Defining a New International System in a World Threatened by Jihad: The Danger of a Transatlantic Divide

By May 16, 2006

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 16

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This article examines the implications of the transatlantic divide, the challenges confronting the international system and the systemic change expected as a result of China’s emergence as a potential super-power. The great transatlantic debate over Iraq was rooted in deep disagreement over the nature of world order, in different visions of the world as perceived by Europe and America. Americans and Europeans disagreed as to whether Saddam Hussein posed a serious threat and whether war was the appropriate response to it. Americans and Europeans also disagree about the role of international law and international institutions and what confers legitimacy on international actions. Europe is reluctant to face the threat posed to the survival of Western civilization by jihadism or rogue states with nuclear ambitions, and Europeans have come to doubt the legitimacy of the use of US power and American global leadership.

“What kind of world order do we want?” asked Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This question has remained on the minds of many, particularly in Europe, while most Americans have not pondered the question.

This essay considers different approaches to the definition of a new international “order,” or global system, with particular reference to the differences in approach that seem to have developed on this question between the U.S. and Europe. In a world threatened by forces of jihad and mass destruction, these differences cannot simply be papered over.

The Transatlantic Divide

In the cold war era, Europeans accepted US legitimacy based on the existence and the threat of Soviet communist expansion, recognizing that Washington possessed the only real power to deter Moscow. The US prided itself on being the leader of the free world and most Europeans accepted this political reality. At the same time, Europeans welcomed manifestations of Soviet power because it also acted as a restraint on Washington.

When the cold war ended, the protective umbrella of the United States stopped being an essential component in the defense of Western Europe. Nothing has replaced thus far the threat of communism in inducing Europe to accept American leadership.

After the end of the Cold War, it was the belief of many academic thinkers and political theorists that the world’s liberal democracies would henceforth live in relative harmony; because they shared liberal principles and they would not contest each other’s legitimacy. Nevertheless, an important divide has emerged among liberal democracies. Liberal democracies do not question the legitimacy of each other’s political institutions, but they differ on the legitimacy of their respective visions of world order.

Simply put, Europe is reluctant to face the threat posed to the survival of Western civilization by Jihadism or rogue states with nuclear ambitions, and Europeans have come to doubt the legitimacy of the use of US power and American global leadership.

The great transatlantic debate over Iraq was rooted in deep disagreement over the nature of world order; in different visions of the world as perceived by Europe and America. Americans and Europeans debated whether Saddam Hussein posed a serious threat and whether war was the appropriate response to it. A solid majority of Americans answered “yes” to both questions, while a larger majority of Europeans answered “no.” Opinion polls have indicated that more than 80 percent of Americans believe that war at certain times in history can achieve justice. Europeans, in the large majority disagree. Americans and Europeans also disagree about the role of international law and the role of international institutions and what confers legitimacy on international actions.

Thus, there is most certainly a schism in Western thinking today – at a time when the danger of international terrorism is proliferating!

Will radical militant Islamist-Fascism, manifested in global terrorism, replace communism as the ideological, strategic threat to Western liberal democracy and unite the Western family of free nations? Europeans have hitherto not fully accepted Washington’s concerns about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Syria, or the developments in Iran and North Korea.

Europe, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom, still does not share the full extent of the US “post-9/11” alarm over international terrorism and WMD. While Europeans have become concerned after terrorist outrages in Madrid and London, they do not look to the US to protect them. Europe continues to believe in conflict resolution using logic and reason, while failing to recognize the very lack of logic or reason when dealing with ideological fanatics.

US hegemony has been an especially vexing problem for Europeans because there is so little they can do about it. Hopes for a multi-polar international regime have faded since the 1990s. It is clear today that the United States’ political, economic and military power will be impossible to match for decades. The states most likely to become its competitors, China and Russia, do not present an attractive alternative for most Europeans. China is an ancient civilization with little linkage to the ethos of Western Europe, and Russia still reminds Europe of the decay wrought by 70 years of communist rule.

Meanwhile, Europe’s own military capabilities continue to decline, relative to those of the United States. France’s ambitions for the EU to act as a counterweight to the US are overwhelmed by the more powerful postmodern European aversion to the use of military force. Such French aspirations have also been curtailed by fear on the part of the new EU members, of alienating the United States.

Europeans have not sought to counter US hegemony by traditional, confrontational power-oriented methods, because they do not find US hegemony threatening in that way. US power, as Europeans well know, does not imperil Europe’s security or even its autonomy. Europeans do not fear that the US will seek to control their lives or institutions. They fear that they have lost control, if not influence, over the US and, by extension, over the direction of world affairs.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, it was possible to imagine that the UN Security Council might function as the sole source of international authority and legitimacy. But in reality, the UN had to be bypassed in order for international action to be taken. In 1994, President Clinton sent troops to Haiti without the authorization of the Security Council and in 1998, when the US carried out sporadic bombing raids in Iraq, France and Russia expressed concern but no action was triggered in the Security Council. Europeans went to war in Kosovo without obtaining the Security Council’s approval and legitimacy, while the US provided air support. Europe solemnly declared that the war against Milosevic was legitimate, yet the war in Kosovo was illegal according to the rules of international law, violating the Westphalia Protocol of 1648, the basic principle of the UN Charter recognizing the sovereign equality of all nations. Serbia had not invaded another state, but was cleansing out its own ethnic Albanian population.

Since the American Revolution, the US has generally prioritized the promotion of liberal principles and human rights over the Westphalian format, which underscores the recognition of the supremacy of national sovereignty. Notwithstanding its hand in creating the UN Charter, the US long-term goal is to pursue the quest for liberal democracy and promote the concept of societies of freedom to replace societies of fear. The Bush doctrine, not unlike Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points” after World War I, represents this push for the progressive establishment of democracies.

The war on terror has also introduced the doctrine of “pre-emption.” Europe continues, with the exception of Tony Blair, to oppose this policy even after the London events of July 7, 2005. Most of Europe still regards preventive action as characteristic of a super power and a breach of international law and legitimacy.

Thinkers as diverse as Henry Kissinger and Kofi Annan recently have suggested that changes in the UN Charter must consider new criteria legitimizing preemptive measures in addressing particular types of threats. These may include actions against terrorists and states protecting them such as Syria or Iran with long histories of conspiracy, terror and murder. There may even be provisions that could legitimize the use of force in occupying the oil fields of Saudi Arabia in case of an Al-Qaeda takeover, to save the world from economic disaster. Some theorists claim that the legitimacy for action depends on creating wide international consensus, but determining the width and composition of the required consensus is problematic.

In order to secure endorsement of its policies, the US must concretely convey to the world that it is acting to protect Western liberal pluralism, which is threatened globally as acts of various degrees of brutality and severity are inflicted worldwide in the name of radical Islam. The US, by effectively communicating its message to the world, should convey the cogent thought that we are all threatened, as was Europe by the Islamic Caliphates in the past. The US must simultaneously make an appeal for major reforms affecting the world of Islam from within; making Islam once again a religion of peace.

Should Europe not abandon its quest to restrict US leadership, it will also have to recognize that it diminishes US power to act as a defender of the liberal values shared by all free societies and weakens the overall power of the liberal democratic world in defense of its own liberalism. Some Europeans are fighting the wrong enemy. Indeed, it is regrettable that Europe, which has been saved by America twice in one generation, might consider the axis of evil represented by rogue states ruled by tyrants to be a lesser danger than that posed by the American leviathan. It would be deplorable if American intent and policies were to be sabotaged in order to satisfy European pride in a belief of a historical and cultural superiority.

The Challenges

While militant Islam is the most immediate and obvious challenge to peace and security, nuclear proliferation poses the most serious long-term threat to global survival. In the recent past, nuclear weapons have spread relatively slowly and remained in the possession of countries with everything to loose and nothing to gain from assaulting a tenuous international order.

Today, however, the international system is confronted by two countries with frightening agendas: the isolated regime in North Korea and Islamic Iran. Iran’s regime of Mullahs has supported Hezbollah, Hamas and a wide variety of other terrorist groups and proudly declares America to be the “Big Satan” and its principal enemy. North Korea is poverty-stricken and in all probability the threat it poses can be contained by its relatively isolated geographical location and the active concern of its neighbors. The United States will act in a powerful capacity in future political negotiations, together with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea as the other players in the region.

Iran is a much more dangerous actor, because of its geographic position in the Middle East. The country’s newly elected fundamentalist president was a leader of the revolutionary guards in the Iranian revolutionary regime. Soon after his election Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that the ultimate goal of Iran’s foreign policy is nothing less than “a government for the world” under the Muslim leadership of the Mahdi. “The United States is in its last death throes, in the sunset of its power destined to be superceded by the sunrise of the Islamic Republic and its global revolution,” he stated. The geopolitical dominance of the Middle East, he continued, is the incontestable right of the Iranian nation.

Invariably, these two proliferating countries claim that they are seeking merely to enjoy the fruits of peaceful nuclear energy. However it is difficult to believe that Iran, an oil rich producing country, should need nuclear power plants. Most observers conclude that both North Korea and Iran seek a shield behind which they can conduct revolutionary aspects of their foreign policy or intimidate neighbors by holding them hostage with nuclear ambitions.

Systemic Change

The reason why these issues are so pressing is that the current regional crises of Iraq, Iran and North Korea may soon be dwarfed by another major fundamental transfer of power affecting the international system. Most historians agree that the emergence of a strong unified Germany in the latter part of the 19th century profoundly unbalanced what was known as the Concert of Europe, a period of relative peace, resulting in almost 100 years of intermittent war in Europe. In our age, the rise of China as a potential super-power may be of even greater historical significance and may have already shifted the center of gravity of world affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Most observers believe that it is unlikely that China will rely on its military power as its principal instrument to achieve super-power status, and believe that the country will employ diplomatic, economic and political means. Chinese leaders seem to be more prone to accumulating advantages by maintaining “friendly interests” with such diverse players as the United States, Russia, the European Union, Arab States and Israel, wisely realizing that modern technology has made the military option a last resort. India, the other Eastern demographic giant, has emerged as the world service center still influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence.

It is expected that as China becomes a more prosperous mega-power inhabited by almost one quarter of world’s population it may indeed experience further internal political upheavals, characteristic of Chinese history. However, in modern China, traditional, regional warlords should be replaced by successful CEOs of regions. Without any doubt, Chinese achievements are based on real commitment to work, without suffering from the globalization that has negatively afflicted the labor markets of the US and the EU. It is also expected that as a free economy progresses in China, domestic political evolution will follow. China will likely opt to replace characteristics of its past communism with something introduced into the political science vocabulary for ex-communist states by that forgotten great man, Mikhail Gorbachev – “Glasnost and Perestroika” – a “relatively free society for the mind and the market place” – hopefully devoid of chauvinist nationalism.

China and the US will require a permanent strategic dialogue on the Taiwan issue, not allowing it to undermine their ever growing relationship, but solving it by peaceful means as a component to the security system for the whole of North East Asia, if not the whole world at the beginning of the 21st century.

The European dream of hegemony, after having inverted the concept of the nation state, is now in the process of abandoning its concept of sovereignty to the EU, without the new mega state possessing the traditional attributes of statehood. Europeans, after the rejection of the new constitution by voters in both France and Netherlands, refer to their European dream with less generosity. Europe is shifting its priority from the Atlantic Alliance to the UN Security Council. Jacques Chirac flirts with China as an additional counter-weight against the power of the United States.

Many believe that we are witnessing a process of disintegration of the world order that had the Atlantic Alliance as its centerpiece. How are we to establish a common dialogue in a world threatened by Jihad, the reorientation of the fulcrum of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific, massive demographic changes with AIDS devouring Africa, and the mass migration of peoples and economic globalization?

Where do we find a common purpose between all these conflicting pressures? There is no great hope for a world without conflict, and at best, we can deal with conflict management instead of conflict resolution. While “conflict resolution” has a deep essence of hope, it is far from the reality of the world where great statesmen from Talleyrand to Disraeli to Kissinger have all said and agreed, that we live in a world where countries have no friends, only interests.

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Dr. Thomas O. Hecht
Dr. Thomas O. Hecht

Dr. Thomas O. Hecht is the founder of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and Chairman of its International Advisory Board.