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American Isolation and the European Reality

Wednesday, March 12, 2003 - 13:50 Print Text Size

Over the course of recent months, a generally accepted perception has emerged that the United States is at odds with Europe — that Washington is essentially isolated, with only a handful of allies, facing a Europe and indeed a world that overwhelmingly oppose U.S. policies toward Iraq. It is true that a great deal of opposition to U.S. policy exists, but the perception that Washington is universally opposed is simply untrue. Within Europe, there is a strange configuration: Public opinion opposes war, but most governments, from Portugal to Lithuania, are siding with the United States. Assuming that Europe's politicians are not suicidal, we can surmise that the European situation is substantially more complicated than might appear to the unaided eye. Therefore, it is important to understand not only the current distribution of support, but the origin of the myth of isolation.

Focusing on Europe is useful, because the United States has had a relationship of alliance with Western Europe for more than half a century and a special relationship with the former Eastern Europe for a decade. The perception that the United States is at odds with Europe regarding Iraq generally is seen as a much more profound event than disagreements elsewhere; it is seen as tearing apart the fabric of the Western security system, of squandering decades of goodwill and mutual cooperation. American alienation of Europe regarding an issue as trivial as Iraq is seen as frivolous at best, reckless at worse.

Therefore, the issue is whether the perception that the United States is isolated from Europe is of more than academic interest — it is the gauge against which U.S. policy is being measured. If Washington is in fact isolated and has torn apart the U.S.-European relationship, a reasonable case could be made that Iraq is not worth it. If there is no isolation, and what is happening in Europe is only tangentially connected to Iraq, then the argument against a war with Iraq is weakened. In this case, the facts matter.

Opposition to the U.S. stance on Iraq certainly has been vigorous, both at the governmental level and in public opinion. Clearly, a coalition opposed to war has emerged and, as Washington has pressed forward, it has become increasingly tinged with anti-Americanism. This is not a trivial fact. Anti-American sentiment has intensified and spread throughout Europe, and a substantial national coalition is working to block U.S. war plans. This coalition is led by a major European power, France, working in concert with another major power, Germany. They have been joined by Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden and Greece. Russia, more an outsider to the European dynamic, also is aligned with them.

On the other hand, it is not always clearly understood that a large number of European nations have aligned themselves with the United States. Explicitly committed to the U.S. position are the United Kingdom, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Portugal, Bosnia and Montenegro, whose foreign policy is independent of Serbia's. Many of these countries have provided at least token material support or are allowing the United States to use military facilities in their countries. This ranges from training Iraqi exiles in Hungary to the use of airfields in Bulgaria to the deployment of chemical defense units from Poland. They are not major contributions, but certainly not opposition.

A second group of European countries support Washington's position, but are somewhat more assertive about wanting a second U.N. resolution before an attack on Iraq occurs. This group includes The Netherlands, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia — a bloc of five. But of these, The Netherlands sent Patriot missiles to Turkey before NATO approved the shipment, while the Czechs and Slovaks have sent chemical detection teams to Kuwait.

A third group of countries remains rigorously neutral: Ireland, Austria, Finland, Serbia, Switzerland and Norway. Some, like Finland, tilt against the war, but have not aligned themselves officially against the United States.

France's position has the support of only five countries in Europe — six, counting Russia — although where the final count will wind up is unclear. Sixteen countries support the U.S. position on war without a second resolution; five support the U.S. position in favor of war with a second resolution. Taken together, the European vote is 21-6-6 in favor of the United States. It also should be noted that while France and Germany are certainly major powers, the United States is supported by countries such as Britain, Italy and Spain, along with the others — certainly a match by most variables.

Despite this reality, a general and persistent belief exists that Europe is overwhelmingly opposed to U.S. policy — when, in fact, the overwhelming majority of European nations have sided with the United States.

There is, of course, a more complicated issue involved here — what political scientists call "saliency." Saliency refers to the intensity of feeling on a subject. If someone asks whether you prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream, you might answer "vanilla" — a truthful answer, save that it is either a marginal preference or you really don't care much for ice cream, or the question, at all. In a poll, one could get the feeling that there is overwhelming sentiment in one direction or another, when the truth is that most people really don't care one way or another, but when presented with a stark choice, choose one. Intensity — issue saliency —isn't reflected in most polls.

For most European countries, Iraq is an issue of low saliency. One suspects that for Poland, for example, the Iraqi question is a marginal matter at best. When forced to make a choice, the Poles supported the United States. We suspect that most of the countries didn't want to make a choice on the Iraq issue — but when forced to do so, reluctantly chose the U.S. position. Therefore, it is entirely incorrect to say that the United States is isolated in Europe; it is more correct to say that the United States has broad, but lukewarm, support.

However, this doesn't fully capture the picture, either. Though the Iraq issue itself has little significance to most of the countries of Europe, the choice with which they are faced — aligning with either France and Germany on one hand or the United States and Britain on the other — does. For most of the countries of Europe, that is an intensely important and even defining question. In a sense, it was France that defined the issue as a choice between the European position and the U.S. position. When pressed to the wall by the French and Germans, most chose to side with the United States. This was not because they cared about the war resolution, but because they were more concerned about Franco-German power than about the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The reasoning was, of course, diverse, but there was a common, geopolitical theme — concern about being part of a Europe dominated by France and Germany. The Iraq issue was submerged in a much broader, geopolitical question. For each country, the question was: Is it preferable to have a close, subordinate relationship with a Franco-German bloc or to avoid that by aligning with the United States? Except for Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg — Russia is playing a much broader and even more complex game — Europe almost universally sided with the United States. The question posed to them was Iraq; the question that concerned them was the future of Europe and their place in it.

Understanding this, we can begin to understand the following paradox. Public opinion polls in Europe overwhelmingly show broad opposition to Washington's policy in Iraq, yet most European leaders support the United States in spite of the polls. This leads to one of two conclusions: Either European politicians are incompetent and all will fall shortly, or they understand something about their constituents that outsiders might not easily grasp. We think the second is the case.

European leaders understand this: If a European is asked whether he opposes or supports the United States over Iraq, the majority will say they are opposed. But assume that a different question was put to them: Do you prefer to live in an integrated Europe dominated by France and Germany, or would you prefer to maintain a degree of independence by aligning with the United States on security issues? There the answer would, in the majority of cases, be for limiting European integration and relying on the United States for security.

This brings us back to saliency. The Iraq war is a low-saliency issue to most Europeans; the question of European integration and the power of the Franco-German bloc is a high-saliency issue. European politicians are betting that their constituents are not going to be casting their votes in the next elections with Iraq on their minds. They might well be casting those votes with France, Germany, the European Union and their own economic well-being — in a Europe which has central bank dominated by France and Germany — on their minds. Given the current economic situation in Europe, these are the really serious questions facing European countries. There is little appetite at the moment for increased integration and greater loss of autonomy. Certainly, the eastern Europeans, for example, want EU membership, but they also have deep fears of losing the autonomy they regained in 1989. They also have residual historical fears about a world in which France, Germany and Russia all are reading from the same page. Under these circumstances, the United States becomes an indispensable relationship.

Here is another paradox. The harder France and Germany pressed to create a common European front against the United States on Iraq, the more uneasy the rest of Europe became. Rather than decreasing support for the United States, Franco-German pressure forced many European countries that would rather have remained silent into the American camp. Ultimately, the current alignment reflects the fact that most Europeans would rather get their national security from a distant, powerful United States that is unlikely to try to subordinate their national identities than on a weaker but closer set of powers with whom they must have economic relationships, but which frighten them as well.

However, there still remains the odd perception that the United States is isolated. One cause is the optical illusion of Europe's anti-war demonstrations. There have been huge demonstrations against U.S. policy in Europe, by people for whom the question of a war on Iraq is of extremely high saliency. With a casual glance at the polls, it would have appeared that the demonstrators were simply the tip of the iceberg of massive anti-American feeling. But there is a huge difference in saliency between the demonstrators who took to the streets and the non-demonstrators who expressed opposition to the war in polls. To the demonstrators and, of course, many non-demonstrators, the war is the defining issue. To most others who have expressed anti-war views, the issue is much less salient than are others — issues that drive them away from the French and Germans and toward the United States.

In other words, Europe is not nearly as monolithic as it appeared; the United States is not nearly as despised as some argued; U.S. influence is not at all on the decline; and Europe's politicians are not as stupid as they look. But from a distance, it could appear that Europe monolithically and increasingly despises the United States, that American influence is collapsing and Europe's political elites are suicidal idiots. This perception has been fed, in the United States, by war opponents who have used collapsing U.S. influence in Europe as a primary argument against military action in Iraq. It also is fed by supporters of the war who failed to understand the real European dynamic and, therefore, framed their arguments by accepting U.S. isolation from Europe as the price that had to be paid for waging what they saw as a necessary war. In the United States, neither the anti-war nor pro-war factions have grasped what was going on in Europe. So the idea of U.S. isolation from Europe has become holy writ.

The U.N. Security Council's makeup is another accident. Security Council membership rotates at the beginning of the year. The council that voted unanimously for Resolution 1441 is not the council seated today. One key example: Germany was not a member in November 2002; it is today. The accident of diplomatic protocol created a Security Council in which the United States was at a particular disadvantage, and that turned into a confirmation of U.S. isolation.

The divergence between perception and reality in this particular case is a fascinating study in the divergence between geopolitical reality and global perception. It is hardly the first such case, but it is one of the most extreme we can recall. It is partly due to the global nature of the debate — everybody seems to be involved. This makes it extremely difficult to drill down and understand what precisely is being said, by whom and for what reason. It is as if global communications have created a layer of fog over geopolitical reality.

Public perception is, of course, a battleground. The ultimate failure has been that of the Bush administration: In focusing on its combat with France and Germany, Washington somehow lost the ability to communicate the European reality. Part of the reason, we suspect, is that the administration itself underestimated the breadth of its support and, therefore, was unable to articulate it. However, the fact of the matter is that support for the United States, particularly in Europe, is much greater than most people recognize. It has very little to do with the merits of the case and less to do with any interest in Iraq. It has to do with European geopolitics and a built-in fear of Franco-German domination.

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