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Bush's Folly Meets Europe's Historic Mistake

Nathan Gardels is editor of New Perspectives Quarterly ( and the Global Viewpoint service of Tribune Media Services. His latest book is "The Changing Global Order: World Leaders Reflect" (Blackwell, 1998).

By Nathan Gardels

LONDON -- The extent of anti-Americanism in the years ahead will depend on whether the post-9/11 order ushered in by the Afghan war and the regime-changing invasion of Iraq is ultimately seen as legitimate. That order must also be able to provide the kind of security and stability the collapsing system of the United Nations and the Atlantic Alliance did for the past five decades. If it serves American interests alone and not that of others as well, it will fail to take hold and generate resistance from friends and foes alike.

The old order is falling apart because of the rise of Islamist terrorism and the spread of mass destruction weapons to states hostile to liberal civilization. The fact that the key challenges of the recent past -- from ethnic cleansing in Kosovo to the Afghan Taliban protection of Al Qaeda to Saddam's failure to disarm -- all had to be met outside the United Nations means that an institution that sanctifies national sovereignty above all else is only marginally useful to keeping peace in the new era. Whatever its other merits, including its humanitarian programs, it is difficult to see how the United Nations can remain a cornerstone of world order in the future.

In this the humanitarian hawks have a point that can't be ignored. As such neoconservative thinkers as Richard Perle and Jeane Kirkpatrick have asked: Why is the United Nations -- in which soft-totalitarian China has a veto on the Security Council and in which Libya chairs the human rights commission -- better than a coalition of liberal, democratic states when it comes to conferring legitimacy on the use of force?

Similarly, the Atlantic Alliance cannot be at the core of the new order. Since the main threat to American and world security is no longer in Europe, but from terrorist groups seeking Hiroshima-scale weapons, a new "global network of powers" not unlike the old European concert of powers, or even a set of shifting alliances, will more likely suit American interests.

While the United States should strive to have Europe at its side in any global endeavor because we share liberal values (though it must be said that we have sharply divergent worldviews on quality of life), a 21st century European Union in which the long-warring powers of France and Germany are integrated and at peace with Russia no longer needs NATO to protect it from itself.

Unfortunately, the approach of President Bush in building this new order has generated more hostility than sympathy. The right to wage preemptive warfare in the age of terrorism is a vital principle of 21st century security. But by going to war against Iraq without a compelling case of imminent danger Bush has already helped to discredit that principle, reinforcing anxieties that it will be used to cover ulterior motives.

The collateral damage has been great. America's image of goodwill and legitimate use of power built up over the Cold War and post-Cold War period is now rightly suspect. The bullying, Wild West way the Bush administration has pursued the war with Iraq has lent credence to the ugliest anti-Americanism across the globe which, as the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy points out, is the common historical thread that binds the three forms of totalitarianism: fascism, communism and Islamism (political Islam).

And if that cost alone were not too high a price for this war, the economic costs are also great. What power has fallen so swiftly from huge surpluses to huge deficits, preparing to spend hundreds of billions to conquer and rebuild Iraq when criminals must be released by the thousands from California jails and teachers are laid off from public schools because of the local budget shortfall?

There is also a question of how long America's "microwave" culture will stay the course in Iraq. Three days into the war, when Iraqi leaders were recalling Mongols at the Gates of Baghdad in 1258, some TV newscasters were already talking about the conflict "grinding on."

Nonetheless, the preemptive action against Iraq has raised the critical question about the emergent order: If the sole superpower self-legitimates the use of force against others, doesn't it imply that might makes right? Who, then, can check the most mighty? If not a global institution of collective security, then a new balance of power? Will the raison d'etre of that counter-power be anti-Americanism?

That seems to be where we are headed. Despite their truly significant contributions to the fight against Al Qaeda, France and Germany have joined illiberal Russia and undemocratic China to check the United States, having concluded that an unbound superpower -- even if it is a democracy -- is a greater threat than mass destruction weapons in hostile hands.

This betrayal -- not so much of America but of any real understanding of the power relations required to sustain a liberal order globally -- is an historic mistake that Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair avoided, even at the risk of siding with Bush's folly.

In the end, it is the anti-Americanism of France and Germany that has contributed most to the demise of the United Nations and the Atlantic Alliance. Evidently, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder see the multilateral United Nations primarily as an arena where they can compensate for their own weakness by blocking American power, even though the credibility and effectiveness of the United Nations itself rests on that very American power! Believing that might cannot be right, they decided to do the wrong thing to try to stop it.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 3/25/03)