Transatlantic ties have frayed as pundits and politicians have hurled invectives and insults across the ocean over France and Germany’s opposition in both NATO and the UN Security Council to the Bush administration’s war plans in Iraq. What makes this high-stakes drama so confusing to the public is the Bush administration’s red herring–Iraq. This row is not about Iraq, it’s about the new world order.

Contrast this debate with transatlantic cooperation in the war on terrorism. A broad coalition of allies is extremely willing to join in the fight against al Qaeda. “Old European” countries have disrupted alleged al Qaeda cells and in Germany one person was convicted for being complicit in the planning for the September 11th attacks. U.S. allies are supportive in the war on terrorism, but they clearly see a difference between the war on terrorism and war in Iraq.

The dispute in NATO and the UN is not really about Iraq. It never was. It’s about the United States. More specifically, it’s about the Bush administration’s post-September 11 doctrine to use U.S. military power to achieve national security objectives. On September 20, 2001, Bush adamantly declared: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Bush’s subsequent national security strategy articulated the aggressive position of preemptive military action to eliminate potential threats. The United States is now committed to use its superior military force to shape the world in America’s interests. What scares France and Germany is that Bush means it. Iraq is merely a symptom of this new disposition, a war the U.S. chooses to wage on its own terms.

What the French, Germans, and others fear most is the massive concentration of international power in and around a Bush-led United States. It’s not the power capability that has produced the transatlantic rift; it’s the fear that America’s power is now unchecked and unmitigated by international institutions and norms. It’s the fear that the U.S. can go to war without them.

In 1945, the United States was more powerful than it is now. After winning the war, U.S. troops occupied Europe and Japan, and an incredible U.S. fleet dominated the world’s oceans. The U.S. alone produced more of the world’s total economic output than the rest of the world combined. And, as a result of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. had a nuclear monopoly. The degree of U.S. preeminence in 1945 remains unmatched. Today, the U.S. is still the world’s largest economy. It has the only military with global reach and an unprecedented lead in military technology, from smart bombs to stealth fighters. But, the European Union forms a near-equal counterweight in economic affairs, and many nations have a nuclear deterrent sufficient to protect against a U.S. invasion.

Yet the more powerful U.S. after World War Two did not frighten Europe. By 1945, post-war planners such as Roosevelt, Acheson, Marshall, and Truman channeled U.S. power through a set of international institutions, designed to produce a legitimate world order. The Bretton Woods system and United Nations ensured that, though the U.S. was powerful, it would moderate and mediate that power through forums that addressed the concerns of others. It is that legitimacy that turned American hegemony into an engine for post-war reconstruction.

Today, the Bush administration has shown its contempt for these elements of international order. It has rejected treaties and international law that it views as constraining U.S. freedom of action, abandoning the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gasses and the International Criminal Court. It has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and shown a disdain for arms control in general. Most significantly, though, Bush advocates using American power and capitalizing on American military preeminence outside any international body. Bush prefers coalitions of the willing instead of a war by committee. This represents a concentration of international power unseen in over a century. This is why the French and German are upset about Iraq. They are not concerned about Iraq for Iraq’s sake–they fear that the Bush administration is emaciating the international order that has ensured global peace for 58 years.

From Alliance to Balance of Power

What is a country to do in the face of perceived American aggressiveness? Any student of realpolitik would have the immediate answer–resist and try to construct an alternative balance of power. The intellectual anchors of the Bush administration’s national security policy–Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz–are well-schooled in realist theories of international politics. Each was a distinguished professor of international relations before returning to government, ardent advocates of a realist approach to world politics, and both have sought to bring realism’s appreciation for the use of power to Bush’s foreign policy. And they have successfully done so.

Should these arch-realists be surprised by the French response? Not at all. The U.S. allies most opposed to the war in Iraq are opposed to the unilateral and unconstrained application of U.S. power. They fear that the U.S. will go into Iraq without them. This is why they oppose the Bush administration’s plans for war in Iraq.

Some analysts point to the existence of a “coalition of the willing” that includes the U.K., Spain, and smaller European states as proof that the planned invasion is in fact a multilateral effort. But this coalition is what realists call bandwagoning. Smaller states support the U.S. in hopes of currying favor in other areas. It is no surprise that “New Europe” is so supportive–these aspiring NATO and EU members are in need of U.S. assistance as they transition from communist to democratic societies. Their opposition wins them nothing, while ardent support wins them U.S. favor that can be used to counter French and German influence in Europe.

True multilateralism, envisioned in the post-World War II international order allows consultation to shape policy as policy shapes consultation. The Bush administration has already decided on a course of action–war–and no consultation will change that. The French and Germans are upset that they have not been consulted, but been presented with a fait accompli. They are angry that the Bush administration has rejected the international order the U.S. originally created and protected. They see the Bush administration straying from the values that allowed the Western alliance to survive the cold war and the Kosovo war. Multilateralism on Iraq is dead. Unilateralism and bandwagoning rules the day.


In the end, it is probable that the French, Germans, and Russians will resist U.S. war plans in the Security Council until, at the last possible minute, some sort of compromise is reached allowing a second resolution. A NATO plan will probably follow a similar path. The worst case scenario for “Old Europe” is to be on the outside looking in during the war and in a post-war Iraq. By keeping the Security Council involved through a second resolution, France, Germany, and Russia retain the only fora where they have a meaningful voice, vote, and in some cases even a veto–the UN and NATO. That way, they can force the U.S. to listen to their plans, projects, and complaints about the future of Iraq. Most importantly, they keep alive the shell of an international order that a future U.S. president could choose to reinvigorate.

The alternative is the worst case scenario–a unilateral invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and its coalition of the willing. This would cut out many U.S. allies from the decisionmaking process, and, at the same time, overburden the U.S. with the cost of post-war occupation and reconstruction. It would delegitimize the U.S. use of force in the eyes of much of the world, and, in the long run, make it very difficult for the U.S. to engage in any international endeavor that requires substantial multilateral cooperation. Such an action would probably signal the beginning of the end for both the UN and NATO, long the keepers of international peace and security.

In the end, it is likely that the French, Germans, and Russians will bite their tongue and swallow the bitter pill of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. A second UN resolution will keep them involved and preserve their diminishing voice in maintaining international order. But it is a pill they won’t swallow easily, and the Bush administration must beware of the growing international apprehension at the vast power of the United States. It is this type of resentment that could produce a significant international trend toward anti-U.S. balancing, through alliances and nuclear weapons proliferation. Iraq remains a red herring. The real drama is the shape of Bush’s new world order–one with the U.S. squarely on top.

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