Supremacy Is America’s Weakness

August 13, 2003 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Financial Times on August 13, 2003.

Major combat operations in Iraq ended in April but the transatlantic rupture between the US and “old” Europe triggered by the war has not healed. This is because American hegemony remains the cause of the rift.

The struggle for supremacy has been a feature of US‐​European relations since America emerged as a great power in the late 19th century. During the 20th century, the US fought two large wars in Europe to stop a hegemonic Germany from threatening America’s backyard. After the second world war, America’s strategic ambitions — based primarily on economic self‐​interest, not cold‐​war ideology — led it to establish its own hegemony over western Europe.

There is a well‐​known quip that Nato was created to keep the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in. It is more accurate to say that America’s commitment to the Atlantic alliance is about staying on top — and keeping the Europeans apart.

Postwar US policymakers did not forget why the US went to war in 1917 and 1941. When they helped rebuild western Europe after 1945 — and promoted economic and political integration — they also recognised the risk of creating the geopolitical equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. The last thing Washington wanted was to encourage the emergence of a new, independent pole of power that could become a potential rival to the US. As Dean Acheson, then secretary of state, said, Americans wanted to preclude western Europe from “becoming (a) third force or opposing force”.

US support for European integration has always been conditional on its taking place within the framework of a US‐​dominated Atlantic community. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the US has never wanted a western Europe of equal power because such a Europe could exercise its autonomy in ways that clashed with Washington’s interests.

Unsurprisingly, Washington has tried to hamper the EU’s moves towards political unity and strategic self‐​sufficiency. Washington is trying to derail the EU’s plans to create, through the European Security and Defence Policy, military capabilities outside Nato’s aegis. It has encouraged the expansion of Nato and the EU in the hope that the new members from central and eastern Europe will keep in check Franco‐​German aspirations for a counterweight to American power. More generally, the Bush administration is playing a game of divide and rule to undermine the EU’s sense of common purpose.

Western Europeans have periodically tried to do something about US supremacy, notably under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle. He built an independent French nuclear force and sought to construct a west European pole of power based on a Franco‐​German axis. Washington recognised the Gaullist challenge for what it was and struck back hard. President John F. Kennedy eloquently expressed American concerns: “If the French and other European powers acquire a nuclear capability they would be in a position to be entirely independent and we might be on the outside looking in.”

The US failed to block France’s nuclear weapons programme. But by intervening in West German politics — to bolster the position of Christian

Democrat Atlanticists — Washington ensured that the Franco‐​German Elysee treaty of 1963 did not circumvent the Atlantic alliance that preserved America’s European primacy. Forty years later Washington, Paris and Berlin are still fighting the same battles.

For many European policymakers and analysts, the crucial lesson of the Iraq war is that until Europe can back up its views on international issues with real military capabilities, it will be ignored by Washington. An emerging European counterweight must rest on the Franco‐​German axis. Indeed, as the Iraq war was winding down, France and Germany (with Belgium and Luxembourg) met — to Washington’s displeasure — to lay the foundations of an independent EU military capability. According to Jacques Chirac, the French president, the explicit purpose of this initiative was to create a European pole of power to balance the US in a multipolar international system.

History shows that, sooner or later, hegemons lose their hegemony — either because of the rising power of other countries, or because of imperial overstretch. But the Bush administration appears to believe that American hegemony is an unchallengeable fact of international life. It is not — if only because other states are bound to conclude that the US is too powerful and must be resisted.

If that happens, President George W. Bush will not be remembered for liberating Baghdad, but for galvanising international opposition to American power. Mr Bush’s self‐​proclaimed “victory” over Iraq may prove to have shattered the pillars of the international security framework the US established after 1945; triggered a bitter transatlantic divorce; given the decisive boost to European political unity; and marked the beginning of the end of the era of US global preponderance.

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