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Nein Means Nein

BY J. CARTER WOOD
03.27.2003 | POLITICS

As we march to war, mainland Europe has declined to enlist: How has this Transatlantic divide opened up, and what does it mean for the future?

During the diplomatic tensions surrounding last September's German elections, a half-joking suggestion began making the rounds that Washington wanted a "regime change" in Berlin as badly as in Baghdad. Not six months later, Germany seems happy to return the favor. According to a poll published in the February 17th edition of Der Spiegel, when asked to identify the greatest threat to world peace, 28 percent of Germans named Iraq and nine percent North Korea. The winner? The United States, with a convincing 53 percent. However legitimate this new-formula Axis of Evil is, results like this reveal much about the tenor of current transatlantic relations and point to striking trends in German-and European-attitudes toward America and themselves. Their causes, however, are more complex than those suggested by an ever-more hysterical conservative press, and their consequences may well have long-lasting influence.

America's symbolic demotion to "rogue state" follows a remarkable year's worth of increasingly aggressive, arrogant and inept American diplomacy. While Germany is not the only European country to respond negatively, and while France is now bearing much of the heat on the American side of the Atlantic, it was Germany that the first to categorically reject the use of military force in the Persian Gulf. As in other parts of Europe, ailing transatlantic relations have been particularly visible in the press: once commonly caricatured with a ten-gallon hat and six-shooter, President George W. Bush is now more likely to be depicted as a fundamentalist crusader or as something off the set of Gladiator, complete with bronze armor, laurel leaves and chariot. The promotion from John Wayne to Caesar (or, indeed, to personal emissary of God) has paralleled a growing awareness that his Iraq policy is not only an example of cowboy diplomacy but also the first stage in the creation of a new imperial world order in which the best other states can hope for is as a sort of loyal vassalage.

Today, as in Roman times, Germania is proving an unruly province. Nonetheless, the right-wing press's puerile efforts to write off "old Europe's" recalcitrance as a conspiracy of "EUnuchs," "Euroweenies" or the "Axis of Weasel" were undermined by the belated Valentine's greeting some ten million demonstrators worldwide sent Washington on February 15th. While Schröder may have dropped his references to "the German way," it appears in retrospect that his stand proved to be a decisive catalyst for popular anti-war organizing, and also formed a diplomatic rallying point, as the subsequent support from Belgium, France and Russia shows.

As a result, despite the certainty that war will come-planned quite literally before the dust of September 11th had settled-the diplomatic endgame that will precede it is anyone's guess. America's "coalition of the willing" (including some European nations) is now facing a less well-defined but unmistakably emergent alliance of war opponents. It can no longer be assumed that the US will get its way in the United Nations Security Council or, perhaps even more surprisingly, in NATO.

While some journalists have-somewhat belatedly-begun to notice the stirrings of a spiteful anti-European sentiment in recent months, hunting "anti-Americanism" has been a favorite right-wing sport since early last year. Picking almost at random, consider Robert Kagan, who, in the Washington Post (1.31.03), has alleged that in Europe a "paranoid, conspiratorial anti-Americanism" is a "mainstream view." (Kagan, like others, laces his essay with trite suggestions of a supposedly reflexive European anti-Semitism and huffy accusations of wine-and-brie elitism.) More reasonably, Eric Alterman (in the February 24th edition of The Nation) has pointed out that anti-Americanism in the EU is largely a "journalistic mirage": as he points out, attitudes toward the United States are a quite differentiated mixture of admiration, interest, anxiety and disdain, and these "European" views vary country-by-country. I've noticed this myself: a little more than a year ago, being an American in Europe occasioned spontaneous expressions of post-9/11 sympathy. Now, a short critique of the Bush regime-as much in sorrow as in anger-is de rigeur, concluding with something like this: "But America? I think America is great." But even if the new European attitude is not categorically anti-American, a growing, if diffuse, awareness of differing outlooks on the world, economy, culture and international order is beginning to take hold there.

It has been suggested that out of all the European reactions, that of the Germans has been the most surprising, for Germany has long been seen as the most reliable of American partners. Even when foreign minister Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik in the 1970s or demonstrations against the stationing of American nuclear weapons in the 1980s raised tensions, these were just the quirks of a stalwart ally. Thus the country's resolute stand against a further Gulf War is read by some as the clearest signal of a tectonic shift in European Weltanschauung. While superficially convincing, recent developments in German public opinion can also be seen more as the spread of latent ambivalences regarding America into parts of society that had hitherto refrained from taking to the streets.

In part, this rests upon two essential ingredients of post-war German identity that expressed a hopeful rejection of the horrors of Nazism and the determination to build a democratic state: on the one hand, a deep-seated hostility toward militarism and, on the other, the sublimation of nationalism into a multinational European unity. At the same time, German society was-outside of a fairly radical fringe-profoundly susceptible to American influences. While some of these came from Hollywood and consumer culture, others derived from what were perceived as "American" ideals of civil liberty, pluralistic democracy and multiculturalism. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, for instance, has frequently emphasized his generation's fascination with American culture and politics.

Thus, the global pax Americana-the empire now being openly discussed on the right-inspires not so much anti-Americanism as a conviction that the US has lost its own moral and political bearings. Its increasingly militaristic stance strikes a painfully discordant note in the German social consciousness, which, while not strictly "pacifist," is suspicious of aggressive nationalism. Meanwhile, American disregard for global agreements (on climate control, germ warfare, anti-ballistic missiles, or the creation of an international war crimes tribunal) declaration of an absolutist, uni-polar world order runs counter to the historical German commitment to multilateralism. From a certain perspective, then, Germans have for some time now been busily applying the lessons that America once strove to teach them, and it is partly on their basis that the German outlook has been defined.

Which has not always been easy, particularly as a reunified Germany has struggled to find its place in the post-Cold War world. Americans accustomed to their nation's foreign adventures may find it difficult to understand that until the late 1990s the German army was constitutionally prevented from serving beyond national borders. Even then, the debate over deployment in the Balkans was emotional and wrenching. It remains so: at an election campaign stop last year, I watched Fischer offer a convincing and passionate defense of German participation against charges-called out from a few people in the audience-of "war mongering." Germans are undoubtedly becoming more accustomed to this more active role, and there is notable pride (if lingering anxiety) in the Bundeswehr's contribution to the still-precarious peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, a presence for which many Afghans, too, have expressed gratitude. In more than words, Germany has proved its readiness to fight both terrorism and tyranny.

Partly as a result of this uncertain position, Schröder's Iraq policy has not been uncontroversial: his critics (among the Christian Democrats or the Liberals) see in Schröder's policies a cynical election ploy and complain loudly that he has isolated Germany and damaged its international respect. The media hasn't been devoid of pro-war opinion either: the government has been constantly second-guessed, and talk shows have little difficulty finding pro-invasion advocates. Within the Red-Green coalition, Schröder and Fischer have themselves clashed over Iraq, though more in regard to means rather than ends.

Nonetheless, the anti-war position commands an overwhelming majority across a broad social spectrum, one that has only increased with time. In Berlin, February 15th saw the largest demonstration in the history of the Federal Republic along with many smaller assemblies in other cities. It is all the more remarkable that such a huge gathering was in favor of a government's policy: among all of the problems facing Germany right now, many seem to see Iraq as the one thing that their government is doing right.

Yet, the German position is, of course, not simply a dispute between Berlin and Washington. European governments are anything but united, feeding one of the favored American smirks about EU dithering. Such differences of opinion cannot be downplayed, and they presage the difficulties facing Europe as it seeks to develop a coherent foreign policy.

It would, however, be difficult to expect anything else: the EU currently contains fifteen different nations with a wide spectrum of histories, attitudes and, not to be forgotten, governments. Expectations that a "United States of Europe" will resemble the United States of America are misplaced: as Fischer recently commented in Die Zeit (2.20.02), "The European Union was not made for war and peace." To miss this point is to misunderstand the current nature of the EU; a mistake to which some European politicians themselves, admittedly, contribute. Europe, however, is hardly at the end of its development, and with new members, ever-increasing integration and a soon-to-be-written constitution, suggestions of European "irrelevance" are, to say the least, premature.

As I write, the prologue to invasion is being completed. By the time this article is posted, the invasion may well have begun. The process-oriented path of the United Nations has been circumvented and dismantled, and the United States is ready to go it alone. Meanwhile, as reported in the February 17th edition of The Observer, American hawks are pushing a plan to "harm" Germany's currently struggling economy due to Schröder's "treachery." Similar threats and warnings have been bandied about regarding France, now seen as still more intransigent than even Germany (although this is also seen as less surprising.) Washington has registered the opposition from its allies as a slap in the face. They've made it abundantly clear: if you're not for us, you're against us.

Nonetheless, it seems odd that the Land of the Free should criticize the EU for its pluralism of opinion and action. If anything, the ability to bear such differences rather than to steamroller opponents through a peculiarly American mixture of missionary and patriotic zeal may be taken as one of the EU's great qualities and opportunities. Moreover, American and British conservatives' description of the EU as an undemocratic "superstate" that squashes national sovereignty under a bland, gray bureaucracy has been receiving ample refutation. For all their sharp differences on Iraq, European governments have, all in all, remained on at least cordial terms and their ability to agree on a lowest-common-denominator statement on Iraq shows their awareness that whatever happens they're going to continue working together.

This willingness to compromise is also built on another factor. For all the talk of "division," European public opinion has been speaking with one voice, and "no," in whatever language, still means "no." The largest anti-war demonstrations took place in those countries (Britain, Spain and Italy) whose governments have been most supportive of America. From Lisbon to Warsaw, in Europe "old" and "new", solid opposition to American policy has emerged among Europe's peoples, particularly if-as some in Bush's cabinet have long preferred-the US acts alone. Gary Younge, writing in the Guardian (2.10.03), may be correct in arguing that it is mistaken to overly idealize Europe: here, as anywhere, politics is about power and interest as much as principle. (Very much the same, as has long been clear, could be said of the UN.) European disputes over Iraq are, among other things, connected to internal jockeying among established heavyweights France and Germany, smaller players such as Spain and potential newcomers such as Poland. Nonetheless, it would be equally wrong to dismiss the very real differences in transatlantic worldviews or to underestimate the importance of what Yonge refers to as "European pragmatism" or "strategic" disputes over the international political and economic order. Despite short-term European division, America's imperial designs and the groundswell of opposition it has spawned may in fact be a decisive factor in hastening the united Europe that right-wing America so despises.

About the Author
J. Carter Wood recently completed a Ph.D. in British history at the University of Maryland, College Park and lives in Germany. When not writing about the history of violence, he struggles to come to terms with the German subjunctive mood.
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