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by William Anthony Hay

An intriguing question that Dr. Hay poses: Is the “West” still a valid organizing principle in the conduct of international relations, or has that concept given way to unilateralist tendencies even among nations professing multilateralism? Read on for the author’s thoughts and conclusions.—Ed.

September 11 seemingly brought the United States and its European allies (“the West”) together in a way not seen since the height of the Cold War. The French newspaper Le Monde, which generally reverberates with criticism of the United States, proclaimed on its front page that “we are all Americans.” As the war on terrorism has proceeded, however, a separate, deliberately confrontational theme has emerged in U.S.-European relations. At the risk of oversimplification, the quarrel lies in rival visions.

Europeans press for a multilateral, consensual approach that works within a framework of international organizations. They cast doubt on American eagerness to use military power to remake maps. Americans insist on a robust defense of national interests that they refuse to place at the mercy of other states, particularly states that lack the capability or determination to share the responsibility of fighting global terrorism. The fractious dialogue created by these differences raises a fundamental question on the anniversary of September 11: is there still a West? Or has the crisis simply revealed and then aggravated an existing rift overlooked in the general euphoria of the 1990s?


Tensions between the U.S. and its European allies are nothing new. Even during the height of the Cold War when the Soviet threat supposedly unified both sides of the Atlantic, an “end of NATO” industry thrived. The real point at issue was essentially a matter of trust—always in short supply among nations—that both sides continued to pursue the same goals and were willing to cooperate in achieving them. Europeans on the Right worried that the U.S. might accept a deal with the Soviets that secured American interests at their expense, while others on the Left feared that reckless leadership in Washington and commitments in other regions would involve them in unnecessary dangers. The United States, for its part, always sought greater burden sharing and sometimes lacked much interest in consultations.

The end of the Cold War brought expectations that the U.S. would withdraw its forces and European governments would create their own security arrangements. This did not happen, and a decade after the Soviet collapse the U.S. remains as much a European power as before. Partly as a consequence of mutual bungling in the Balkans and partly as a result of an expanding NATO whose newer members wanted continued American participation, the U.S. presence also appeared as a necessary counterweight to a unified Germany larger than anticipated and a shrunken Russia weaker than anyone had forecast. European electorates, like their American and Canadian counterparts, voted themselves a hefty peace dividend through defense reductions, and the successive Balkan crises showed that Europe lacked the will and capacity to act decisively without the U.S. By the late 1990s, European leaders had resolved to acquire the capabilities to remedy this disparity through an independent reaction force under EU control, but then refused to spend the money. Although Britain recently increased defense spending, rules governing membership in the Euro prevent other governments from running deficits to raise their military budgets.

Nonetheless, a new and unpleasant tone had crept into U.S-European relations well before September 11. Many European leaders congratulated themselves for emancipating their countries from nationalism’s constraints and fulfilling Jean Monnet’s dream of a united Europe, albeit one that excluded much of the continent and aroused significant resistance among people within its boundaries. However, self-congratulation was not a European monopoly. Madeleine Albright’s penchant for describing the U.S. as an “indispensable nation” and one that “stood taller” grated on foreign sensibilities. On a more concrete level, Washington’s approach to international agreements over the past decade has frustrated its allies. The fundamental problem lay not in the unwillingness of Americans to accept the Kyoto Treaty, International Criminal Court, or any other specific initiative on their own terms, but diplomatic mismanagement. President Clinton negotiated and signed a series of agreements without intending to press for their ratification because he knew that Congress would not ratify them. Such faux multilateralism deceived foreign governments about the degree of American commitment and eventually bred resentment. Countries that based their policies on American participation in various regimes might have acted otherwise had the real situation been clear, and failure to force a ratification vote on agreements after their initial signing made the United States appear an unreliable partner. When the Bush administration faced the unwanted task of clearing these items from the diplomatic agenda, it worsened the situation by repudiating them with impolitic zeal. Those eager to believe the worst about President Bush saw these actions as a rejection of international cooperation in principle along with the measures themselves. Attention thus turned from specific initiatives whose merits remained debatable to the broader question of whether or not the United States would agree to work within a multinational framework that had been the basis of transatlantic relations ever since the founding of NATO itself.


Beneath this surface diplomatic confrontation lies a massive political change that might be described as “the rise and fall of the “Third Way,” a project that emerged in the early 1990s as center-left parties on both sides of the Atlantic sought to break out of opposition. The Soviet collapse meant that social democrats no longer had to overcome voter doubts about their handling of national security. Although Third Way leaders went further than their rank-and-file supporters in accepting economic reforms from the 1980s, they remained saddled with an agenda of radical social activism. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroeder all played to anti-incumbent sentiment and presented their agenda as a break with their parties’ pasts. Triangulation—the public relations tactic of seizing the moderate ground between two “extreme” positions—defined for the public what Schroeder aptly called the “new middle.”

Forcing the center-Right from key parts of the political territory helped social democrats win public support as they consolidated their electoral base. On another level, Third Way leaders also sought to reconcile the center-Left with globalization and a market economy that they believed necessary to promote solidarity through well-regulated capitalism and the welfare state. Insisting that the Third Way was not a political ideology separate from social democracy, Tony Blair described it as a redefinition of the means to reach quite traditional ends. And part of that redefinition involved deeper engagement with international organizations and efforts to transcend the national context of politics.

Despite its early success in Britain, Sweden, and Germany, the European Third Way faced problems. Its proponents seemed more adept at spin than administration, and the failure to implement reforms posed dangers given voters’ demands for improved public services. Crime—and its relationship with immigration—became an especially divisive issue. Popular enthusiasm for globalization faded as the economic growth it had brought in the 1990 slowed.

The lack of a credible electoral alternative did more to sustain a number of Third Way governments than committed public support. Because Third Way politics was always an elite project, party leaders had to fall back on their base constituency when broader enthusiasm flagged.

September 11 brought these tensions into the open by focusing attention on the social impact of Muslim immigrants and forcing governments to take sides on U.S. action against Al Qaeda. While Blair has remained steadfast in his role as supporter of the U.S. and interlocutor between Bush and other European leaders, he faces increasing opposition within his party and the trade union movement. In Germany, Schroeder coerced the “red-green” coalition government last November to provide a contingent for Afghanistan; more recently, a tight election contest led him to disavow any support for a war to compel Iraqi compliance with United Nations resolutions. The Bush administration had given private assurances that it would not request the German government to state its position or make any commitments until after the September vote, so outspoken criticism of U.S. policy by Schroeder and others during the campaign struck American officials as a betrayal that has embittered relations between Berlin and Washington.

Schroeder eked out a narrow reelection victory by dropping the Third Way and appealing instead to his hard-Left base with new public spending and barely veiled anti-American rhetoric. Meanwhile, elections in France, Portugal, and the Netherlands this year further highlighted a center-Right resurgence first seen in Italy that may yet cut into the narrow majorities of reelected center-Left coalition governments in Germany and Sweden.


Thus, Third Way politics had gone on the defensive even before September 11 accelerated the process, and efforts to create an international grouping of third way parties have not borne fruit. As this political tendency subsides, the perspectives emerging in its place raise a very real challenge to the concept of a “West” or a coherent Western approach. American supporters of a unilateralist approach to the war on terrorism call for direct efforts to overthrow governments that harbor terrorists and then reconstruct the societies over which they rule. These unilateralists sharply dismiss skeptics at home and in Europe as fearful of exercising American power, but the problem with their position involves more than its stridency. The unilateralist argument neglects the role of financial coordination, intelligence, and policing that can only be accomplished through multilateral effort. It also greatly overstates the prospects of replacing dictatorships with something approximating Western democracy or the speed with which this might be done. Military power is necessary but insufficient to destroy Al Qaeda because its cells have infiltrated Western societies (and others) in a way that does not provide clear targets. Rejecting multilateral efforts in principle serves only to alienate those governments whose cooperation America needs to accomplish its objectives.

EU officials and their counterparts in the media and some national governments have adopted an equally doctrinaire approach, claiming that no action can be legitimate unless taken through international organizations and generally deprecating military force as a policy option.

Although currently focused on the Iraqi question, this argument is only part of a broader debate on security policy. Proponents of what might be called strict multilateralism view international organizations as ends in themselves, partly because those bodies and the approach they epitomize provide a means for overcoming the legacy of nationalism. Multilateralism defined as a principle rather than a tool also imposes constraints on sovereignty that its proponents welcome. Without the will or capability to act, however, multilateralism creates a policy vacuum. Its focus on means begs the question of what should be done and whether to do it. The history of the 1920s and -30s along with more recent examples shows the result. French and American intervention broke the deadlock in Bosnia during the 1990s after multinational efforts failed through lack of will.

The decade-long EU project to create a still nascent common security and foreign policy backed by a joint reaction force authorized at the Nice summit in 1990 provides another case in point. Indeed, the EU itself appears hopelessly ill-suited to act, not to speak of acting expeditiously. Those European states capable of exerting force abroad retain national views on the whys and wherefores of such deployments that undercuts claims of a European policy.

The war against terrorism also has exposed a strong current on both sides of the Atlantic already being criticized for undermining Western identity. Rather than arguing for what Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls the “dignity of difference” that respects particularity and engages other civilizations on their own terms, multiculturalism tends to be a self-referential critique of Western societies. It reflects a brand of cultural pessimism seen earlier in Oswald Spengler’s work, and its primary consequence beyond the academy is to inculcate defensiveness and self-doubt.

If Western civilization, along with particular national or regional identities, is merely an imagined community or an intellectual construct that serves the interest of dominant groups, then it can be reconstructed to serve the needs of current agendas. While arguments over multiculturalism (the so-called “the culture wars”) in the U.S. have long focused on the educational system, especially the teaching of history, September 11 revealed its impact in Europe. In both cases, there appears to be a widening gap between elite and popular opinion. As a recent poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations suggests, American and European publics hold closer views than the chattering classes credit. Media coverage and public intellectuals set the boundaries of debate as evidenced by the fact that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faced sharp criticism in October 2001 for arguing that Western civilization is superior to its rivals and something to be cherished.


Tensions among these perspectives have set the tone for increasingly strident media coverage of U.S.-European relations that now emphasizes divergence. But the U.S. and its Europeans allies are both more multilateral and more unilateral than observers suggest. The U.S. led in establishing institutions such as the United Nations, GATT, and NATO that created the infrastructure for postwar multilaterism, and those agreements provided the basis for a stable global order that served American interests. The Marshall Plan and continued American support for European unity gave the EU its start. If American policy may be described as what the U.S. State Department Director of Policy Planning Richard Haass called “a la carte multilateralism,” then European governments should recognize a strategy they have long used themselves.

European governments have been no less prone to such selective multilateralism than the United States. They cede freedom of action where it serves national interests and fight to retain it where it does not. It is noteworthy that the loudest calls for a “European” policy come from governments with little to contribute beyond a desire to shift attention from divisive and controversial domestic issues. Belgium’s foray into the international human rights debate provides an illuminating example. Schroeder’s vocal criticism of American policy toward Iraq reflects the primacy of domestic politics in a different context.

Politics within the European Union illustrate the contest, with conflicts over transfer payments through the common agricultural policy, exemptions from regulations that hurt domestic industries, and pressures to shape policy to the advantage of one interest or other. France has a long history of shaping EU policy to serve domestic constituencies that other states match with varying degrees of effectiveness. Disputes at the Nice summit in 2000 involving resentments over transfer payments and efforts to realign voting power to reflect population which would reduce the power of smaller members and give Germany greater weight against other members, particularly France, highlight the contest for national advantage.

European commitments to sovereignty and defense of national interests can be seen in other recent cases. Several governments that led in promoting the International Criminal Court discreetly secured exemptions from its jurisdiction for their own forces on peacekeeping duties while having earlier protested America’s refusal to participate. The dispute between Spain and Morocco over Parsley Island, an uninhabited rock held by Spain but claimed by both sides, reflects similar dissonance between rhetoric and policy. Moroccan authorities occupied the island last July to coincide with King Mohammed IV’s wedding, prompting Spain’s government to demand immediate withdrawal and deploy a sizable portion of its navy to reinforce the point. Spain’s response, like its policy on the North African enclaves of Cetua and Mellila, contrasted with Spanish demands that Britain cede sovereignty over Gibraltar. Madrid’s position varied depending upon whose sovereignty was at stake and its reoccupation of the disputed territory involved the kind of unilateral action that European purport to deplore.

The Parsley Island affair showed that the EU has only a limited role in foreign policy and that the much-touted shift in Europe from nation states to member states has not occurred. After an early statement under the Danish presidency that denounced Morocco’s action, the EU retreated on the issue. France blocked a stronger statement to avoid antagonizing either governments in the Maghreb or its own Muslim population. European Commission President Romano Prodi spoke of facilitating dialogue between the parties, and the EU did not back Spain’s naval deployments. Meanwhile, the U.S. brokered an agreement ending the crisis, and its tone was no less even-handed than the Europeans without arousing the same ire among segments of Spanish opinion.


The scene one year after the September 11 attacks indicates that the West still exists despite various challenges and doubts. However, the concept and relationships it expresses require careful tending. The war on terrorism and other political changes have raised questions that statesmen must address if the West is to continue as an organizing principle for pursuing common interests. Among the questions for the U.S. are how to use Atlantic institutions to minimize frictions while avoiding counterproductive arguments on unilateral vs. multilateral approaches.

Answering it will involve shoring up vital NATO relationships such as those with France, Germany, and Italy. Tony Blair cannot be the sole vehicle for building unity within the alliance. For their part, Europeans must examine the EU machinery that produces neither timely decisions nor policies that actually are implemented. Such European liberals as Tony Judt and Ralf Dahrendorf have joined sharper voices on the right asking whether institutions in Brussels possess the public support or democratic legitimacy necessary to sustain them through major crises. The EU serves mainly as a brake on action, and the problem may require a new subset of countries able to project force in support of common goals. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic must give their people a sense that the war on terrorism involves more than the suppression of banditry. It is part of a very real defense of a civilization—Western civilization—that is worth the effort to protect.

Addressing these questions will not only consolidate support, but also clarify the thinking behind policy in a manner that has been lacking for some time.End.

Source: Republished by permission from the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s WATCH ON THE WEST. Volume 3, Number 8, September 2002.

FPRI, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684 USA, can be reached at or visit


William Anthony Hay is Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West.


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