Foreign Policy Blogs

Libya: U.S. Still Needs Europe

Political collateral damage inflicted by the West’s military action against Libya includes the destruction of two serious misconceptions long cherished by numerous experts in Washington. The first is the idea that in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century Europe is no longer strategically important to the United States; the second the fallacious belief of many American conservatives that common EU foreign and security policies will prevent traditional U.S. allies – particularly Britain – from joining future military interventions alongside the United States.

In both cases, the Libyan intervention has in fact proved the precise opposite. First, when Washington needs military support from allies in the world’s most explosive strategic location – the Middle East – it can realistically turn only to Europe for help, both in securing UN legitimization for the action and in carrying it out. In fact, throughout the early part of the U.S. bombardment of Libya Washington went to great lengths to stress that France and Britain were leading the way.

Second, Libya has once again revealed the emptiness of the European Union’s pretensions to be a major player on the world stage, and exposed its vaunted common foreign and security policy as a meaningless charade. Germany, for instance, continued to oppose the Anglo-French call for a no-fly zone over Libya to the bitter end, and could not even bring itself to vote for the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the action. Germany abstained – putting itself in the company of Russia and China, rather than its supposedly best allies, the United States, France, and Britain, which all voted in favor.

A March 18 Spiegel Online opinion piece, Berlin Lets Its Allies Go It Alone, suggests that Berlin’s reluctance to stand with its allies “could damage the country’s international standing.” It adds, “some politicians within (Chancellor Angela) Merkel’s center-right coalition are already warning that Germany could be drifting even further away from France, Britain, and the U.S. …It’s clear that (Foreign Minister Guido) Westerwelle enjoys playing the role of Germany’s pacifist-in-chief.” Spiegel says that, as a concession to its allies, “there is talk of Germany taking part in AWACS surveillance flights” over Afghanistan, which would free up allied aircraft for operations over Libya, but asks, “is it enough?.”

A “Fiasco” for Germany

The point is hit hard by an American author in Berlin, Steve Kettmann, who writes in The Huffington Post March 21, “Germany’s place on the world stage has been undercut time and time again over the last year and a half by the unfortunate elevation of a foreign minister lacking both vision and skill – but never as unfortunately as in the last week.” His piece is entitled Germany Comes up Small on Libya Wrong Time to Duck Responsibility.

“It’s too early to work out just why Germany abstained on the United Nations vote authorizing the use of military force against Libya,” Kettmann continues, “but the vote was clearly a fiasco both for Germany and for the future of European diplomacy in the world. Put simply, Germany is and must be the single most important leader of unified Europe, given its economic strength, and the clumsy stance on Libya has cleared the way for France to assert itself in a way that delays any hope of Europe coming of age politically in the world as a combined political entity.”

Germany was not alone in opposing the Franco-British initiative. In a March 14 report, the daily news report Europolitics says that at an EU summit meeting in Brussels March 11, the Franco-British proposal for a no-fly zone “irritated most of the member states, which prefer to adopt a much more cautious position.” It reports that, “Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt also publicly rejected the idea proposed by London and Paris. ‘Any discussion of a military intervention is an issue for the UN, NATO [of which Sweden is not a member] and the Arab League,’ he said.“ The EU was notably absent from this list.

In a commentary March 13 Cameron’s Rude Awakening as Rallying Cry Falls on Deaf Ears in Britain’s The Sunday Telegraph, Con Coughlin writes that UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s no-fly zone proposal “even got short shrift from (British) Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy guru, whose appointment was engineered by the previous Labour government in the forlorn hope that London would be able to exert more influence over the direction of EU policy.”

“The cry of appeasement can once again be heard ringing through the corridors of Brussels,” Coughlin writes.

A similar theme is struck by Ian Traynor and Nicholas Watt in The Guardian of London, who say in a report on the same meeting March 12, “an emergency EU summit in Brussels summoned the ghosts from the 1990s of division, appeasement and impotence when Europe failed to halt the fighting in former Yugoslavia.” It is not often that The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper, agrees with the conservative Telegraph on the need for foreign military intervention.

Traynor and Watt say Cameron “put a brave face on the rebuff” and claimed that the summit communiqué still contained strong language by referring to “all necessary options.” They report Cameron as saying, “of course the EU is not a military alliance and I don’t want it to be a military alliance. Our alliance is NATO.”

And that is indeed the point. There was never a chance that other EU countries would “veto” British or French military action in support of the United States, as so many American conservatives have liked to claim. EU rules stipulate that the bloc can only even begin forming a common policy on a foreign issue if all its leaders agree that there should be one. And the Brussels summit again demonstrated how unlikely that is on a burning issue involving possible military action, such as Libya.

At the same time, the EU summit – and the UN Security Council vote on Libya – again showed Washington that its best allies are still individual European countries, above all Britain and France, and not the new “partners” that President Barack Obama is so eagerly courting in Asia and Latin America.