Today's date:
Spring 2003


"Old Europe” or “Old America”?

Graham E. Fuller is a former high-ranking CIA officer, former vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council and the author of the forthcoming book, The Future of Political Islam.

Washington—United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s scathing remark, voiced out of frustration, claimed that it was only the “Old Europe” that formed significant opposition in Europe to the US plan to attack Iraq. Rumsfeld, of course, had our erstwhile allies France and Germany in mind, and the barb obviously hit home, producing a sharp counter-reaction from both countries.

But whatever we may think about French and German caution (or limp-wristedness) in opposing a rush to war in Iraq, the interesting question is, was Rumsfeld right? Who really represents the “old thinking” here? The better case might be made that it is in fact America that represents the “old values,” not France and Germany. Old or new doesn’t automatically mean good or bad. But we had better consider this formulation because it says a lot about which way the world is evolving into the future.

In fact, a more convincing case might be made that France and Germany actually represent the “New Europe” or even “the coming world.” Think about it. These two European powers have put five centuries of wars behind them, including two devastating world wars, to form a new union with shared currency and desires to forge a broad common foreign policy. Such a step is revolutionary among ancient nation-state rivals with quite different cultures.

But it doesn’t stop here. This European Union is a remarkable experiment—the first time in history when states have been willing to give up real hunks of their own national sovereignty in order to join a new civilizational project. Turks, Bulgarians and Latvians are begging to pay the considerable admission fee to be let in. The reigning premises among them are that states must be truly democratic, they must protect human rights and civil liberties, and that war among its members should be an unthinkable option. These states see themselves as a gradually expanding community, acquiring ever new members and geographical spread—but only after they meet quite strict criteria. They aspire and indeed are on the way to forming a new force in the world. This is the first time we witness a new emergence of an “empire” built on consensus and common desire rather than power and conquest. Hardly the stuff of the “Old Europe.”

In fact, it is America that actually represents the “Old World.” This is a statement of fact, not a pejorative aspersion. America now sees itself as the benign hegemon—or the policeman—of the world that will undercut any and all efforts by potential rivals or regional hegemons, friendly or not, to cast a shadow over overwhelming US power.

Now, this Pax Americana may have many positive as well as negative features, but its foundation based on monopolization of power rather than consent can hardly be described as the “New World.” Power, and not international law, is very much the basis of “Old Power” and the “Old Order” down through the ages.

But wait, isn’t America the “new world” in terms of its multiethnic character? Not really. While America is a remarkable and pretty successful experiment at multiculturalism, it is near unique in being a nation of immigrants. No old ethnic homelands here. But Europe indeed is a place of old ethnic homelands—de patries, as Charles de Gaulle said. That makes the experiment all the harder, forging ethnic homelands into a new cooperative whole. Again Europe is the model for a world of ethnic homelands, not the nation of immigrants in North America.

The world is indeed a dangerous place. Saddam Husseins and Kim Jong Ils will never disappear entirely. Indeed, power will be required to meet some of these challenges on occasion. But the view of the future is that it will be the power of a gradually expanding international community of consent of the ruled that will slowly emerge to fulfill that function. Nobody can deny that US power can be beneficially employed to meet certain crises. But when other states, even friends, feel they have little stake, or have no voice, in the way the unelected sheriff runs the town, we are working on old principles of power-based politics.

This is not some utopian sketch of an ideal. In fact the world has already been heading slowly and painfully in this direction of freely established communities of common consent, including, above all, the United Nations. Of course, the UN can be ludicrous, indeed frustrating on occasion, in its dithering and querulousness. So can the US Congress. These are not the fastest mechanisms in the world to get results. But think how far we have come in less than a century, when an international organization is starting to exercise real clout on multiple issues, including human rights, standards of behavior, international fact-finding and inspections, peace-keeping and the provision of troops. This reality has forced even the Bush administration to seek UN blessing and support where possible. These, too, are signs of motion in the direction of a New World, and not an Old.

America’s task is to work with this evolutionary process and not against it. That doesn’t mean we don’t go to war in Iraq, but it does place high premiums on trying to work on forces of the future and not the king-of-the-mountain rules of the last several millenniums.

Of course, France and Germany have their own interests and agendas, often scathingly dismissed as petty and narrow by Washington policy makers. But don’t we in the US also have our own narrow and parochial interests? Don’t we, too, want a piece of the oil? Don’t we, too, want the vulnerable oil states of the world to strictly “buy American” when the arms dealers come around? Isn’t it domestic American politics that grants the most right-wing government in Israel’s history a carte blanche in doing what it wants in the occupied territories? Doesn’t Washington basically thrive on the inability of other states to ramp up huge arms budgets? None of these are evil, but they are parochial American interests, just as all the other states out there have.

So where is the world going: toward perpetuation of rule by power, or instead evolution to communities of consent that are gradually building up a formidable structure of their own? EU military power will be slow in coming, but the French and the Germans have now, before our eyes, fatefully turned a corner in which the old automatic alliance with the US no longer holds. Insults aside, those days are not coming back. France and Germany throwbacks to the “Old Europe”—I don’t think so.