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American Isolation and the European Reality (english)
by Dr. George Friedman
13 Mar 2003
A general perception exists that the issue of war against Iraq
has opened a massive rift between the United States and Europe.
Giant anti-war demonstrations, public opinion polls and the
behavior of key powers seem to confirm this view, but the reality
is actually much more complicated -- and very different.
The majority of European governments support the United States on the
Iraq issue. Though public opinion certainly opposes war, the
European populace also is extremely concerned about Europe's
economy, issues of national sovereignty and the effect of French
and German power over both. Governments generally have chosen to
side with the United States -- not because they are suicidal, but
because they understand that on election day, the Iraq war will
be a side issue and the power of the Franco-German bloc will be a
central issue. The United States is much less isolated in
relation to Europe than is generally believed.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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