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…

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