How Europeans Can Be Useful

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If you want to know why Europeans and Americans don't always see the world in the same way, why the French Foreign Minister finds the axis of evil "simplistic" or why the Bush Administration is ready to contemplate a war in Iraq that no European government would welcome — imagine yourself on a little trip. In Washington, carved into the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, are the names of 58,226 Americans who died in an unpopular war. Now, in your mind, fly to Belgium, where about the same number of names — 54,896, to be exact — are written on the Menin Gate outside Ypres. But these are not the names of all who died in a whole war; they are not even the names of all who died on a single battlefield. They commemorate the Britons, together with about 13,000 Canadians and Australians, who died at Ypres between 1914 and August 1917 and have no marked grave. (A separate memorial lists an additional 34,927 — also without marked graves — who died at Ypres the following year.)

For Europeans the 20th century was a time of unimaginable horror. From the guns of August 1914 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Europe was racked by the two bloodiest wars in history, by industrial genocide and by two murderous ideologies. For 44 years, the Continent was divided as never before. The legacy of all this is a deep aversion to — almost a loathing of — military force. For many modern Europeans, war is a ghastly, primitive business. (Every time I call my 95-year-old aunt in Britain, I get a little lecture on the evils of cluster bombs.) War is a last resort; those ready to use it quickly — or, worse, who appear to enjoy it — are not to be trusted. That's why Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a folksy hero in the U.S., is considered a swaggeringly dangerous Rambo by many Europeans.

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There are, of course, other reasons for the gulf on key issues between the Bush Administration and Europeans. Europe is closer to the Middle East, and Islam is its fastest-growing religion. Some European countries would like to forge or deepen economic links with Iraq and Iran. But neither geography nor religion nor economics is at the root of the division between Europe and America; memory is.

Memories have consequences. For 10 years Europeans have been promising they would increase the size and quality of their armed forces. They have scarcely tried. In Bosnia and in Kosovo, it was American military might that ended nasty little European wars. As George Robertson, the Scottish Secretary-General of NATO, said recently, "American critics of Europe's military incapability are right." This is not to say the Europeans should match the U.S. militarily or even that they could. It is now an axiom that the overwhelming power of the American military machine has reshaped international affairs. Paul Kennedy of Yale University notes the U.S. currently spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. But American soldiers can't — or won't — do everything, which gives Europeans an opportunity to find responsibilities of their own.

Peacekeeping is one of them. "The Americans," says Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London, "hate peacekeeping, and they're not very good at it." Many European armed forces, by contrast, are now structured with peacekeeping as their primary mission. In Bosnia, says Grant, American forces will not walk down a street unprotected, while British and French soldiers soak up information in cafes. Unsurprisingly, it is Europeans who shoulder the burden of keeping the peace in Kosovo, Bosnia and now Kabul. But suggest to European policymakers that their primary military role should be mopping up after the Americans have fought a war, and they throw a frightful fit, as if they were being relegated to the second rank. Given that European taxpayers will never pay for their armies to be as big or as technologically advanced as that of the U.S., this umbrage is ridiculous. As Grant says, "Let's get real, guys."

Europeans love to argue that the U.S. has a strategy for winning the war against terrorism but none for winning the peace. Poverty, they say (and I agree), is a persistent source of instability and violence. The remedy is in their own hands. Few ever expected a Republican Administration to make global poverty reduction a priority. Europeans like to think better of themselves. But ask the French and Germans for more foreign aid, and they will reply that budgets are tight. Ask the British, and they will bleat that they have this terrific new "Marshall Plan" to reduce poverty but that Washington will not endorse it. Ask Europeans to open their markets to farm products from the developing world, and they will make you weep with tales of the miseries their own farmers endure.

Europeans are rich. Their history has taught them to be suspicious of armed force, and there's nothing wrong with that. But they now have two options. They can devote their energies to criticism of those loudmouthed, big-shouldered, gun-toting Americans, or they can seek to ameliorate suffering around the world. The choice should be easy.