TCS Daily

Gaining Friends

By Radek Sikorski - September 13, 2002 12:00 AM

KRYNICA, Poland - On 9/11 last year I was in Warsaw, in the Polish ministry of foreign affairs. As we were preparing a visit to the U.S. and were in constant touch with our Consul General in New York, we became the first foreign ministry in the world to know of the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Centre. Our Consul General saw the second plane hit from the window of her Manhattan office during one of the telephone conversations.

Poland is the most pro-American country in Europe but the response to the outrage was still remarkable: thousands of flowers appeared in front of the U.S. embassy within hours. In my home town, deep in the Polish countryside, the local philharmonic, unprompted by anyone, changed that weekend's repertoire to Mozart's Requiem and put a huge U.S. flag in the foyer. This week's anniversary brought that spirit back: the U.S. embassy became a shrine again and a memorial was unveiled to several Polish victims of the World Trade Centre attack.

All of which brings me to an important point: as a European living in Washington, it pains me to see when opportunities for exercising benevolent American leadership are squandered.

It is perfectly understandable that Americans are overwhelmed with grief at the largest mass murder ever perpetrated against their country. It is perfectly natural that Americans want to go after those responsible and that they judge their friends and allies by the extent of their assistance in this, their hour of need. It is also obvious that they have become more sensitive to other actual or potential threats, particularly of weapons of mass destruction, and that they find myopia on this score infuriating.

What is odd, is that America in its pain sometimes sounds as if it does not wish to be supported or comforted. It is humiliating to the world's most powerful nation to have been wounded so deeply. Coming from a nation which has had more than its fair share of historical suffering, we grasped instantly the magnitude of what happened on 9/11. My impression was that it took some of my American friends several hours to recognize that such a tragedy could happen to them. 'We don't make good victims, damn it,' as one senior U.S. diplomat eloquently put it. This sounds natural to an American ear but to Europeans, who feel the slaughter of two world wars in their bones, such sentiments sound suspiciously like a superiority complex. To most of the world, where life is, after all, nasty, brutish, and short, it sounds like downright pride.

Americans have understandably pulled together as a nation and celebrated their American grief in their own community. But the more you pull together, the more you pull away from outsiders. Mistrust and disdain of the foreigner are in the air. Just like we have got used to the chattering classes of Berlin and Paris quipping about America, so no Washington gathering seems complete these days without denunciations of Europeans for their actual and imagined sins. Both continents are tending towards psychological self-isolation.

This might end in tears. Whatever Americans may think about the whinging and disorganized Europeans, and however much Europeans may fear being dragged into war by a trigger-happy America, the basic geostrategic equation remains in force: When Europe and America act together, they rule the world, when they drift apart, big trouble ensues.

There is another way. Although you would hardly guess this from the U.S. anniversary celebrations, people of most nations of the earth perished in the WTC attack. It was, after all, the World Trade Centre and not the U.S. Trade Centre. And it is precisely because the whole world was attacked on September 11th, that America can claim the moral right to avenge the outrage and preempt its recurrence. To convince the world of this, we should hear less about how America has the right to act on behalf of its national interest and more about how it has the right and duty to act on behalf of all the victims of 9/11.

When President Bush makes a direct appeal to the people of Europe, such as for example in his brilliant Warsaw speech in June last year, he gains friends and admirers for America, thereby changing 'the correlation of forces,' as the Soviets used to put it, in America's favor. Modern technology makes it easy to reach above the heads of petty-minded leaders and spiteful commentators to those people all over the world who felt, and continue to feel, America's pain. In Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Condolezza Rice, he has assembled a star team that can make all the arguments that reason and factual evidence will allow. It is time to send them out to the world to make the case for America.

Radek Sikorski is executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was a Solidarity activist and has served as Poland's deputy minister for defence and deputy minister for foreign affairs.

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