Europe against Empire?

Scratch Chirac, and you find a Great Power trying to get out.

Alex Gourevitch

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Throughout the Iraq crisis, anti-war activists have looked to western Europe to save the world from the USA. Protestors in the USA held up ‘Chirac for President in 2004’, and the liberal press clamoured for Europe to restrain the American hegemon. Now, with post-war reconstruction talks heating up, we are hearing it again.

Many demand that the UN, not the USA, administer the reconstruction effort, and on terms approved by European powers rather than the US-UK coalition. The view is that America has imperial designs on the Middle East, will botch the ‘democratisation’ of Iraq, and should not be allowed to shirk the ‘international community’ once again.

But Europe cannot claim the moral highground on the Iraq issue, nor in international relations more broadly. European countries too have been behaving like Great Powers looking to increase their influence.

As was pointed out on spiked a few months ago, the French and German plan for Iraq was not all that different from the USA’s (1). President George W Bush’s plan was to bomb, invade and occupy. Europe’s? Invade and occupy. Recall some of the details of the ‘European alternative’ to outright war. Double or triple inspectors, ensconce a special UN administrator in Baghdad directing regional offices, expand the no-fly zones to cover the entire country, and move in thousands of UN troops to enforce disarmament (2).

One presumes sanctions would also have remained in place. True, under this plan nobody would have died (although if sanctions had remained, thousands still would). But a peaceful colonisation of Iraq is not exactly anti-imperial. Rather, it smacks of opportunism – take a slightly more moderate position to look good at home, and never mind Iraqi sovereignty.

France and Germany have been acting like belligerent Great Powers in other ways, too. French President Jacques Chirac made waves when, in response to southern and eastern European support for the American war plan, he told these countries that they ‘missed a great opportunity to keep quiet’ (3). Chirac then intimated that he might block the accession of some of these countries to the European Union (EU). Those who pray that France and Germany will save the world from American imperialism kept noticeably quiet about this bit of continental intimidation.

Perhaps it was a bit uncomfortable for Eurochauvinists to point out, but Europe is not united against the USA. Even numbers of governments unequivocally supported or rejected American plans for war, while around 20 supported war with a second UN resolution. It is just that none of these 20 odd supporters hold a permanent seat with veto powers on the UN Security Council.

And the reason that southern and eastern European countries support the USA is because they are understandably more concerned about a Europe dominated by France and Germany than they are by an American-dominated Middle East. This would explain why a Czech paper responded to Chirac’s comments with the following quip: ‘If Chirac wants to revive the spirit of Leonid Brezhnev and renew the doctrine of limited sovereignty, which means fewer rights for some countries, it is his own affair.’ (4)

Or why a Latvian paper responded: ‘Perhaps there are some in Paris who want to be the patriarch of Europe’s “family”, letting others in the family “knock on the door” humbly.’ (5) Certainly, southern and eastern European countries are not principled defenders of sovereignty – they supported the war on Iraq. But they are worried about their own freedom of action, and rightly so. At least in their eyes, Saddam’s threat may be dramatically overblown, but a threat from Chirac has real substance.

Chirac’s verbal swat at Europe’s weaker countries suggested that he wants not so much a united and equal Europe as a docile and obedient one, willing to hand over its economic and social policy to a government in Brussels dominated by Paris and Berlin. All of which is why, even if most actual Spaniards, Poles and Hungarians may be against the war – in contrast to their own opportunistic politicians – they are probably even more stridently against total submission to the French and Germans.

As Strategic Forecasting LLC, a private intelligence service, recently put it, the real question on southern and eastern Europe’s mind is: ‘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?’

France’s intervention in the Ivory Coast suggests that it is also trying to increase its influence in Africa. Ostensibly France has been interested in getting the Ivorian government and northern rebels to cooperate, and in bringing peace to its former colony. But the French enforced a ceasefire line that granted implicit recognition to the rebels. This undermined the legitimate government of President Laurent Gbagbo, who many thought the French should have supported without question.

And it’s not as if the French consulted Guinea or Angola (current Security Council members), let alone the USA, UK or Russia, on this intervention, as they have demanded the USA do on Iraq. Indeed, in terms of multilateral cooperation, Chirac’s actions are more inexcusable than Bush’s, since Bush can at least claim he is acting in self-defence, however far-fetched this claim might seem.

Many have seen France’s actions as a thinly veiled attempt to rehabilitate its mission civilisatrice at the expense of Ivorian autonomy. Unfortunately for the Ivory Coast, all it did was help to create chaos. One French military analyst, noting the failure of the intervention to do anything besides produce disorder, even seemed to lament the end of empire. ‘The fact remains that colonisation is over’, the analyst told the Washington Post (6). Yes, it was much easier when France could just implement its will over the objections of those pesky Africans.

It of course suits European opposition to turn the USA into the fearsome hyperpower. Such an image distracts from the regional ambitions of its own Great Powers, and their own lack of commitment to sovereign equality. (Chirac owes his recent warm welcome in Algeria more to his ability to channel anti-American sentiment than anything else.) But surely European leaders do not deserve credit as enemies of imperialism. They do not resist the idea of a world ruled by Great Powers; they just want in on the game.

Alex Gourevitch is a writing fellow at the American Prospect.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Euro-occupation plan for Iraq

(2) Late peace bid: send in UN troops, 10 February 2003; No rally to Powell’s evidence at U.N., Washington Times, 5 February 2003

(3) Chirac Scolding Angers Nations That Back U.S., New York Times, 19 February 2003

(4) Chirac sparks ‘New Europe’ ire, BBC News, 19 February 2003

(5) Chirac sparks ‘New Europe’ ire, BBC News, 19 February 2003

(6) France’s Influence Wanes in Ivory Coast, Washington Post, 4 February 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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