A Dangerous Trust Deficit
Europe faces a test. The rising tide of anti-Americanism might destroy the Atlantic Alliance and impoverish the life of Europe
“We can’t do an Adlai Stevenson,” admitted an administration official about Colin Powell’s upcoming speech to the U.N. Security Council. What he meant was that the administration did not have the smoking gun that Stevenson had when he presented the Council with images of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. But the real difference between 1962 and now is not what we say, but what people hear.
REMEMBER THAT IN 1962 the “smoking gun” Stevenson presented to the world was a set of grainy aerial photographs with white smudges. The smudges, he explained, were Soviet missiles. And everyone believed him. Today, if Powell had digital video footage of Iraqi scientists caught in the act of manufacturing anthrax, there are many around the world—and increasingly in Europe—who would claim that Washington had manufactured the images.
The French, who are today the most disbelieving, played a special role in the 1962 crisis. After deciding to blockade Cuba, President Kennedy sent a special envoy, Dean Acheson, to France’s President Charles de Gaulle. Acheson offered to show him the photographs. De Gaulle refused. “This is mere evidence,” he said, “and great nations such as yours would not take a serious step if there were any doubt about evidence.” What we have today is not the lack of evidence, it’s the lack of trust.
The United States has done its part to contribute to this atmosphere with careless and confrontational talk and actions. Other than Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, no one in the administration has bothered to build and nurture relationships with their counterparts abroad—odd when you consider that this was one of the chief skills of the elder President Bush. Dick Cheney has taken exactly one foreign trip in his current job, probably setting a record as the least-traveled vice president since John Nance Garner.
But the toxic atmosphere of anti-Americanism prevailing in Europe these days seems to go beyond any specific policy. Traveling through Europe last week, I was confronted with a barrage of angry questions and simmering suspicion. Most frequent was the charge that Washington’s “obsession with Iraq” was all about oil. (Spending $100 billion on war and postwar reconstruction just to get a better deal on oil, which Saddam is willing to sell to anyone anyway, doesn’t make much sense, but never mind.) One highly intelligent executive asked me why we wanted to get rid of Iraq’s chemical and biological agents while maintaining our own arsenal of these weapons. When I explained that in fact the United States did not have such an arsenal, the gentleman looked skeptically at me and said, “officially.” He found it entirely plausible that the oldest constitutional democracy in the world has secret weapons labs with armies of scientists manufacturing poison gas.
Many assume that French intransigence on Iraq is just a ploy to extract bribes from Washington and that France will eventually come onboard. If so, the French will have cheapened their credibility. The next time they threaten a veto, we will all just sigh and take out our checkbooks. If they choose to use their veto, they will make the Security Council—and France—irrelevant in the first major military action of the 21st century. That doesn’t strike me as a victory for France. It is in France’s interests to have American power stay tethered to the United Nations.
Iraq is a historical pivot for European-American relations. France and Germany, historically the core and driving force of Europe, face a test. How do they want to position themselves in a world dominated by the United States—as partners or competitors? The Atlantic alliance might appear to be a remnant from the cold war, but in fact it is the core of the new international order. If America and Europe can agree on something, they create an international standard—a kind of magnet—around which other countries coalesce. That is how things work in the world of trade. But if these two great continents begin diverging, and if Europe peels apart, then there will be no core around which an international community can form. Then other countries—most importantly Russia and China—will go their own ways, jockeying for advantage and forging their own alliances, rather than being integrated into a new peaceful world order. It could be a return to 19th-century realpolitik.
Europe’s leaders face a test, but so do its people. The rising strain of anti-Americanism might destroy the Atlantic alliance but it will also impoverish the life of Europe. A Swiss friend told me that a few weeks ago his 14-year-old son told him that everyone in his school believed that the CIA had destroyed the World Trade Center so that America could invade Afghanistan. This happened not in the mosques of Saudi Arabia but in the schools of Switzerland. It is the kind of paranoid lunacy one associates with broken and dysfunctional societies, not with the civilization that created the modern world. The Middle East appears finally to have begun to confront the demons and delusions that produce these kinds of conspiracy theories. Does Europe really want to become the next Middle East?