Living with the Megapower

Chaired by Geoffrey Catchpole

(part 1) Atlantic Relations in the Age of Terrorism

15 October 2004.

(part 2) The Crisis of Legitimacy

6 June 2005

Robert Side

BRLSI Member.

Robert Side is a Member & former Education Officer of the Atlantic Council of the U.K

& Member of the Atlantic Treaty Association.

The first lecture Atlantic relations in the Age of Terrorism in the 2 part series Living with the Megapower, looks at the recent history and present relations of the US with Europe - their ideals of democracy, national interests and the balance between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power on which they found their national security. It looks at the relationship between power and ideology as part of background of the US, and the contrast between the theory of the ‘balance of power’ and the ‘community of power’. The lecture concludes by looking at the ways forward for both sides of the Atlantic Alliance.

The second lecture, The Crisis of Legitimacy explores further the post 9/11 dilemma, with the US and Europe facing the same problems of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism, and both sides of the Atlantic seeking to promote liberal democracy. Are the different approaches of Europe and the US mutually exclusive? How can the US policy of pre-emptive force be legitimised in order to contain militant Islam, build democracy in the Middle East and promote the authority of the UN?

In my first lecture, I looked at a series of entrenched stereotypes that resulted in a misunderstanding of American foreign policy in the first Bush administration, even though the economic ties that bind Europe to the US become stronger every year. Engaging pro-actively in a dangerous world is not a new doctrine: it has been the American credo since President Woodrow Wilson, but the Europeans are now deeply suspicious of the megapower because following 9/11 the cold-war strategies of deterrence and containment have been replaced by pre-emption, a doctrine that appears on this side of the alliance to be a breathtaking and radical departure. We must realise, however, that the history of American foreign relations is not about a struggle between power and ideals, but about their intermingling. American ideology has always been itemised as a quest for territory, markets and security, not always of course in that order. These priorities have not changed. They have simply been adapted to the post 9/11 situation.

During the Cold War, containment of the Soviet Union was simply another facet of the US maintaining its preponderance of power. Containment and deterrence in fact were looked after by NATO, while US pre-emptive force was always in the background, and was indeed used on occasions - Korea, Lebanon, Libya, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos were all part of the story. Nothing has changed. It is not a balance of power that America seeks today in the so-called war on terrorism, but a preponderance of power. In contrast, the Europeans see their security in what we can call a community of power, and it’s in this contrast of views that the problem lies for the Europeans. If the American policy of pre-emption and coalitions of the willing is not going to go away, who or what can give that policy legitimacy, or as we might say ‘How can this policy be controlled’?

This question, the crisis of legitimacy, is of fundamental concern. Start with some basic points: first, during the Cold War the legitimacy of American power came from the containment of communism. Militant Islam, however, cannot replace this today, since there is no enemy we can identify. Second, within the EU, Europeans are finally at peace with themselves, and are not threatened by any external military threats. On the other hand, the European nations have lost control of the world, even of the fringes of Europe itself in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia, though in those areas control is being regained with the stabilisation forces in Bosnia now under the control of the EU. Despite this, we are in some despair at the American neglect of the ‘soft-power’, ‘diplomacy first’ rules that to us are the bedrock of foreign policy. Third, and vitally important, the only means we have of controlling the superpower is to attempt to impose collective legitimacy by developing so-called international law, and employing the authority of the Security Council, and the EU, NATO, the OSCE - all of which are bound to fail in their primary objective, because, if need be, they can in the final resort be ignored by the megapower.

‘What kind of world order do we want’ asked Joschka Fischer on the eve of the US / UK invasion of Iraq in March 2003, emphasising the differences that separate the two sides of the Atlantic. To the Europeans, it appears that the Americans have not pondered the question of world order since the immediate aftermath of WWII. 80% of Americans believe war can achieve justice, and rather than just a question of tactics or questioning intelligence reports on WMD that leads the majority of Europeans to deny this, they disagree not only on policy but also on first principles. Before 2003 it was possible to think of a workable division of labour, with Europe concentrating on Europe and the US on everything else. Iraq has turned that division into schism, a crisis of legitimacy reflecting alternative visions of world order. Re-gaining legitimacy will determine the future of the US role in the international system, as much as any display of material power and influence.

As I understand it, ‘legitimacy’ has always been derived from the power of individual nation states acting in their own interests, however much lip-service is paid (when it suits their interests) to the authority of international institutions. The US is far from unique in this. The European states within NATO followed the same path when it suited them, for example the attack on Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999, an illegal war, unauthorised by the UN. The foundations of US legitimacy during the Cold War had little to do with the fact that the US helped create the UN or even abide by the international law contained in its charter. US actions - whether it was in military interventions or clandestine overthrow of regimes in the Third World were undertaken for the collective defence of the free world against international communism. This legitimacy rested on three pillars, based on the existence of the Soviet Empire: first, the Soviet military threat to Europe, second, the Soviet ideological threat to the world and third, the balance of two superpowers that kept both the Soviet Union and the US in check. Charles de Gaulle’s France and Willy Brandt’s Germany relished the small amount of independence the superpower balance gave them. Today, radical Islam cannot replace communism as an ideological threat to Western democracies, any more than suicide terrorism can match the old military threat. The Europeans do not wholly share Washington’s concern with nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and since Iraq the link between WMD and terrorism has been seen as a fantasy. Europe is a geo-political paradise and we do not believe these weapons will be aimed at us.

Unprecedented US global power has itself become the issue, because Europe is too weak to be an ally but too secure to be a victim. I date the crisis of legitimacy as originating in the 1990s, culminating in the Kosovo war, ironically coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Washington Treaty, the foundation of NATO. This was a war in Europe’s backyard, directed almost entirely by a US general. Europe’s worst fears became real after 9/11: remember that Donald Rumsfeld’s first act was to reject the offer of NATO support from George Robertson, the then Secretary General. This was followed by a second rejection, that of support from Britain and France for the invasion of Afghanistan. With Iraq, the Europeans, even the UK, had lost all semblance of control. Their moral, political and security interests were disregarded.

Europe’s military capabilities continue to decline, making the French ambition to create a bi-polar counterweight to the US futile. In any case, Europe has nothing to fear from the superpower. What we fear is that we have lost all control over the US, and thus over world affairs. Inevitably, the EU, itself a collective body, turns to its own virtues as an economic and political union to present the case. In return for a greater say in world affairs and over the exercise of US power, the argument goes, Europe can give the US the legitimacy it now lacks. It is an argument that carries no weight whatever in Washington.

If the European offer of legitimacy is rejected, where else can it be located? Europe’s first answer is to look to the Security Council. Even Blair believed that UN authorisation for the invasion of Iraq was essential to satisfy the British public. However, the Security Council has failed to function as the UN’s more idealistic founders intended, and as we saw over Kosovo it has never been accepted by Europe either as the sole source of international legitimacy. There are many other examples. I can cite the US / UK bombing of Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) 1998, over strong objections in the Security Council from Russia and France. In October 2003 Colin Powell was arguing that ‘the US has the right to intervene in Iraq, just as we did in Kosovo’, yet then the Europeans were arguing then that the US should adhere to an international legal standard they themselves had ignored for humanitarian reasons four years before. The point here is not to show how the Europeans contradict themselves, but to show that legitimacy can never be a science, reducible to the reading of international law. We are faced indeed with a complicated dilemma, and we must explore this more deeply.

Our Western liberal societies are bifocal, and the two visions conflict. On the one hand we have a vision of world peace based on an ever-strengthening international legal system. All nations, democratic or tyrannical, big or small, are equal sovereign entities. On the other hand we cherish the human rights and liberties of the individual, which compels us (when it suits our interests) to compel a barbarous regime to behave more humanely. Kofi Annan recently famed the dilemma well. ‘On the one hand, is it legitimate for nations to use force without a UN mandate? On the other, is it permissible to let violations of human rights, with grave humanitarian consequences, continue unchecked?’ So, are we looking beyond this dilemma towards a new world whose political and moral foundation would be very different from that enshrined in the UN Charter? Does the EU itself show the way, a confederation of free states, subjecting themselves to interference with their sovereignty in order to guarantee peace, the enforcement of human rights and joint progress towards increasing prosperity? Actually, the US might be inclined to accept the validity of this model because it has never accepted the Charter’s doctrine of sovereign equality. The US is a revolutionary power. Foreign tyrannies, it is believed, are transient, and can be toppled by the forces of republicanism. This is why extreme Muslim fundamentalists detest the US, and this is why Europeans, involved in making radical changes of their own, see the post 9/11 US as a dangerous member of the international order. Defining an ‘axis of evil’, proposing regime change in defiance of international law and the UN Charter - these seem bad enough in the post 9/11 world, but the problem of legitimacy is compounded by two other factors, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the rise of international terrorism, both of which appear more threatening to Americans than to Europeans.

I’m convinced that post 9/11 we need to re-examine our traditional international legal principles, and re-define at the same time our notions of legitimacy. We must risk appearing illiberal. Preventative action might at times be necessary to meet new international threats. Does this mean that we must violate state sovereignty, prohibitions against intervention, traditional legal norms? If so, who will do the preventing, who decides when, who authorises the action? We’ve come full circle. Who is to control the superpower? The answer is a foreign policy based on multi-lateralism, at present almost impossible to set up in a world of nation states - but one, interestingly enough, being pioneered within the EU. In contrast, the American version of ‘multilateralism’ is a policy by which the superpower gains the support of a coalition of the willing, another thing entirely. The UK, as always, is looking both ways. In the EU, our government seeks to ratify the constitution. Over Iraq, the UK, Poland, Spain, Denmark and Italy, with a dozen or so others, all joined the multi-national coalition. Did that make the action legitimate? How wide does a coalition have to be before it becomes legitimate? This is far too subjective for any definition of international order, which is why France and Germany - and at first the UK as well - demanded UN authorisation for the war. Why did the US agree to Blair’s demand that they should go back one last time to the Security Council before the invasion? Not because the Americans were paying lip-service to European definitions of legitimacy, but because Europe matters to the US. With them it forms the heart of the liberal, democratic world. The US can go it alone militarily, but certainly not economically. It cannot act as if its own self-interest is the only thing that matters. It must demonstrate that it wields its power on behalf of its principles.

Principles, indeed, matter in this debate. Go back to December 3rd 1995, when President Clinton, Fleipe Gonzalez for the EU and Jacques Santer for the European Commission signed the New Trans-Atlantic Agenda in Madrid. The agenda established for major goals that are still relevant ten years later: promoting peace, stability, democracy and development around the world, responding to global challenges, contributing to world trade expansion and closer economic relations, and building bridges across the Atlantic. What remains today of that idealism? The cultural and historic relationship – America was, after all formed with European migrations - was demonstrated twice in the 20th century. Bilateral investments between Europe and the US amount today to more than E1.5 trillion. Co-operation against terrorism and international crime remains a priority. In the Middle East coordination between the EU and US is essential and in Latin America we share the same objectives of supporting democracy and eliminating poverty. In all these ways America is the indispensable nation but Europe is the irreplaceable partner. America and Europe depend much more upon each other than either likes to admit. After the elections in Iraq, Europeans can no longer pretend that President Bush’s strategy is mad and doomed to fail, and Americans certainly acknowledge that they need a strong European Union.

Everyone now is looking towards some new version of the transatlantic bargain. Some, Robert Kagan for example, talk of a revived NATO, an alliance in which democracies vote on an equal footing with the superpower, the one organisation capable of reconciling US hegemony with European influence. Within NATO there can be much agreement on the nature of today’s global threats, and the opportunity to devise a common strategy. Other, alternative proposals are being put forward, but these are far less clear. They stress that both US unilateralism and the French vision of a multi-polar world are both pernicious, because both are dividing principles, and that NATO is distrusted by the US because it is not flexible or responsive to the needs of the superpower. The view that is becoming fashionable is that a new structure is required to cope with the multitude of world problems, a structure so-far undefined, that will link in permanent conference the State department with the Common Security and Foreign Policy of the EU, but even that model presupposes that the European Constitution, or something like it, would itself be ratified. What is certain is that the crisis of legitimacy will never be resolved as long as the schism persists. Events, common threats, might bring us together again, and we must never lose sight of these common dangers that lie ahead.

Events, indeed, are giving some hope for the future. Here is one example: different approaches are not always mutually exclusive. On Iran, for instance, the European and American stances are converging. Britain, Germany and France have been trying to get the Islamic republic to forswear uranium enrichment (which could lead to the building of a nuclear bomb) in exchange for mostly-economic incentives. Bush recently extended his support to the European incentives-based approach. With Iran having since said that it will break its voluntary suspension of enrichment because Europe did not brandish enough carrots, the frustrated Europeans may now support America in hauling Iran before the UN Security Council. Here are others: the EU and America also spoke with one mind after Ukraine’s disputed election last year, and they recently found a way through an impasse over the International Criminal Court: though America does not recognise the court, it agreed to let suspected perpetrators of atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region be put in the dock, so long as American nationals are kept out of the court’s jurisdiction. This seems to indicate that as I forecasted in my first lecture Condoleezza Rice, though starting from a very low base, has already had much success in lifting America’s image in the world. Letting Pakistan have jet fighters without hopelessly alienating India was also a skilful manoeuvre, and the emerging strategic relationship with India will get a boost this summer with high-level Indian visits to the US. Yet for all the good news, the North Korea policy is still incoherent, and it is too early to say if the Rice transformation can hold.

North Korea reminds us that there are dangers in the world far greater than those posed by the US, and the Europeans must be very mindful of them. A way must certainly be found, and as quickly as possible to restore some measure of legitimacy to our joint conduct of foreign policy.


1. Francois Heisbourg, Director, Foundation for Strategic Research, Paris. 18 March 2003.

The European rift over Iraq has demonstrated that a EU of 25 member states will not unite on any policy issue where the US dissents. If Europe wants to have political weight it needs to form a core group of countries determined to meld policies and means. This idea, first formulated almost ten years ago and often dismissed, is now the only idea that can get Europe out of its trans-Atlantic predicament. The core of the core group has to be the two countries whose unity has been the indispensable condition of European unity, France and Germany.

2. Christoph Bertram, Director, Institute for International & Security Affairs, Berlin. 24 March 2003

Restoring the transatlantic relationship is no longer a matter of repairing damage and then acting as if nothing had changed. The US has ended the old relationship. It can be reborn only if Europe is reborn.

3. Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary, on the benefits of the use of ‘soft power’ in collaboration with the Americans. 27 March 2003, International Herald Tribune & Washington Post.

Europe uses both hard and soft power in myriad ways to maintain global security. The first ESDP civilian mission began in Bosnia in January, where an EU police mission is helping to restore the rule of law. The first ESDP military mission will begin in Macedonia next week. European nations will also continue to contribute to international peacekeeping, which will undoubtedly become a growth area for the UN as we confront the challenge of failed and failing states. In the past ten years, Europe has suffered more casualties in international peacekeeping operations than even the US. Europe’s experience in the exercise of the subtle art of soft power could prove indispensable to the reconstruction of Iraq. The EU tends to exert its influence overseas via the promotion of democracy and development through trade and aid. The results have been impressive in Central and Eastern Europe, where democracy and free markets have entirely eclipsed authoritarian rule and command economics.

4. John Bruton, former President Irish Republic, former President Council of the EU, Member of the Committee to frame the European Constitution. EU Ambassador to the US. 22 December. 2004

The US has seen the limits of its unilateralism and perhaps the EU has seen the limits of its multilateralism. The US now know is that unilateral action is not quick in the results it delivers. We know there are questions so urgent you cannot deal with them only through the UN. We have an opportunity to re-establish lines of mutual influence. Trans-Atlantic diplomacy cannot be based on a ‘one-way traffic’ and the US, for all its military power, needs allies to achieve its global objectives, and alliances that are based on reciprocity. The US has extended itself as far as it wants to extend itself. Europe is determined to be as helpful as possible and on three critical fronts – Iraq, China and Iran – there is work to be done and it is best done together. Diplomacy will only be successful if the Europeans and the US work in concert.