations, survival dictates political expediency. Like everyone else in this dispute, they too, are rolling the dice by backing the U.S.
The smaller nations want Washington's economic support, says York University political scientist David Dewitt, "but in the long term, they have to get into bed with France and Germany, even though they know those countries are mercurial and will always act, as they are acting now, in their own interests."
They may, like Canada, have their fate almost solely determined by geography. If, that is, the current rupture between Europe and the United States leads to a permanent gulf.
Not everyone thinks that will happen. U of T historian Ronald Preussen, for one, discounts the prevailing notion that a profound shift is in play.
"Episodes and crises have existed all the way along between the U.S. and Europe," he says, citing the Suez crisis in the 1950s, president Charles de Gaulle pulling France out of NATO in the 1960s and West German chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik dealings with the Soviet Union in the 1970s — all of which infuriated the United States.
"This is a difficult moment between the two sides, but there have been many difficult moments," says Preussen. "They've worked themselves out."
In the long run, if not the short, the current crisis will also be resolved. The alliance between Europe and the United States is too important not to repair, say analysts, especially as the threat of terrorist attack hangs equally over both for the foreseeable future.
Eventually, Washington's aggressive, "with-us-or-against-us" foreign policy will be repudiated, they say, and the chasm will be narrowed.
"Not by the present U.S. administration, of course," says Halpern.
"But this administration isn't forever."
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