TCS Daily


No Permanent Friends

By Dale Franks - March 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Over the past several months, many critics of the Bush administration have blamed it for the loss of our allies in the War on Terror. The accusation is that the Bush Administration has squandered the goodwill of the immediate post-9/11 period by high-handed and inept diplomacy.

Prior to the elections in Spain, the Spanish government was a close ally, not only in the War on Terror, but in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. The new government of Mr. Zapatero has promised to remove Spanish troops from Iraq as one of its first orders of business, and will presumably be much less cooperative in other ways than Mr. Aznar's government has been.

More, proof, say critics, of the Bush Administration's diplomatic fumbling.

While it is certainly true that the Bush Administration's diplomacy has been imperfect, it seems that such criticisms are overblown. Placing all the blame on the Bush Administration is certainly politically convenient. It forgets, however, the real nature of alliances, how they form, and why they disband. As Lord Palmerston, the famous 19th century British Foreign Minister once said, nations have no permanent friends or allies. They only have permanent interests.

Nations do not become friends in the same sense that people do. The people of one nation may retain good feelings for the people of another - think of the US and UK, for example -- because of common cultural or familial links. But nations, as such, do not define their relationships by the feelings they have for one another. Instead, nations have interests -- goals that will further the well-being or security of their citizens.

When national leaders perceive that an alliance with another nation will secure those interests, it enters into one. As World War II showed, even nations that are fundamentally hostile to one another will ally themselves when their perceived interests dictate that they do so. That is, after all, how the USSR ended up allied with the US and Britain.

But when the interests of allied nations no longer converge, the reason for their alliance disappears, and the alliance splits apart. The former allies do not necessarily become enemies, but each becomes freer to pursue its own interests.

A Long View

We have become used to being allies with Western Europe. So much so, in fact, that permanent alliance with them seems to be the natural state of affairs. In fact, that alliance was only a modern phenomenon, and forged only by necessity.

Prior to World War II, the United States was generally regarded as a neutral country as regards European affairs, with the exception of the 1898 campaign against Spain, and our participation in the last eighteen months of World War I.

It was only after our alliance with the USSR had dissolved, and the USSR began to be increasingly perceived as an enemy, that the NATO alliance was formed. For the first time in American history, a permanent standing army was raised for the purpose of being stationed on foreign soil in peacetime. We served as the centerpiece for NATO, a defensive alliance in Western Europe to counter the Soviet threat.

The Soviets, however, haven't been around for a bit more than a decade. That has left NATO scrambling for a mission to justify its existence. NATO survives, I suspect, mainly out of habit, rather than because it reflects a convergence of national interests between the European countries and America. There are, to be sure, a number of things NATO could usefully be doing, and would be doing, if the nations of Europe perceived it to be in their interest.

It is no longer clear, however, whether that is the case. In the absence of a Soviet threat, the reasons to remain allied with the US seem less compelling. In addition, there are several nations such as France that have a large number of Muslim immigrants, many of whom remain unassimilated into the local society and culture. They have an interest in maintaining public peace by moderating their stance toward the Muslim world. Given Europe's relative lack of petroleum supplies, it also serves their interests to cultivate friendly relations with oil-rich states, the vast majority of which happen to be Muslim.

No matter how cordially we are regarded, or how agile our diplomacy, European leaders, for the most part, no longer consider us a vital link in the chain of their defense. Indeed, since the US alone has larger armed forces than the remainder of the NATO nations combined, it doesn't seem unrealistic to assert that defense isn't perceived as a pressing interest in Europe at all.

We may be entering a period where European nations believe America to be a hindrance to their interests. An America that doesn't contribute to any vital defense need is less necessary as an ally. Moreover, joining with an America that engages in policies that tend to upset a restive Muslim domestic population, or which might, as a last resort, threaten the supply of oil, would seem to place their interests in jeopardy more than it would to advance them. If European leaders perceive their interests in this way --even if that perception is factually wrong -- then expecting close cooperation with us is probably a forlorn hope. By their calculation, assisting us is more risky than opposing us, or, at the very least, abstaining from action.

It would probably be very difficult, no matter who was conducting US diplomacy, for us to convince them that they are wrong. We would be asking them to trade a relatively stable now for the possibility of a much more peaceful future.

One might argue that the reality is that the Islamists would like to destroy us all, American and European. That might very well be true, but I suspect it will take action by al-Qaida to convince the Europeans of that. It was the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, not the Eiffel Tower or the ElyseƩ Palace that were struck on 9/11. And it was Spain, an American ally in Iraq, not Germany, an opponent of the invasion, which was struck on 3/11.

Perhaps the leaders of Old Europe calculated that opposing the Iraq War would spare them from the wrath of the Islamists. If so, they so far appear to have been correct. And the attacks in Spain would seem to confirm that their interests lie in a cooler relationship with the US. Moreover, with such a posture, Old Europe might feel it can't lose. America is hardly likely to retaliate in any significant way. And if terror becomes a threat requiring a firmer response, they can always ally themselves more closely with us later. It is cynical, perhaps, but effective nonetheless.

To say that the Bush Administration is to blame for the lack of support from the leaders of Old Europe is to say that Bush could have convinced them to act against the perceived interests of their own countries.

That, it seems to me, is asking for quite a lot.


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