The Hyperpower and the Hype: Reassessing transatlantic relations in the Iraqi context

Simon Duke
ISBN 13 EIPA Code #: 2003/W/01 Year: 2003 Pages: 19 Digital: 0 €


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There has been no shortage of analysis of transatlantic relations over the last couple of years or so and the current disagreements over Iraq have accentuated these differences. Indeed, since September 2001 debate about the state of transatlantic relations has become something of a cottage industry. However, Robert Kagan's contribution to rethinking transatlantic relations stands out as one of the most influential contributions to this debate. Although there are more nuanced and subtle studies of the state of transatlantic relations, Kagan's contribution came at an appropriate moment when transatlantic opinion (as well as that within individual EU Member States) is sharply divided over the wisdom of military action in Iraq. Kagan's depiction of Europe living in a Kantian 'self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation', when compared to that of the U.S. which inhabits an 'anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable', appears to capture the essence of the respective outlooks of Europe and America on the world around them, especially on Iraq.
The U.S. that emerged after the cold war was quite different to its cold war shadow which was variously constrained or, on occasion, challenged by allies. The U.S. that emerged in the postcold war era is, in Hubert Védrine's word, a hyperpuissance. The full extent of U.S. strength (and vulnerability) was not fully appreciated until the attacks of September 2001. The September attacks reinforced and legitimised the willingness of Washington to impose unilateral solutions on international problems that are of direct concern to America's interests. In spite of the immediate outpouring of genuine sympathy from the European publics to Americans in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September, the U.S. soon made it very apparent that it was quite willing and capable of acting alone. The new breed of American assertiveness was summarised in Bush's antiterrorism mantra that 'you're either with us or against us'. Even when support was offered, such as in the case of the first invocation of Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty on 12 September 2001, the subsequent rebuttal bore mute testimony to America's determination to fashion a new international order that solidifies its hegemonic position.
The troubling message for many European capitals was not that Washington had turned its back on multilateralism, but that when its vital interests were perceived to be at stake, the U.S. is quite willing to go it alone. An equally troubling aspect was the relative inability of the EU Member States to decisively sway the U.S. one way or another on a range of international issues. The weaknesses of the EU in foreign and security policy have been repeatedly exposed in the postcold war period with the lack of any substantial military capability to back up the Union and, perhaps more gravely, a lack of collective will. These differences, both across the Atlantic and within the EU, have been put into stark contrast by the Iraq issue.