Whether or not there is war in Iraq, NATO, the European Union and transatlantic relations already have been deeply affected, posing the gravest challenge to all three since at least the end of the Cold War.
First, there is the squabble between the Bush administration and two key European partners, Germany and France, complete with mutual name-calling. In Washington, these countries are seen as out of step. But in Europe, where Berlin and Paris are closer to broad-based European public opinion than are the Washington-loyal capitals led by London, their views are seen as something the United States should hear, and being obstructive has proved the best way to get the Bush administration's attention.
The intensity of the administration's efforts to isolate Germany and France reflects its need to solve three tactical problems. First, it must prevent Saddam Hussein from believing he can look to any of America's key allies to stymie its willingness or ability to use force. Second, it has to discourage any reluctant members of the U.S.-led coalition from sheltering under Berlin's and Paris' opposition. Third, the administration is increasingly concerned about growing apprehension among Americans about going to war without the full engagement of its key allies.
For their part, Germany and France have certainly not been smart in presenting their views. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder did play politics with the Iraq issue in last fall's Bundestag elections. And, at the United Nations last month French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin sandbagged Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was viewed by many Europeans as their quiet spokesman for caution, and thus undercut his ability to introduce their concerns into Washington's debate.
What are those concerns? Germany's role in the World War II, including the Holocaust, has made it most reluctant to employ military power beyond its borders. Yet it has been progressively expanding its willingness to do so, in Bosnia, Kosovo and now Afghanistan. The Germans' reluctance to fight in Iraq, especially when they are not convinced that war is the only way to achieve disarmament, should be seen against this historical background rather than simply as appeasement, pacifism or economic opportunism.
France's position is more complex and is based partly on its economic interests in Iraq and its tradition of challenging the U.S. role as sole superpower. But Paris has made clear both that Iraq must be disarmed and that France will fight if war does come. Silently supported by many other Europeans, France also is trying to tell the United States that war on Iraq could become a mess—especially afterward.
Like other Europeans, the French worry that war will increase Islamist terrorism, not decrease it. They argue that the United States' virtually abandoning efforts to stop the Israel-Palestinian conflict is grist to the terrorists' mill. They detect signs that military victory in Iraq will lead to America's taking on Iran and perhaps also Syria and Saudi Arabia. They are skeptical that democracy can be brought to post-war Iraq, at least not without costly and sustained U.S. and European engagement for years if not decades. And, looking at post-conflict developments in Afghanistan, they question America's staying power in post-war Iraq.
France, along with Germany, may be "old Europe," to quote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but they are also the world's third and fourth largest economies and crucial to decisions taken by the European Union. They want to be listened to before a possible war, especially since the United States no doubt would expect them to help clean up afterward with major amounts of European money and manpower.
NATO is also in trouble over Iraq. It already had growing pains in shifting from a Cold War, anti-Soviet alliance to act as it did militarily in Bosnia and Kosovo. Even with shared concerns over terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, extending the Alliance's reach to the Mideast has been a greater stretch, especially when Washington has played down the importance of NATO and insisted on calling the shots. "Old Europe" also notes that most of the Central Europeans, who are sticking close to Washington, are still not in NATO and depend on continuing U.S. good will to cross that threshold.
Until recently, it seemed that victory in a possible war against Iraq would paper over most of the NATO problems. Each side of the Atlantic needs the other: Europe needs America to help ensure that the continent remains conflict-free, to watch over Russia's future and to lead in stabilizing other regions; America must have European help in countering global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, engaging Central Europe in the West and funding nation-building in the Mideast and elsewhere.
This does offer a solid basis for repairing relations. But the intensity of reaction has been rising on both sides, including public protests in Europe of unprecedented size and an unseemly row—finally resolved—over whether NATO could plan to help member state Turkey if it were attacked by Iraq. Turkey, however, has set a steep price tag for U.S. use of Turkish military bases. Thus it is clear that refashioning the Alliance to meet the 21st century's challenges will require a lot more leadership and good sense in both Europe and America than is now apparent.
These strains also affect the European Union. Last week, the EU agreed on the need to disarm Iraq and keep up pressure on Hussein. But the fine print underscored that war is a last resort and only after passage of a new UN resolution. Even this degree of European comity quickly fell apart, as French President Jacques Chirac chastised the Central Europeans' "not well brought up behavior" for lining up with the United States. And he has clout: Ten of them have been promised EU membership, but France could still derail it.
Getting past Iraq will be easier for the EU than for NATO, because it has so much more at stake in terms of economic relations within Europe. But the current turmoil is bringing to the fore the EU's venture in foreign and defense policy, notably the European Security and Defense Policy, the fledgling military force that is a much smaller, Europeans-only imitation of NATO. Since Sept. 11, this has proved to be even more of a poor stepsister to NATO than before. But with growing acrimony across the Atlantic and with more collective European resistance to being lectured by the United States than is apparent from the roster of supporters, skeptics and opponents, many Europeans are starting to look again at security arrangements that depend less on the United States—and that really isn't to anyone's benefit.
Ironically, if President George W. Bush does decide that war is the only option, most of the allies, probably including France, will follow the U.S. lead, politically if not also with military forces; many will fall into line even if there is no second UN resolution. But even with a relatively benign outcome—either continued inspections or short, decisive and low-casualty combat—damage to trans-Atlantic relations will not be automatically undone.
Whatever happens in Iraq, therefore, a big rock has already been dumped into the trans-Atlantic pool, and the resulting waves—not ripples—are threatening to engulf relationships that are far more important than the immediate stakes in the current Mideast crisis.
Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to step back, calm down and start to rebuild relations. In part for this reason, and in part to show the American people that it has the broadest support for a possible war—including "old" as well as "new" Europe—the administration now is seeking a second UN resolution on Iraq. To a degree, therefore, French tactics are working. But acrimony can go only so far.
Name-calling on all sides must now stop. Bush should underscore that the NATO alliance remains critical to the United States, come what may in the Mideast; that the United States is prepared to share post-crisis decision-making with allies to the extent they are prepared to help pay for the aftermath; and that Washington will focus promptly on issues high on the European agenda, notably the president's commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. For their part, the allies, including Germany and France, must show more clearly that they are signed on to the common fight against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, that they will do more to pull their military weight in the years ahead and that they are prepared to see NATO take on new, long-term responsibilities in the Mideast.
On both sides of the Atlantic, cool heads, long vision and sober statesmanship now need to prevail.
Robert Hunter is senior advisor at RAND in Washington, D.C. From 1993 to 1998, he was U.S. ambassador to NATO.
This commentary originally appeared in Newsday on February 23, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.