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DLC | Blueprint Magazine | April 15, 2020
Is the West Finished?
By Will Marshall

Table of Contents

America's determination to defang Saddam Hussein has provoked a bitter family feud within the Atlantic alliance. Does it spell the end of the West as we know it?

Probably not. But when the dust settles over Iraq, America will need to patch the cracked foundations of Western unity.

President Bush's maladroit, tone-deaf diplomacy has severely roiled the transatlantic waters. From the Kyoto climate treaty to steel tariffs to his metronomic demands that everyone climb aboard the war wagon to Baghdad, the president trampled European sensibilities and banked an extravagant sum of bad political karma.

But it takes two to wreck an alliance. French President Jacques Chirac, with Germany in tow, recklessly undercut both United Nations credibility and NATO solidarity by trying to block America from forcibly disarming Iraq. Especially galling was Chirac's unshakeable confidence that U.N. inspections could accomplish that task peacefully -- despite a sorry, 12-year record of fitful and ultimately failed attempts by the world body to enforce its own mandates.

The West, however, faces two fundamental dilemmas that can't be solved by a regime change in Washington or Paris.

First is a yawning "power gap" stemming from robust U.S. military spending and quantum leaps forward in war-fighting techniques and doctrines. Add to that America's ample reserves of "soft power" -- an entrepreneurial economy, vibrant popular culture, and attractive political ideas and institutions -- and you have something new in the world. The French have even coined a word for it: hyperpuissance (hyperpower). For some Europeans as well as former rivals Russia and China, America's sheer weight has become the issue in world politics.

Second is the absence of an agreed-upon mission for the Western alliance. NATO expansion has given the impression of purposeful activity, but it aims at consolidating the West's Cold War gains rather than crafting a strategy for the future. The rupture over Iraq has dimmed the hope many Atlanticists expressed in the 1990s that common values could be as powerful a binding force for the alliance as a common enemy.

Iraq thus has been the catalyst, not the cause, of an inevitable reappraisal of transatlantic ties. Says Ralph Fuchs, a key strategist for Germany's Greens Party, "There is no way back to the status quo ante. Europe and America have to define new common projects and aims."

But there's another, more ominous possibility: The West could divide into rival camps. The French have seized on the Iraq crisis as an opportunity to realize the old Gaullist aim of ending Europe's subordination to Washington on security matters. And since there's no other superpower around to do the job, they have taken it upon themselves to recast the U.N. Security Council, where they wield a veto, as the strategic counterweight to America's overweening power. As Chirac explained to Time magazine, "Any community with only one dominant power is always a dangerous one and provokes reactions. That's why I favor a multipolar world, in which Europe obviously has its place."

At bottom, as Robert Kagan argues in his influential book, Of Paradise and Power, today's transatlantic rift is about differing conceptions of power. "The vast majority of Europeans have always believed that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein was more tolerable than the risk of removing him," he writes. "But Americans, being stronger, developed a lower threshold of tolerance for Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction, especially after Sept. 11. Both assessments made sense, given the differing perspectives of a powerful America and a weaker Europe."

Europeans, believing they have transcended power politics, place their trust in international law and institutions. Americans believe those institutions can only work when there is a strong power or coalition willing to back their edicts with the credible threat of force.

There's bitter irony here. If Europeans now have the luxury to imagine that the world's problems can be solved without recourse to war, it's because their formerly conflict-ridden continent has been thoroughly protected and pacified by the same American power that suddenly looks so menacing today.

And would the emergence of an independent European confederacy actually make the world a safer place? After all, if Europe lacks military punch and reach, it's because most countries have chosen to spend on social welfare rather than defense. Nor does "Europe" have a unified command structure capable of acting decisively in a crisis. If Europe succeeds in restraining America's hand, who will confront the Slobodan Milosevics, Saddam Husseins, and Kim Jong-Ils of the world? The new Triple Entente of France, Russia, and a pacifistic Germany? Not likely.

That's why the West, with a powerful America at the center, will likely survive the Iraq imbroglio. Getting it to unite in the face of new dangers, however, is the next great challenge for U.S. diplomacy.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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