An old continent, tired and impotent

European politicians might as well save their breath: the US isn't listening to their views on the w

Europe has indulged in a flurry of criticism of the US, in which even the UK has joined. It has been satisfying, hugely encouraging to the anti-American left. But Europe is impotent.

It started with the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, who articulates the nuanced French view of the US - as being at once an enviable powerhouse and a potential bull in a china shop. Vedrine described President Bush's phrase "the axis of evil" - used of Iran, Iraq and North Korea - as "absurd" and "simplistic". More surprisingly, Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, fell back on British irony and said the speech was crafted with elections in mind. Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, let it be known, through the commentator Andreas Middel in Die Welt, that the present US foreign policy does not make him "wildly enthusiastic, neither about the worldwide war on terrorism nor about the Middle East".

Heavier guns followed. Lionel Jospin, the French premier, in a speech otherwise devoted to money-laundering, said that "the problems of the world cannot be reduced simply to the struggle against terrorism, however vital that struggle may be. Nor can such problems be solved by overwhelming military power." Chris Patten, the EU foreign affairs commissioner, in a Guardian interview, said he feared that the US was developing "a different conception of the world" from Europe's. "Smart bombs have their place but smart development assistance" was more important; he hoped that "America will demonstrate that it has not gone into unilateralist overdrive".

At the European meeting of foreign ministers in Spain this month, a French-sponsored initiative called for the instant recognition of a Palestinian state. It was agreed, but delayed for "further work" until the European summit in Barcelona in March.

None of this matters in Washington. The US political and military leadership, buoyed by very large support in the polls, sees the war as righteous, right and enough. Its view of Europe is of a continent absorbed in its own affairs, with a non-existent foreign and defence policy and no will to participate, other than rhetorically, in the urgent task of policing the world.

This view, at least for the moment, is substantially correct. "Nato could have been more involved in the war in Afghanistan - had it been better armed," said a senior US diplomat. "As it was, it was of very little use." A British Ministry of Defence official said: "The Americans didn't use Nato because it wasn't fast enough. From now on, the US will not feel bound to Nato as its first port of call. It will be alliances a la carte for the task in hand."

According to Jeffrey Gedmin, the head of the Aspen Institute's branch in Europe who is close to members of the Republican administration, the Pentagon view is that it was no use involving Nato in Afghanistan "because we know that in phase two, they won't be with us".

One of the largest, and most sobering, lessons of this war has been the confirmation that the US is utterly dominant militarily. So dominant is it that unilateralism makes more sense than a multilateralism that would force it to share plans, accept compromises and risk leaks of secret information - leaks that the US military believes did occur in Kosovo.

Most EU states are still shrinking their defence budgets while the US approves an increase in expenditure which in itself is greater than the total defence spending of all European countries. Nato, whose headquarters is grossly overstaffed by representatives of its 19 members, is now much more of a political than a military alliance. The European security and defence policy, together with the embryonic European rapid reaction force, remains a hostage to low spending, competing defence staffs, incompatible equipment and deep scepticism among the military. "We may just be building another set of institutions, not adding military value," said a much-decorated British general at a recent (off-the-record) seminar on Nato.

Europe has many other problems to absorb its energies. Its eastward expansion, as it comes closer and the financial losers among the current members become clearer, grows more and more contentious. The commission to study the European constitution has taken the issue out of the political arena for the moment - but when it reports, it will again expose a fundamental difference between those who push for a closer integration and those who do not want it to go much further. Elections are ushering in governments of the right which are likely to clash with the expansionist drive.

Poor economic performance and high unemployment in Germany, at the heart of the EU, has attracted a warning from the European Commission that the country's level of borrowing will break the financial stability pact - which Germany itself demanded, largely to guard against Italian indiscipline. At the same time, Britain, with Italy and Spain, is launching a campaign for more labour and capital flexibility, which will irritate France and Germany. Britain's drive for more help for Africa will also be contentious, especially as it wants lower tariffs on African products.

So, at the very moment when it complains about US leadership, Europe itself has no "natural" leader. Tony Blair, the most prominent (and, in years of office, senior) EU head of government cannot lead, because the UK is not inside the euro-zone; Germany is economically strapped and, like France, faces elections this year. Europe's driving force, the Franco-German motor, has largely ceased to work. In a recent (co-authored) pamphlet, Pascal Lamy, a former aide Jospin and now EU trade commissioner, writes that "the time is gone when a negotiation between France and Germany was enough for us to stamp our mark on community decisions".

Why, then, should the Americans listen? They do not, particularly because they tend to conflate the criticisms from Europe's mainstream politicians with the much harsher condemnation from a European left which has seized on the widening gulf with a kind of nostalgic glee. "The most morally bankrupt carping comes from the left," wrote the US political commentator Joe Klein in the Guardian, and "most Americans don't give a fig about what you [Europeans] think. There is the old American bias toward seeing Europe as tired, flaccid and hopelessly parochial." Salman Rushdie, American by adoption, also wrote in the Guardian that "what America is accused of - closed-mindedness, stereotyping, ignorance - is also what its accusers would see if they looked into a mirror . . . It would be easy for America, in the current climate of hostility, to fail to respond to constructive criticism".

There is constructive criticism from within the US - especially on breaches of civil rights linked to the war against terrorism. The legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, writing this month in the New York Review of Books, excoriates Bush's declaration that any suspected terrorist can be tried by a secret military court, calling this "the kind of 'trial' we associate with the most lawless of totalitarian dictatorships".

The spectacle is a doleful one: a mighty America full of justified rage and secure in both its cause and its morality; and an impotent Europe, unable to move beyond separate nation statehoods into global power. The right, especially the British right, contentedly draws the conclusion that now is the time to be pro-American: it is, after all, the no-brainer strategy of going with the winner.

For the left, a cul-de-sac beckons. To find sustenance in the solemn pronouncements of senior politicians is a false solution. The only possible response - because anything like military equality now seems a chimera - is humanitarian: the tactic Patten referred to as "smart development assistance". A de facto division of labour with the US, where both sides realise their strengths and weaknesses, is what is needed to stop a futile, if ideologically satisfying, struggle across the Atlantic as to who has the better grasp of the global order and universal morality.

This requires a large compromise - especially from the US. The Nazi leaders said they could manage without butter, but not without guns. But the west today needs, not just guns to deter terrorists, but also the butter of aid, engagement and open markets for third-world products. This is the left's mission, if only it could see it.

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