So Long to All That

Why the old world of bases, alliances, and NATO is now coming to an end.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

John Le Carre and Harold Pinter tell us that we are the enemy. Gerhard Schroeder wins an election only through anti-Americanism. French diplomats warn us not to consider a conniving Saddam Hussein out of compliance — and are seconded by Communist China. The demonstrations in European capitals did not arise with Iraq, but started — remember October 2001? — with our “amoral” war against the fascist Taliban in Afghanistan. And European polls reveal widespread anti-Americanism, suggesting that hostile politicians and intellectuals there are not out of step with public opinion.

In response, even our own New York-Washington Old Guard and Euro-functionaries are finally rustling from their comfortable slumber — even if to raise only the wrong questions about the inevitable drift: “Are we too unilateral?” “Is Bush too brusque?” “What did we do wrong?”

They should note instead that in the aftermath of major wars, the world is rarely put back together quite the same. When Rome entered the Punic Wars it was an agrarian republic; it finished as an imperial Mediterranean power. Waterloo reordered Europe for a century, and the defeat of Germany and Japan ushered in the 50-year long protocols of the Cold War, in which enemies became friends and friends then enemies. Who could sort out the shifting Sparta-Athens-Thebes relationships following the Peloponnesian War?

It is not just that winners dictate and losers comply, but that even among allies, war and its aftermath often tear away the thin scabs of unity and expose long-festering wounds of real cultural, political, historical, and geographical difference. So it is with this present war against the terrorists and their sponsors, which when it is finally over will leave our world a very different place.

In this present crisis, Americans have few choices but to follow the accepted way of doing business until the darkness passes. But pass it will. And when it does we — liberals and conservatives alike — will have to take a long, hard look at the 60-year-old way in which we have conducted our foreign policy.

The stuff of diplomacy is, of course, reason, circumspection — and stasis. But a nation’s alliances must also take into consideration a strong element of emotion and spirit — and no accord can endure that ignores popular opinion entirely in favor of strategic Realpolitik. A few days of French denunciations, weeks of lectures about “the German Way,” or months of anti-Semitic attacks are one thing, but a year and a half of such sustained hostility following upon the greatest attack on American soil in our history finally has had a sobering effect on the American people. Our citizens in their disgust with continental Europeans are far ahead of the diplomats — who seem shackled by a Cold War world of bases, expeditionary troops, and grand old alliances. Far from being inflammatory or reflecting the angst of the “neo-cons,” Mr. Rumsfeld, in his matter-of-fact use of “Old Europe,” was astutely reflecting grassroots public opinion.

Much of the harshest criticism of the United States comes from our friends in Western Europe — not those in Poland, the Czech Republic, or Bulgaria. It is not just specific disagreements over particular actions, but rather a deductive anger that seeks out, or indeed creates, issues over which to vent. Forget questions of ingratitude — that France was the 1940s-version of a surrendered Kuwait likewise reborn as a result of American courage and resolve, or that the now-grand city of Berlin arises only because the old one was saved from Russian tanks.

Much of the problem, as so many have observed, is the dividend of a postmodern and ultimately anti-democratic European Union — one now seemingly free from foreign invasion — whose nature became clearer only in the months following September 11. In addition, spite arises over the global reach of the United States coupled with the diminished, though cynical, world roles of countries like France, Germany, and Russia — which have a sorry collective track record of unilateral action in Africa, selling contraband to Saddam, and flattening Muslim cities such as Grozny.

The EU is realizing that its psychic investment in international organizations can be no substitute for moral confidence coupled with military power. Each time the U.S. derides the election of Libya as a player on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, it undermines the legitimacy of an organization to which a militarily weak, but culturally influential, Old Europe is deeply wedded — even if a murderous Syria does sit on the Security Council.

Indeed, there is a great fear among many Europeans that unless something is done now to check the United States, the sheer dynamism (or crassness) of American popular culture and its radical cultural egalitarianism could come to define Westernism itself. We may have already sunk to the point where many Europeans would not be all that happy with a quick, American-led victory in Iraq — one without sufficient U.S. bodybags (the lack of which is a favorite lament abroad), shrill “I told you so” lectures about our “imperialism,” and plenty of humiliation for “cowboy” George Bush’s “arrogant” and “reckless” America.

Forget the tales that will come from postbellum Iraq of the liberation of thousands, of decades of mass murder, of Hussein’s destruction of the environment, of the caches of terrible weapons, and of the stability a reformed Iraq will bring for Europe — instead, for Europeans the only story will be bad American hyper-puissance. Indeed, such is the sad state of affairs that we are surprised less that our so-called friends are no longer allies, than that they are not yet overt enemies.

We should accept that, taken as a whole, the current anti-Americanism is beginning either to trump — or to reveal old differences in — our deeper common heritage. Indeed, the only thing that may yet salvage a strategic partnership is a radical change in our political relationship, beginning with the withdrawal of American troops from Germany — quietly, professionally, permanently — and from any other European state that seems uneasy with our presence. Only such action — steady and studied — will bring back an air of reality to our relations.

Our diplomats, of course, advise us to ignore our pique, and as mature adults focus on the critical strategic advantages that accrue from forward deployment in Old Europe — vestiges of self-interest and the archaic NATO slogan, “Russia out, America in, Germany down.” But, unfortunately for our policy experts, ultimately leagues and alliances need some basis of mutual admiration and support if they are not to become utterly ossified as circumstances change. Yet many Americans are beginning to question our formal military affiliation with European nations, and would perhaps prefer some sort of vague friendship of the type we now enjoy with Sweden, Brazil, or Switzerland. Why?

First, there is “teenager disease” — the notion that through our predominant military strength and omnipresence in Europe we have become resented and parental. The young rant and rave at their stronger benefactors as expressions of angst over their dependence, both psychic and material. Allowing the Europeans to chart their own course in matters of security would be healthy for both parties — as overprotective mother and fathers are quick to learn when their twentysomething offspring finally moves out.

Second, our bases are creating a weird sort of “hostage syndrome,” where the host country exercises inordinate clout over the guest beyond considerations of mutual defense, rent, and the practical problems of putting thousands of adolescent men and women in a foreign culture. Germany finds it can turn on its traditional patron precisely because we have so many Americans within its borders, and seem so intent on keeping them there at all costs. We claim we are there to create stability; they counter that we merely use their bases as transit centers to facilitate mischief abroad.

And, sometimes, even our enemies seem to wish our continued presence abroad. True, South Koreans can seem lax and complacent thanks to 37,000 GIs, while on other occasions claiming that Americans are an obstacle to their reunification with their kin to the North. But even North Korea seems as cynical, almost welcoming our continued deployment — as if it could kill and wound thousands of nearby Americans in hours in a way impossible against cruisers, subs, and carriers at sea.

Do bases in the post-Cold War really offer strategic flexibility and serve as tripwires to cement alliances — or do they multiply political and military liabilities, as both hosts and adversaries use their presence to dictate and curb American military options? Military theorists once deprecated aircraft carriers as obsolete sitting ducks; but they amount to quick-moving runways of American sovereignty, not subject to worries over rent, blackmail, compromise, and terrorism.

True, carrier war is dangerous and expensive — but then so is bunking overnight in Saudi Arabia, basing thousands on the DMZ, being told by the Germans that we are “allowed” to use airspace actually already guaranteed under NATO protocols, and forgiving billions in debt to the likes of Pakistan. Personally, I’d rather spend $20 billion to have American workers build an additional 10 to 15 acres of aggregate floating American runways than pour billions annually into countries that either do not like us, resent both the protection and the rent, or are themselves inherently unstable.

Third, in the post-Cold War world it is not all that clear that such bases are crucial for meeting our defense responsibilities — as we learned from our withdrawal from so many facilities in Greece and the Philippines. We surely protect no one in Europe from conventional enemies, but rather use the bases to project power abroad. In lieu of these resources, we could cache supplies and weapons in relatively uninhabited depots and rely more on airborne and naval-based troops. And, if we do we need conventional bases for larger traditional contingents, we should seek ports and stations in Eastern European countries who wish close ties with us and who do not quite believe that they are at the end of history with Germany or Russia.

Such a posture would be not isolationist, but rather an expression of muscular independence — as we continue to fulfill our commitments abroad, but in very different ways. We should accentuate areas where we can act in concert precisely because we are no longer allies in lockstep — and thus are not so vulnerable through blackmail, by the basing of American troops, to protect those who do not always profess they want such protection.

If many NATO allies oppose the United States as it removes a fascist dictatorship, if France expresses daily a visceral dislike of America, and if a continental intelligentsia sees America — not the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, the Iranians, or the North Koreans — as the world’s real problem, then surely America already has enough enemies without allies and dependents such as these.

Without rancor or anger, it really is time sadly and quietly to move on and sigh, “So long to all that.”


©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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