New York Times | Richard Bernstein
BRUSSELS, Feb. 18 — The statement issued by the 15 heads of state of the European Union on Monday amounted to a compromise formulation that was at once tough on Saddam Hussein and clear on Europe’s preference for a peaceful outcome. But it was unambiguous on one point that perfectly captured the divide between the United States and a vast majority of European public opinion.
“We are committed to the United Nations remaining at the center of the international order,” the declaration said. “We recognize that the primary responsibility for dealing with Iraqi disarmament lies with the Security Council.”
In fact, the entire emergency conference of European leaders, held to hammer out a common position on Iraq, was saturated with a commitment to what may be viewed as a form of world government, the supervision of countries by an international civil service bureaucracy whose headquarters is the United Nations. This is a notion that has long been viewed with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility by the United States.
In a sense, all the analysis about the cultural differences between Europeans and Americans — about Europeans being less reliant on force and more willing to sacrifice their sovereignty — boils down in practice to this: European governments believe in the United Nations as the “center of world order” and the American government, especially the current American government, tends to be hostile to that idea.
It is true that, despite the unilateralist reputation of the Bush administration, America has so far more or less accepted the European multilateralist rules of the game on Iraq. Indeed, after contemplating unilateral action against Mr. Hussein, the administration finds itself enmeshed in the very gears of Security Council resolutions and negotiations that American unilateralists — and, of course, not all Americans are unilateralist — find anathema.
But the decision to go to the United Nations was taken reluctantly, and remains contentious within the administration. “Europeans already operate a kind of world government inside the confines of Europe, and they would like to replicate their experience on a global scale,” said Robert Kagan, whose book “Of Paradise and Power,” is a study of the cultural differences between Europe and the United States. “But in the United States, which has never operated in such a system, both Democrats and Republicans are skeptical that you can do this.”
“It’s also a question of power,” Mr. Kagan said. “It’s historically been the case that weaker powers have sought to constrain stronger powers through the mechanisms of international legal structures.”
Monday’s meeting did more than reaffirm an attachment to the United Nations. The European leaders also warned Iraq to disarm and allowed that force might be used, though only as a “last resort.” But the most common refrain was the collective expression of trust in a world order governed by the Security Council.
Present in Brussels was the secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who told the assembled European foreign ministers and heads of state that the United Nations was the only source of legitimacy for the use of force in the world.
“If the international community fails to agree on a common position and action is taken without the authority of the Security Council,” Mr. Annan said, “then the legitimacy and the support for that action will be seriously impaired.”
Similarly, the Greek president, Costas Simitis, said at a news conference, “We believe that the focus of the international system is the U.N., which has primary responsibility for managing the Iraqi crisis.”
The public opinion polls, showing such clear opposition in Europe to a war, ring of this same conviction. A poll published in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel showed 53 percent of the German public believing the United States to be the greatest threat to peace in the world, while only 27 percent cited Iraq.
But the 53 percent are probably not saying that they prefer Iraq to the United States. What they are saying is that their greatest fear is of a superpower untrammeled by any international control. They would rather do nothing about a dictator like Mr. Hussein, who, in the European view, is too weak and hemmed in to be much of a threat in any case, than see the United States act without United Nations approval.
What skeptics about world government say is that the record of the United Nations is simply not very good. Its efforts in Bosnia, to take an extreme example, before the United States led the effort to bring the genocide there to an end, failed utterly, precisely, in the view of critics, because it placed too much priority on negotiations and not enough on military force.
Europeans, of course, are aware of the possibility that the United States, frustrated with what it sees as Security Council obstructionism on Iraq, may decide to go to war with a coalition of the willing, ignoring the United Nations. Europeans know that such an action would be a blow from which the idea of world government might not recover, and their message in Brussels to President Bush was clear: don’t do it.