A glimmer of European defiance
France and Russia have ensured Bush has no UN mandate for war
November 12, 2002
By Jonathan Steele
The Washington and Whitehall spin machines have made much of the US-British teamwork which crafted the new UN resolution on Iraq. But another little-noted alliance was just as decisive in achieving the final compromise. Who would have thought two years ago that France and Russia would join forces to oppose the full might of United States diplomacy? For the two countries' presidents to confer on the phone in resistance to Washington, and have their diplomats draft amendments together, would have been inconceivable in the past.
But, as the Bush administration increasingly looks to war as its weapon of first resort in international relations, this joint venture by two of Europe's most important states may not be the last. They have ensured Washington has no UN mandate for using force in Iraq, and that it is the weapons inspectors who will report to the security council on whether Iraq has violated its obligations. Washington may call foul from the spectators' stands as loudly as it likes, but the inspectors are the referees, and they have the best, and only authoritative, view.
The ground for the Franco-Russian rearguard action which achieved these important changes in the American resolution was laid by chancellor Gerhard Schröder's taboo-breaking criticism of US "adventurism" during the German election campaign. Germany is not a veto-wielding member of the security council, so played no direct role in the UN drafting. But Berlin's initial defiance undoubtedly gave the others courage. On non-strategic issues, like engagement with Iran and support for the Palestinian authority, European states have taken a different line from Washington for several years.
But the Bush administration defines Iraq as a crisis of global dimensions. For Europe's "Big Three" to unite in opposition to America on such a key issue is therefore a hugely significant shift. Historians could even come to see it as Europe's declaration of independence, and the beginning of the end of American influence over Europe. Shortly before Nato meets in Prague next week to invite seven more countries to join the alliance, including the Baltic states which used to be Soviet republics, this may seem an odd judgment. After all, Nato is just as much an American-dominated grouping as ever. But the bigger the alliance becomes, the emptier it gets. The fact that the US is so keen to extend it is a sign of weakness rather than strength: the US rightly senses that the non-military sources of its hegemony in Europe are declining.
Russia's relatively relaxed line towards Nato's further expansion eastwards reflects this perception. Some analysts claim that President Vladimir Putin made a strategic tilt towards America after September 11, seeing a chance to use Bush's "war on terror" to get US acquiescence in his war in Chechnya. His opposition to a US strike on Iraq suggests his policies are more subtle. During the cold war, Moscow occasionally made futile efforts to "split" western Europe from the United States.
In the 1990s, Moscow think-tanks discussed whether Russia should choose a "European" or an "American" orientation. That debate is over, and it is clear Putin does not see things as either/or. He will oppose the United States on some issues - just as France and Germany will - and work with them on others. While Putin comes from a Soviet tradition where the norm was confrontation with Washington, and Chirac and Schröder come from one where it was cooperation, they are now converging on a platform of issue-by-issue pragmatism. Of the major European states, only Italy and Britain have governments still bound by the old instinct of subservience to Washington.
There is one fly in this new ointment. When he meets Schröder today in Norway, Putin will hear critical comments about Chechnya. European governments reacted differently from the US to the hostage seizure in the Moscow theatre. While Washington supported Putin's claim that the main Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov, was linked to the incident, Europeans were more cautious. They realise the war can only be ended by talks, and Putin's efforts to portray Maskhadov as a Chechen Yasser Arafat, who is too weak to confront terrorism or discreetly supports it, will put Russia into a cul de sac. Maskhadov cannot be the exclusive partner, and a way must be found to bring the leaders of the various armed factions into talks.
But Russia's efforts to ignore those who have taken up the gun only ensures its unwinnable war will grind on. Thus European leaders must continue to call for a sensible peace settlement in Chechnya, even as they accept Russia as a partner in the great challenge of the next decade: the need to restore the integrity of the UN as the arbiter of international conflicts, and to restrain the irresponsible use of American military might.