Accessibility links

U.S./EU: As Congress Debates Iraq, Europeans See Growing American Unilateralism

  • Charles Recknagel

As the U.S. Congress debates authorizing military action against Iraq, the decision will rest largely upon how comfortable the legislators are with endorsing a historic shift in U.S. foreign policy. That shift is to move from a multilateral Cold War reliance on deterrence and arms control to a new unilateral approach, which accepts preemptive attack as a way to defend U.S. interests. The question interests not only U.S. lawmakers, however, but it also concerns Washington's closest European allies, who are watching the debate closely. RFE/RL looks at how European governments regard the changing face of U.S. foreign policy.

Prague, 3 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The debate now under way in the Senate is the first test for President George W. Bush's new foreign policy since it was detailed to the U.S. Congress publicly last month.

That policy -- contained in a document titled "The National Security Strategy of the United States" -- argued that while Washington will seek allies in the battle against terrorism, "[it] will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise [its] right of self-defense by acting preemptively."

In the days ahead, the Senate and the House of Representatives are expected to give lengthy debate to a Bush-administration resolution applying just that right in the case of Iraq. The proposal requests broad Congressional approval to take whatever action Bush deems proper against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whether or not Washington has the support of other countries.

Bush defended his stance at a White House press briefing yesterday after he and leading legislators reached agreement on the wording of the proposal to be considered by the House of Representatives. "America's leadership and willingness to use force, confirmed by the Congress, is the best way to ensure compliance and avoid conflict. Saddam must disarm, period. If, however, he chooses to do otherwise, if he persists in his defiance, the use of force may become unavoidable," Bush said.

The debate is being closely followed in Europe, where many governments have expressed unease with what they see as Washington's growing commitment to unilateral action to solve global problems.

Some European observers view that commitment as a historic shift away from America's previous Cold War-era policies, which favored multilateral coalitions and alliances, deterrence, and arms control to contain communism. Those policies also characterized the decade after the end of the Cold War, when Washington built an international coalition to evict Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and championed the use of UN sanctions and weapons inspections to make Iraq disarm.

Sir John Moberly, a regional expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, said that European leaders worry that the new U.S. readiness to act unilaterally is leading the international community away from the consensus-building efforts of the last decades toward an uncertain future in which European views will matter less.

He also said that many European leaders worry that Washington's growing unilateralism could make it act more as an imperial power, i.e., a power that is interested in taking a multilateral approach only so long as its partners do not frustrate its will. "There is a touch of arrogance about American policy which, [though] it takes some account of opinion in Europe, is obviously clearly prepared to override that opinion if George W. Bush thinks that is what he wants to do. But there will be more strains, I think, in relations between the U.S. and Europe, and [there will be] the feeling that the U.S. is adopting a kind of imperial policy," Moberly said.

Some of those sentiments, which usually are voiced quietly in Europe's diplomatic and political circles, spilled out into highly public view during the 22 September German elections.

During the campaigning, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who ultimately won re-election, said Berlin would not cooperate in any unilateral U.S. military operation against Iraq. His justice minister, who later resigned, accused Bush of using the issue of war with Iraq to distract American voters from domestic problems in the United States and went so far as to compare him with Hitler in Germany during the 1930s.

Such remarks have fueled a rising tide of anti-Americanism over Washington's unilateral stance. In recent weeks, the new anti-Americanism has been repeatedly addressed by one of the few European leaders who strongly supports Bush's Iraq policy, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

On 1 October, Blair, addressing a conference of his Labour Party, criticized the anti-American sentiment, saying the United States and Europe have a strong alliance that is in the interest of both sides. "It is easy to be anti-American. There's a lot of it about. But remember when and where this alliance was forged: here, in Europe, in World War II, when Britain and America and every decent citizen in Europe joined forces to liberate Europe from the Nazi evil."

Another European leader who supports the U.S. efforts to ensure the disarmament of Iraq is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. European governments that strongly oppose any U.S. military strike against Iraq include those of France, Belgium, Sweden, and Russia, in addition to Germany.

A second controversial element for Europeans in Washington's new foreign policy is Bush's determination to maintain the huge military lead the United States has developed relative to the rest of the world since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago.

The U.S. administration's security-strategy document released last month says that "our forces will be strong enough [to] dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." Proponents of that position argue that maintaining such overwhelming strength will encourage potential foreign rivals to form alliances with the United States rather than compete militarily with it.

Steven Everts, a political expert at the Center for European Reform in London, said that Bush's goal of maintaining overwhelming military superiority is inspiring mixed emotions in Europe. "Undoubtedly, global security benefits from a very prominent role, and a very benign role, that the United States has played over the years. And it undoubtedly is true that the United States underwrites much of the global security system as we know it today," Everts said.

But he said while that role is welcome, many Europeans also worry that Washington could grow used to solving its problems through its overwhelming military superiority rather than through more painstaking, diplomatic means. "At the same time, it is also true that there is a growing imbalance in the financial priorities of the United States. There is ever more money for the military, and this is having a sort of effect on how the United States looks at the world. If you want to characterize it a bit, you could say that if the only instrument you have is a hammer, then all your problems start looking like a nail," Everts said.

In other words, if you have a powerful army, then there is the temptation to see all problems as easily solvable by using force.

Many observers say that in the post-11 September Unite States, where the government wants to show people it is doing everything to protect them from attacks, there is little chance Washington's new emphasis on strength and unilateral action will change soon.

The discussions in the Senate, and those soon to begin in the House of Representatives, are widely expected to end sometime next week in authorization for military action against Iraq. As Britain's daily "The Times" reported earlier this week, "there is little doubt about the outcome of Congress's vote -- the main question is whether Bush wins by a large margin or an overwhelming one."