Should the United States dump the allies?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 4 2002 11:47 AM

Dump Europe?

It's an appealing thought, but the United States still needs the allies.

"This is a new kind of evil, one that cannot be described or drawn. But it must be defeated at all costs, so I'm putting all our money into new ways of weighing evil, publishing details of its consistency, and blowing it up."

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Yes, you guessed correctly: That sentence is excerpted from a not particularly funny parody of George Bush's State of the Union address that appeared late last week in a British newspaper. What surprised me about the parody was not that it poked fun at gung-ho American unilateralism ("I am decreeing that America withdraws from the universal laws of time") or that it mocked President Bush ("I'm asking Congress to come up with another 30,000 billion dollars to build America a future") but that it appeared in the Daily Telegraph. One would expect the Guardian or Le Monde to find the rhetoric of the war on terrorism distasteful, and indeed this was the case, as Slate's "International Papers" has already described. Normally, however, the Telegraph, owned by the Canadian Conservative Conrad Black, is the most pro-American newspaper in Great Britain. If the Telegraph's columnists are already mocking the language being used to describe the next phase of the war, then it's hard to imagine who, if anyone, will support the next phase of the war itself.

Or perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised: After all, this is the second time that extremely harsh things have been said in Europe about American policy in the past three weeks. The first instance was sparked, of course, by the alleged mistreatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—or rather by the still incomprehensible Defense Department decision to publish pictures of them while chained and blindfolded. As more information about prison conditions emerged, the fuss died down. As more information about President Bush's plans to fight terrorism emerges, the "axis of evil" fuss will die down too. But the underlying cause will remain: generalized resentment of the United States and its ability to enforce a unilateral security policy without consulting its European allies.

Do we care? That is, do we still need European allies anyway? Plenty of people think we don't. Although I hasten to add that these sentiments are not—yet—to be found in the upper reaches of the Bush administration, the underground "Dump Europe" movement is growing, in the lower reaches of the administration, in the press, and elsewhere. Their argument is straightforward: We fought the Gulf War as the leader of a U.N. coalition, which was U.N. in name only. We fought the war in Kosovo as the leader of a trans-Atlantic coalition, having dropped the U.N. fig leaf, which was trans-Atlantic in name only. We fought the war in Afghanistan alone, having dropped the trans-Atlantic fig leaf—and it was a lot simpler all around. A friend of mine in Washington puts it like this: "It wasn't just that we didn't need European troops in Afghanistan. The Europeans were in the way in Afghanistan." By his reckoning, Afghanistan was the final proof of something we've known for a long time but haven't dared to say aloud: NATO is redundant. Militarily, strategically, politically—we don't need Europe anymore at all. Besides, we're sick of them whining all the time about how awful we are.

It's a nice, neat, logical argument. Certainly it is perfectly true that years of European underinvestment in the military have reduced Europe's long-range military capabilities to the point where they genuinely aren't of much use in faraway places like Afghanistan. British and French soldiers are still very good at their jobs, but they just don't have the communications technology, the planes, or the ships to contribute to a major operation. It is also true that loosening our historical link with Europe would simplify policy-making enormously and eliminate some of the hypocrisy that has characterized U.S. foreign policy in recent years. I've always felt uncomfortable when this or that opinion is pompously attributed to "the international community," when in fact the opinion is patently that of the United States.

Yes, "Dump Europe" is an appealing cause. Unfortunately, it also happens to be wrong. We might not have needed Europe much in the first phase of the war on terrorism, but over the course of what President Bush himself has said will be a very long war, I'm afraid we are going to need European allies—and many other allies—a great deal.

Certainly we will need allies to track down and destroy what remains of al-Qaida. The cell that plotted the World Trade Center attacks was, we now know, based largely in Hamburg, Germany. The Arabs who assassinated the Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Masoud were carrying Belgian passports. Al-Qaida operatives have been discovered in Spain, in France, in Britain. To catch them, we need Europe's police forces, we need Europe's intelligence services, we need Europe's knowledge of its own growing Islamic population. And we don't just need the occasional tip: We need European investigators to cooperate with our investigators, all the time.

We will need Europe also—and not just Europe—if we are going to get serious about tracking the flows of terrorist and other black money around the international financial markets. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, an Indian acquaintance of mine, working for the Warsaw branch of an American investment bank, was asked to spend several days trawling through various accounts, looking for unusual activity. Had he worked for an investment bank of another nationality, he—or his bosses—might well have concluded that he didn't have time. Everyone from the Swiss to the Russians to the Taiwanese gets involved in money-laundering: Now we need assistance from all of them.

During what is going to be a war with many different phases, we will also need Europe's help in fighting some of the other, non-military battles. Already Europe has pledged more than the United States toward the rebuilding of Afghanistan. On the ground, many of the charities with the longest Afghan experience—Medecins Sans Frontières, for example—are based in Europe and have largely European funding. European money, Japanese money, everybody's money will be needed to help restore order, not just in Afghanistan but in Somalia and Sudan and eventually, someday, Iraq.

Probably most important of all, however, is Europe's role in what I will call, for lack of a better word, the ideological battle still to come. At the end of his State of the Union speech, Bush spoke of America "defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere." He also spoke of certain "nonnegotiable demands of human dignity," among them the rule of law, respect for women, private property, and free speech. Yet if these values are not merely American values but rather the values of all Western, liberal, democratic, capitalist civilizations, we do need to have some other Western, liberal democracies on our side to defend them. We won't have much success defending "the West" from a position of pure unilateralism: It will look a little bit too much like defense of "the United States of America."

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