Lessons Learned From the 2003 Transatlantic Divide

The 2003 Transatlantic divide over the decision to go to war in Iraq carries three lessons that the United States and its European counterparts should bear in mind to avoid new ruptures. First, the U.S.A. and European countries should not try to deviate from the rules of international law they have agreed to. Second, although the credibility of NATO was put at stake, the alliance proved solid even in a time of crisis. Third, the soundness of the Transatlantic partnership should never be taken for granted and should constantly be nurtured.

The decision over whether to overthrow the Bathist regime in Iraq sparked an intense political debate. On one side, the United States advocated for immediate military action to overthrow Saddam. Behind this lay America’s sense of vulnerability after the 9/11 attacks, its overwhelming military power and the belief in its “ability to change the world.”[1] The United States could also count on the support of numerous European allies; more specifically, the Vilnius 10[2] and those who signed the so-called “Letter of the Eight.”[3] On the other side stood France and Germany. France favored a diplomatic solution to the crisis and defended the supreme authority of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in providing the legal basis for any military action, although without dismissing the possibility of a intervention. Germany excluded the possibility of military intervention in Iraq, due to domestic political considerations linked to Schroeder’s re-election.

The political debate escalated into a diplomatic crackup in late 2002 and early 2003. The main issue was the interpretation of the UNSC Resolution 1441, which reflected the different approaches that the United States and France wanted to adopt vis-a-vis Iraq.[4] On the one hand, the United States considered a failure in Iraq’s compliance with this resolution an automatic authorization to intervene militarily, even though Resolution 1441 did not explicitly authorize the use of force. On the other hand, France deemed necessary a new Chapter VII resolution authorizing the use of military force before any military action.

The first lesson that we can draw from the 2003 crackup is that deviations from the rules of international law will inevitably create divisions within the alliance. The UN Charter, undersigned by both the U.S.A. and France, set the standards of behavior to be kept on the international arena. When one evades these standards, one automatically finds himself in opposition to the other signatories, creating a cleavage. Moreover, not complying with those standards establishes a precedent that legitimizes geopolitical competitors to behave in the same way, creating the potential for further divisions.  Had the U.S.A. supported a resolution under Article 42 of the UN Charter, France would not have resisted American plans. In fact, France did not exclude the possibility of a military intervention in Iraq; it just set a series of necessary conditions for it to happen, such as a “blatant Iraqi obstruction of weapons inspectors,” “the discovery of a “smoking gun” too important to ignore”[5] and a new UNSC Resolution under Article 42 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter.[6]

For this reason, the Transatlantic crackup could be avoided if the United States tried to follow the conventional diplomatic path. It is true that Russia and China could still veto a Chapter VII resolution approving the use of force in Iraq; however, this would not have split the alliance. Instead, the Bush administration tried to bend the rules arguing that Resolution 1441 authorized it to intervene. When this diplomatic posture proved harder to maintain than expected, the Bush administration decided to intervene in Iraq without the legal backing of the UN and before that the UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei reported back to the UNSC. This made clear to France that neither its opinion nor the authority of the UNSC counted for the U.S. administration. The unilateral approach eventually adopted by the United States, however, is partially justified by the deep sense of threat felt in Washington with regards to Saddam’s WMD program.[7]

The second lesson is that transferring the political stalemate into the NATO framework put at stake the integrity of the alliance but also made clear its solidity. Surely, the United States placed a successful bet when it called for Article 4 of the NATO Charter to protect Turkey from a potential Iraqi retaliation.[8]  The choice that the United States proposed to France, Germany and the other NATO members was basically between giving the consent to contingency planning, which indirectly meant legitimizing an intervention, or undermining the credibility of the alliance. Indeed, NATO displayed credibility and cohesiveness in a critical moment, remaining united. However, this diplomatic strategy entailed several collateral damages. For example, by adopting this stance, the Bush administration implicitly accepted the risk of tearing NATO apart, setting a dangerous precedent. Besides, France and Germany interpreted the United States’ negotiation strategy as a political blackmail. Second, by calling for defensive contingency planning, Washington gave to its European allies the sense that the United States had already decided to intervene against Iraq and that disregarded their opinion. As Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel put it, NATO plans to defend Turkey from an Iraqi retaliation signified that the alliance had “already entered into the logic of war, that any chance, any initiative to still resolve the conflict in a peaceful way was gone.”[9]

The third and last lesson is that the soundness of the Transatlantic axis must never be taken for granted. This is especially important today, in a moment when the United States, Canada and Europe face substantial threats including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Russia’s political warfare (which precisely targets our political and social cleavages) and China’s economic competition. To respond to these threats, the United States and the EU should upgrade their dialogue on economic and geopolitical issues and work together to pursue their shared interests. Although part of the same civilization, NATO members all differ from each other regarding culture, military prowess and strategic priorities.  Meaning, divisions will arise among and within them also in the future. However, it is up to them to mitigate those divisions in the only possible way: abiding by international law and making their diplomatic relations more agile and responsive to each other’s concerns. Even more, it is up to them to leverage on their diversity as an asset, rather than framing it as a weakness.

[1] Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro. Allies at war: America, Europe, and the crisis over Iraq. McGraw-Hill Companies (2004). p. 156
[2] Mihaela Gherghisan, “Vilnius 10 sign letter on Iraq”, euobserver, February 6, 2003 Available at:  https://euobserver.com/enlargement/9269 Accessed on April 10, 2018
[3] Marc Champion, “Eight European Leaders Voice Their Support for U.S. on Iraq”, The Wall Street Journal, January 30, 2003 Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1043875470158445104 Accessed on April 10, 2018
[4] The full text of the UNSC Resolution 1441 is available at https://www.un.org/press/en/2002/SC7564.doc.htm Accessed on April 9, 2018
[5] Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro. Allies at war: America, Europe, and the crisis over Iraq. McGraw-Hill Companies (2004). p. 142
[6] The full text of Chapter VII of the UN Charter is available at https://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-vii/ Accessed on April 9, 2018
[7] Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro. Allies at war: America, Europe, and the crisis over Iraq. McGraw-Hill Companies (2004). p. 83
[9] Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro. Allies at war: America, Europe, and the crisis over Iraq. McGraw-Hill Companies, 2004. p. 138


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