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The Gulf in Europe

Is it the hour of truth or the hour of delirium? Raymond Aron’s question about the twin crises of Suez and Hungary in 1956 is once again being asked in all the capitals of Europe, about the twin crises of the Gulf and the Baltic. And once again the answers are profoundly discordant.

In 1956 Aron pointed out that the French, whom you would normally expect to be deeply divided about Suez, were remarkably united, and the British, whom you would expect to be united, were uncommonly divided. Britain and France were at one, however, in the distracted weakness of their response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary; and with hindsight Aron felt this to be the greatest mistake of all. The Germans were preoccupied with their own national problems, and considered both Suez and Hungary almost entirely in that connection.

Today the British are remarkably united behind a military commitment in the Gulf which is more than three times larger than that of any other European power. The French, who for years had a national security consensus of which British defense ministers could only dream, are more divided over their smaller, but still substantial, commitment there. The Germans are preoccupied with their own national problems, and consider both the Gulf and the Baltic crises almost entirely in that connection.

Thus to the two crises we must add a third: the crisis of Europe. Despite more than thirty years of West European integration, the major European powers are still divided in their popular reactions, intellectual analyses, and policy responses. The clearest single fault line still runs between Britain and the Continent. Of course one should not too lightly dismiss the progress that has been made, or oversimplify the divisions. In the EC foreign ministers’ discussions there has been a spectrum of views on both issues, with, for example, the Danish and Dutch being even more robust than the British, the Spanish and Italians quite as lukewarm as the Germans. Despite these differences, a common position was arrived at—even if the French government effectively breached it, by taking a last-minute unilateral peace initiative, without telling anyone in advance, before the ink on the EC communiqué was dry.

Nor can one reduce the differences simply to “Anglo Saxons vs. Europeans.” The Dutch, Danes, Belgians, Spanish, Italians, and Greeks have small naval forces in the Gulf region, and even the Germans have sent five minesweepers to the Mediterranean and eighteen planes to Turkey. In response to the Soviet military action in the Baltic states, Washington has thus far been almost as soft-spoken as Bonn. Germany has a special national interest in propping up Gorbachev so long as the “2+4” treaty on German unification has still to be ratified and some 350,000 Soviet troops are still on German soil. The United States has a special interest in maintaining good relations with Gorbachev, not only to keep the Soviet Union “on our side” in the Gulf but also to secure the strategic arms reductions which are still far from a foregone conclusion. Britain, with less directly at stake, feels it can afford to be slightly more outspoken.

Seen from Lithuania the emphasis must be very much on the word “slightly.” In a letter to the Independent newspaper the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, described the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as “a clear attempt by a powerful country to impose its will on a weaker neighbour by military force.” This seems a very fair description of the Soviet action in Lithuania. But, you may say, Lithuania was not an independent state. Well, yes and no. In 1940 the Soviet Union simply gobbled up three neighboring independent states, and brutally reduced them to the condition of occupied republics. The West has never formally recognized this lawless, Saddam-like incorporation of the Baltic states.

Now plainly it makes a vast amount of practical difference whether a small country has been in the belly of a nuclear-armed superpower for five decades, or just in the gullet of a chemical-armed regional superpower for five months. But for small countries struggling to regain their independence, even small symbolic gestures are important. That at the height of the crisis the British foreign secretary received the half-exiled Lithuanian foreign minister was, by the standards of diplomatic protocol, a noteworthy and forward-looking gesture.

An even more noteworthy and forward-looking gesture would be to take the Baltic crisis to the UN, as not only the Baltic leaders but also the Russian leaders such as Boris Yeltsin have appealed to the Western countries to do. One thing about 1956 that moderate and realistic Hungarians recall with bitterness to this day is that the West did not even take that issue formally to the UN. The governments in London, Paris, and Washington had too much else on their minds—in the Middle East. There does not, however, yet seem much inclination in London, let alone in Bonn or Paris, to take this further step. All the EC has agreed is to throttle back its economic aid to the Soviet Union if repression continues.

On the Baltic crisis, one can be reasonably sure that the differences between West European stages are and will remain those of degree rather than kind—for poor Lithuania one must add “alas.” On the Gulf, I am not quite so certain. Traveling to Bonn and Paris over recent months, reading the papers, watching television, talking to “ordinary people” and policy makers (the two categories overlap more than you might think, or hope), I cannot avoid the feeling that the differences between British and continental European attitudes are actually larger than they seem.

To be sure, there are few arguments against war that one could not hear in Britain from the former Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, the former Labour defense minister, Denis Healey, or the peace movement. To be sure, the extraordinary French diplomatic measures were actually President Mitterrand’s way of going to war, despite the opposition of much of his own party, including, most bizarrely, his own defense minister (who has now resigned over the issue), and the presence in France of some 1.8 million people of North African or Arab origin, who might prove a serious threat if Saddam Hussein managed to convince them that this is indeed a jihad, with their host country on the side of the infidel.

Yet in France, in Italy, in Germany, one encounters much more often than in Britain a basic, deep-seated reluctance to believe that a war—particularly an American-led war—can be either necessary or justified, even against such a blatant, relentless, and certifiably tyrannical aggressor. “Surely there must still be a way to preserve peace” is the refrain, and hands are waved in elaborate gestures. As if all conflicts between all states could somehow be solved by the peaceful wheeling and dealing which resolves (or papers over) the differences between EC partners. Mr. Gianni de Michelis, the Italian foreign minister, and until the end of December the leading EC spokesman on the Gulf crisis (because Italy happened to hold the rotating EC presidency), is not just in his spoken language but also in his body language a peculiarly representative figure.

More of the British, by contrast, are more ready to say that war may ultimately, alas, be necessary. The reasons for these differences are certainly complex, although several facts may have something to do with them: that the British have not fought wars on their own soil for centuries; that they have not been occupied, or ultimately defeated in war (though very nearly, and often in peace!); and perhaps also that they have a professional, volunteer army.

At once extreme and typical of the kind of continental European reaction I am trying to describe—without being able to pin it down precisely, let alone wishing to give it a simple label—was an article by the doyen of German liberal commentators, Theo Sommer, in the leading weekly Die Zeit (issue dated January 11). The front-page article was headed “A War Now? Certainly Not.” After evoking the horrifying threat of war, and criticizing the Americans, Mr. Sommer asked, “What is at issue in the Gulf? Hardly democracy and human rights—they are trodden underfoot equally by despots and emirs.” This is a grotesque example of the kind of false relativism previously applied to the differences between Western and Eastern Europe. For it clearly makes an enormous difference even to the poorest of Kuwaitis whether they are exploited and controlled by their own authoritarian emirs, or murdered, raped, plundered, and oppressed by the forces of a foreign totalitarian dictator. Moreover, as Clement Attlee remarked when this argument was used against defending South Korea from invasion: because a man is immoral that doesn’t mean he deserves to be murdered.

Saddam, Mr. Sommer went on to assure us, is not large enough to be a second Hitler. As for the principle that aggression should not be allowed to pay, where, he asked, was the world community when China incorporated Tibet, India occupied Goa, or Indonesia the island of Timor.? Thus, according to Mr. Sommer, because we have failed to prevent three murders we have no justification for trying to prevent a fourth.

Painting—with the aid of a quotation from Nietzsche—the possibly disastrous consequences even of a successful war, Mr. Sommer argued that sanctions had not been given a proper chance to work. It is interesting to recall, in passing, that at the beginning of the last decade Mr Sommer eloquently argued against imposing sanctions on the Soviet Union following the invasion of Afghanistan and the declaration of a state of war in Poland. After more sarcastic criticism of the United States, going so far as to suggest that this war might be seen as a private vendetta between Saddam Hussein and George Bush, he concluded with a high-flown quotation from the German writer Matthias Claudius: “And I desire not to be guilty of it.” In vulgar translation: we, with our superior knowledge and virtue, don’t actually think that any dangerous and dirty work really needs to be done, but if it does, we will stand on the sidelines and jeer.

This exemplar is, as I say, extreme. In the weeks since that article appeared, and, more important, since the outbreak of hostilities, there has been a searching self-examination in Germany, with powerful articles—including one by Helmut Schmidt in Die Zeit—arguing that Germany must face up more seriously to its responsibility in both crises. Some attempt has been made by the new-old Kohl-Genscher government, finally constituted after more than a month of coalition fiddling while the Gulf burned, to do just that.

The arguments for giving sanctions some more time to work were clearly serious ones, and concerns, about the possible consequences of the war for the stability of the entire Middle East still are. Characteristically, Mr. Sommer went out of his way to cite American authorities—Paul Nitze, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Ball—who have made these arguments or expressed these concerns. Yet there is all the difference in the world between making these criticisms, scrupulously and soberly, with full respect for the motives and arguments of those you criticize, and inserting them as shafts in a self-righteous and ultimately frivolous anti-American boutade.

In a subsequent leading article, written after the outbreak of war, and published in the issue of Die Zeit dated January 25, Mr. Sommer himself points to the difference between British and Continental responses. Perhaps partly reacting to an earlier version of this article, which I published in the Independent, he comments: “Most Britons exhibit jingoism, transfigured into virtue or stylised as necessity; Edward Heath, Denis Healey and the Guardian are rare exceptions. Continental Europeans, by contrast, rather practice scepticism.”

Now once again there are serious criticisms that can be made of British, as of American policy, while the British tabloid press is, as usual, disgusting. But history can furnish few examples of a leader of a nation at war less jingoistic than John Major has been. And the suggestion that anyone in Britain who supports the American-led military action—reluctantly yet decidedly, as I do, because the aim of getting Saddam out of Kuwait is both just and important, and no other means are likely to achieve it, because there are things that sanctions can do, such as getting Adam Michnik or Nelson Mandela out of prison, and things that, on balance, they seem unlikely to do, such as getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait; and such decisions do have to be made on the basis of informed guesswork—the suggestion that we are all nothing but closet jingoists seems to me to come from an earlier age of relations between the peoples of Europe.

Six months ago we thought we were entering a new world, with new challenges: global warming, pollution, overpopulation, drugs, disease, and debt. Today we find ourselves facing old, familiar challenges again: a Middle Eastern aggressor far worse and more dangerous than Nasser; a Soviet leader suddenly again using the methods and speaking the language of Brezhnev—even, at moments, of Stalin; and, as a nagging, underlying worry, divergent attitudes and reactions of major European countries, when the going gets rough. Yet of these three reversions to an older, darker world, this is the least immediately threatening, and the one we can do most to prevent.

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from the Gulf in Europe. The first will surely be drawn by a certain retired lady in Dulwich, and not only by her. This shows, they will say, that what really counts in Europe is still the old nation-states, and nothing that we do in the way of European integration must be allowed to prevent these nation states from defending and pursuing their own interests as they see fit. The second conclusion, already drawn quite explicitly by Gianni De Michelis and the EC president, Jacques Delors, is diametrically opposed. This crisis shows, they say, that we must redouble our efforts not only to move toward economic, monetary, and political union, but also to forge a common foreign and security policy, probably including—as the German Christian Democrat Volker Ruhe has suggested—some integrated European forces.

I subscribe to the second conclusion. Indeed I think there is a danger that Britain, through its special role in the Gulf crisis, will once again be lulled back into comforting illusions about the “special relationship” with the United States, rather than giving top priority to the pursuit of its vital interests in Europe. Yet the double crisis of the Gulf and the Baltic shows just how far we are from anything remotely resembling a United States of Europe.

February 7, 1991

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