The average newspaper reader will scarcely have noticed: Schroeder and Chirac are at it again.
After a concerted action of both at the Davos World Economic Forum where they took a stance in favour of the Tobin tax, Schroeder has now defined his electoral agenda by telling the NATO leadership assembled in Munich â€“ in a speech read out by his minister of defence â€“ that there is a need for transforming NATO into an organization of joint political planning. On the other hand, Donald Rumsfeld has been defending the idea that such joint planning is not needed, the USA being perfectly capable of going at it alone, without any need for previous concertation, and using NATO structures only, when needed. Chirac could certainly not have agreed more with Schroederâ€™s initiative â€“ not only because of his own Gaullist inheritance, but because he sees a structural common interest in such an attitude.
This seems to confirm the interpretation that Schroederâ€™s and Chiracâ€™s at least reluctant attitude to the US claim to mono-polar supremacy is much more than a tactical attitude, that it is indeed based on a strategic difference of interests. In 2003 Chirac has tried to consolidate his own electoral hegemony due to the divisions of the French left, while Schroeder was preparing to win an up-hill fight for an election.. Both have been successful: Schroeder has been re-elected and Chirac has succeeded in unifying the French right-wing in a way that makes it possible for them to gain an electoral majority. So far for the tactical considerations which have been quite real.
However, that they are now affirming their claim to forming an autonomous pole of world politics again, distinct and independent from the US administration, seems to show that there is more to this: There are a number of profound reasons for this attitude which will not go away, and which, therefore, are not bound to the personal tactics of these two arch-tacticians. These reasons are not primarily ideological, they are based in some rather elementary concerns:
First, there are geopolitical reasons. If the Russia is breaking up into disconnected pieces, this does not create many problems for the US (maybe with the exception of avoiding weaponsâ€™ proliferation). Or, if the Middle East is a permanent theatre of wars and of civil aggression this is not much of a problem for the US administration â€“ as long as Israel and the control of the oil fields can be secured by military means. Or, finally, if China and India fail in their projects of development, or if sub-saharan Africa collapses, this does not create great many problems for the US. In all these cases, the problems look far less distant and indifferent from a European location: Contiguity seems to imply impossibility to shut problems off. Their recent history seems to have taught Europeans at least one thing: That it is useless trying to keep problems away by building a wall, or a fence.
Second, there are reasons of access to resources. Europe, with a larger population, has far less oil, far less strategic raw materials than the US. Without the active co-operation of Russians, Arabs, and Africans, Europeans will have big resource problems in the near future, while the US may rely on their own resources at least for the time needed for gaining military control over strategic resources of other countries.
Third, there are reasons of international trade: The US have become, during the last 20 years, the global consumer of last resort, relying on the strength of the Dollar as world currency in order to get away with continuous trade deficits. They are not relying on the strength of US exports any more. Europe, quite to the contrary, needs exports â€“ and therefore a constructive co-operation with the major emerging countries, i.e. with China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, as well as with Russia.
Fourth, there are reasons which lie in the difference of military capacity. The US has built up military capabilities for intervention on a global scale. Since the Suez intervention of France and Great Britain in 1956 it is patent that Europe, even its former leading colonial powers, does not possess this kind of capabilities. This makes going to war a less attractive option for Europeans â€“ even disregarding the historical experience of the Europeans to have seen two World Wars fought out on their own soil.
These differences are real, and they will not go away. It would be a mistake to overlook them, and a worse mistake to explain them away. And yet, it would be an even bigger mistake to mistake them for a difference between good and evil, or even between good and bad. Neither France, nor Germany, nor Europe in its entirety, do present a real alternative to the imperial strategy of the USA. In the aftermath of the US war on Iraq they have, it is true, stopped short of overtly legitimising the aggression after the act â€“ but they have also avoided any open confrontation with the Bush administration. They may still participate in a concerted effort of tidying up the results of the US intervention.
Europe, as represented â€“ rather well, I think â€“ by Chirac and Schroeder is not a real support of a different, sustainable and just world order. It has a solid imperialist past, and if it had the capability to do it, it would certainly return to it. Furthermore, it continues to be, in the last instance, a loyal supporter of the mono-polar power of the US, even if it would prefer it to act in a different way.
And yet, the difference Chirac and Schroeder are articulating is quite real: They have a strategic interest in putting the rule of international law in the place of the unilateral sovereignty of one super-power, they have a strategic interest in a durable peace in their neighbourhood, and they have some interest in co-operating for the sake of trade. This does not make them supporters of any politics of liberation or emancipation, quite to the contrary. But a meaningful global politics of emancipation and liberation today will have to struggle to be able to use their strategic differences from the US in order to make a real difference. This begins by getting the bearings right: looking at Chirac and Schroeder pursuing a strategically different project from that of the US without constituting an alternative to it. Any real alternative will have to come up with proposals of how to use this difference â€“ not by joining in into the diplomatic games of government, but by using it in order to show something important: that a different world is not only possible, but that its possibility puts growing stress on those in power, sometimes cracking up differences which they themselves are unable to plaster over.