NS Essay - 'The main Continental European powers will no longer jump to attention and salute when Washington blows the trumpet'

The world cannot tolerate a lawless hegemon. It needs an alternative pole of power. But thanks to To

The war in Iraq has forced me - an old pro-American who is also a strong supporter of the European ideal - to face two uncomfortable truths. The first is that the United States that I have admired for most of my life no longer exists. The second is that, for the foreseeable future, the European Union will not be a serious force in global politics.

America's self-understanding and geopolitical posture have undergone an extraordinary mutation. It started before George W Bush's arrival in the White House, but it did not become fully apparent until the long run-up to the Iraq war. It is a matter of disposition, not of ideology or party. It affects former Clintonites as well as present Bushites. Throughout the cold war, the US was quintessentially a conservative power. It wished to preserve the post-war order which it had done more than anyone else to create. It sought to "contain" (revealing word) what it saw as the radical, messianic utopianism of international communism; and it twice fought long, bloody and costly wars under that banner. It also helped to lay the foundations of what became the EU. Now all that has changed. With only minimal dissent from the Democrats, Bush and his fellow unilateralists have abandoned the conservatism of the past and espoused a radical, messianic utopianism of their own.

As Iraq has shown, they think the US is above the law which, with all its weaknesses and ambiguities, offers the only hope of developing any world order worthy of the name. For them, the messianic end of ridding the world of anti-American "evil" justifies the means, just as ridding the world of capitalism justified the means for Lenin and his successors. Their claim that the war was about disarming Iraq was never convincing; their objective was always "regime change", in the newspeak of the times, partly in pursuit of mundane American security interests, but much more to reconstruct the Middle East so as to help realise a utopian vision of a world made eternally safe for American values.

Understandable rejoicing at the fall of a brutal dictator should not obscure the enormity of this project. In international law, states are not permitted to go to war with other states simply to change their regimes. If they were, international anarchy would be legitimised. If state A is allowed to attack state B in order to change its regime, why shouldn't state C do the same to state D and so on, until there are no more states left? This was why successive British foreign secretaries steadfastly resisted the so-called Holy Alliance that Russia, Prussia and Austria formed after the Napoleonic wars to intervene in states where the revolutionary virus seemed likely to strike again. For the same reason, non-intervention was written into the UN Charter. Now we have a new Holy Alliance, less genteel than Metternich's and Alexander I's, but equally convinced that its self-evident rectitude takes precedence over international law. A characteristic example is the Blairite holy warriors' claim that Saddam Hussein's regime was so loathsome that it was right to get rid of it even if it had no weapons of mass destruction. What this really means is that, for them, lynch law has superseded the law of nations.

Some British Blairites and many American unilateralists argue that it is time to amend international law in cases such as this. And, conceivably, the 350-year-old doctrine that sovereign states are entitled to run their domestic affairs as they wish, and that foreign military intervention to change their regimes is always illegitimate, should indeed be jettisoned. But the case has not been made yet; and it bristles with dangers. In any case, such an amendment would have to be agreed by the international community; it cannot possibly be right for one state (or a group of states) to amend it unilaterally. Even if the law were amended, the international community would have to decide, through some judicial process, whether or not a particular intervention was justified. Nothing of the sort happened in the case of Iraq. Instead, the US acted as prosecutor, jury, judge and executioner rolled into one.

Messianic utopianism has shaped American foreign policy before now. Woodrow Wilson's catastrophic insistence on re-drawing the map of central Europe to fit a simplistic vision of national self-determination that denied the region's complex ethnic realities is the most obvious example. Franklin Roosevelt's insistence on unconditional surrender in the Second World War is another. But in the past, American messianic utopianism took a liberal form. It went hand in hand with respect for legality and global multilateralism. Wilson was the father of the League of Nations, which he saw as an embryo federation of the world, and of which he assumed the US would be a constituent part. It was not his fault that the American voters strangled his child at birth. Thirty years later, the chief begetters of the United Nations, which was intended to be a kind of super-League, were Rooseveltian New Dealers. The Wilsonians and Rooseveltians may have been utopian, but they were internationalist utopians: it was crucial to their vision that the US would be subject to the same rules as everyone else.

The messianic utopianism of the Bush White House is utterly different in style and ideological provenance. It goes with curiously insecure fits of sabre-rattling, strangely reminiscent of the outbursts of bombast with which Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to compensate for his withered arm. It is a messianism of the chauvinistic populist right, not of the internationalist liberal left. It is contemptuous of other cultures and, as France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroder discovered, brutishly hostile to foreigners who dare to question the reigning American view of the world. As its postwar conduct in Iraq makes clear, it is even more contemptuous of the UN and even more determined to undermine it. Its attitude to the European Union is more alarming still. One of the central themes of American policy during the run-up to the war was a sustained attempt to "cherry pick" the EU - in other words to bully and bribe "new Europe" into subverting the Union's basic principles. The Bushites' most obvious ideological ancestors are Joe McCarthy from the 1950s and, earlier still, the America Firsters, who wanted to keep the US out of the war against Hitler. What the Iraq war showed above all was that the combination of this chauvinistic utopianism with overwhelming military power poses a deadly threat, not just to world peace and the structures of global multilateralism, but to the dignity, self-respect and freedom of action of other nations.

It is in Europe's response to this new America that I find the second great challenge to long-standing beliefs. As the Iraq war approached, there were growing signs - only signs but nevertheless unmistakable ones - that France, Germany and Russia were re-emerging as great powers in something like the traditional sense. In different ways and to different degrees, they have thrown off American tutelage. They can no longer be relied upon to jump to attention and salute when the trumpet blows in Washington. They are prepared, not perhaps to challenge US hegemony outright, but at least to do what they can to subvert it.

France started to throw off US tutelage a long time ago. For her, the decisive moment came when the Americans forced a halt to the Anglo-French Suez adventure. Unlike the British, who drew the conclusion that they must never again lose their hold on their American nurse, the French turned to Europe, an independent nuclear deterrent and Gaullist assertiveness.

But Chirac's assertiveness over Iraq was far more spectacular than anything attempted by Charles de Gaulle. For a brief, brilliant moment France spoke for the international community as well as for the core countries of the EU. Chirac's threatened veto ensured that the UN did not become a rubber stamp for the Americans, and exposed the Anglo-Americans' contempt for legality to the light of day. The much-touted notion that this was a setback for the UN is the reverse of the truth. The real setback would have been for the UN to become a fig leaf for the Blair-Bush Holy Alliance.

Germany's return to great powerdom is more remarkable, and almost certainly more significant for the future. Throughout the cold war, the Federal Republic was America's most reliable European ally. Despite wistful British dreams of an Anglo-American special relationship, Germany took precedence over Britain because she was the chief battleground of the cold war (if cold wars can have battlegrounds). Her defection from Nato would have been a catastrophic defeat for the containment policy. But, despite occasional tremors on the left, Germany was solidly Atlanticist in foreign affairs. One reason was that she depended more obviously than anyone else on the American security guarantee. A deeper one was that she was, in a profound sense, a wounded country, crippled by guilt over the past and afraid of upsetting her neighbours and allies. Again and again, attempts to persuade the Germans that they should assume the political responsibilities that went with their economic might received the apologetic retort that if they tried to take the lead in international affairs they would reawaken dormant memories of the Third Reich. Hence the old gibe that Germany was an economic giant, but a political pygmy.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the Federal Republic's absorption of the old Democratic Republic, the implosion of the Soviet Union, the resultant realisation that Germany is now the strongest power between the eastern seaboard of the US and the Pacific coast of Russia, the re-emergence of old interdependencies between Germany and her eastern neighbours and (not least) the arrival in positions of power of a new generation, free of guilt, have transformed Germany's view of herself. She is no longer a wounded country; she is no longer hag-ridden by memories of wartime crimes committed before most present-day Germans were born; above all, she is no longer afraid to take a lead in international politics. Psychologically as well as physically, she has muscles again; and she is slowly beginning to flex them. As a result, she is no longer terrified of being abandoned by the Americans. Unlike Europe's ex-communist countries, she knows that she no longer faces a threat from the east or, indeed, from anywhere else.

Her muscle-flexing takes an odd form. Postwar Germany's greatest political commentator, Marion von Donhoff, once told me that if you wanted to understand Germany you had to remember what happened to Sweden after Charles XII had been crushed by Peter the Great. For a century and more, the Swedes had been the terrors of northern Europe, ferociously warlike and virtually unbeatable. Then, quite suddenly, they had decided that they didn't want to be warriors any longer and they had settled down. This, von Donhoff said, was now happening to Germany. Under Hitler the Germans had had their fill of militarism. They, too,

wished to settle down. The parallel should not be pushed too far, but I think there is a lot in it. German nationalism has revived, as it was bound to sooner or later but, to use an inele-gant coinage of A J P Taylor's, it is a "pacificist" nationalism - a nationalism that deprecates the use of force and turns instinctively to diplomacy, negotiation and law. To pacificist Germans, the strutting, loud-mouthed chauvinist utopianism of the Bush administration is doubly offensive. It threatens the whole structure of international law; and it reminds them of the ugliest periods in Germany's past. Schroder, a Blair-like chameleon at heart, who wants to fudge all the serious choices in political economy, realised this just in time. He won the latest election on the ticket of the new, pacificist, instinctively anti-Bushite German nationalism. He did not, however, create it. It is now a force in German, European and world politics, and it will almost certainly remain so.

Russia is by far the most important of the newly restored powers of Continental Europe, and her decision to throw in her lot with the French and Germans and against the Americans was the most significant - and most unexpected - event in the whole Iraq affair. Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia's IMF-imposed economic weakness made her reluctant to challenge the US on any important issue. Vladimir Putin seems made of sterner stuff. He has had the self-confidence to see that, despite continuing economic travails, Russia has significant political assets. She is still a world power in a sense not true of France or Germany - or, for that matter, Britain. Even post-Soviet Russia, shorn of Belorussia, Ukraine, and the Caucasian and central Asian republics, straddles the Eurasian land mass from the borders of Finland to Vladivostok. She is, in a sense, a Middle Eastern power. She is in every sense a central Asian one. She borders on China; and she is a Pacific power as well.

What is less obvious is that Russia is, above all, a European power and that she wishes to become, once again, a serious player on the European stage, as she used to be in tsarist times. That was the real meaning of her decision to spurn the Americans' embrace as their attack on Iraq approached. This does not imply that she will ever be a candidate for EU membership. She does not want to be; and she is far too big for the existing member states to admit her if she did. The real point is that her turn towards the two core countries of EU Europe will, if it continues, transform the parameters of European politics. In the old days, it was sometimes necessary to point out that the European Community, as it then was, was not the real Europe: that Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were as European as Britain, France or Germany. Now we shall have to remind ourselves that Russia is as European as Poland or Hungary, and a great deal more so than most of the Balkan countries queuing up at the EU's door.

The consequences are unpredictable, but two points seem clear. The mendicant ex-communist states of eastern Europe, of whose pro-Americanism Donald Rumsfeld made so much, will count for a great deal less than he expected. Almost certainly, the EU will count for less as well.

For a long-standing European federalist such as me, the last point is an unpalatable one to make. However, there is no point in crying over spilt milk. Tony Blair's shameful disloyalty to his fellow Europeans has ensured that, for the foreseeable future, the European Union will not be a serious force in global politics. If Britain is going to sneak off into the welcoming embrace of the US whenever the going gets tough, talk of a European foreign policy is so much hot air.

If Putin sticks to his guns this may not matter. Thanks to the Iraq war, the central issue in global politics is no longer in doubt. The world cannot indefinitely tolerate a lawless hegemon. It desperately needs an alternative pole of power. Thanks to Blair, the EU cannot play that role. Perhaps it was always wishful thinking to imagine that it could. Conceivably, a Franco-Russo-German bloc might do so, and rebalance the world in the process. Britain's position in such a world would be an ignominious one; but Britain's position is ignominious anyway.

David Marquand is former principal, Mansfield College, Oxford