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Are America's Allies Loyal?

How should the United States respond to criticism from its allies?

January 29, 2003

How should the United States respond to criticism from its allies?

The answer is less obvious than one might think. It is not that Europeans — not to mention Japanese, Latin Americans, Africans or others — do not retain considerable sympathy for the United States.

Rather, it is that very sympathy — and the strong belief that allies and friends should always be honest with one another — which drives the current worldwide criticism of U.S. Iraq policy that so annoys some officials in the United States.

The truth is that, given U.S. military and economic dominance of the globe, now more than ever America’s allies have an important assignment that goes far beyond offering troops for U.S. military actions.

This assignment is one which Americans may not always appreciate: To keep U.S. feet firmly on the ground — and policy based in reality.

Part of this "reality check" mandate is to question the motives and reasons for U.S. policy — to ensure that they are sound and truly convincing.

After all, especially among democracies, an alliance is nearly worthless if it is based on the subjugation of one party to another.

The key is this: Airing policy disagreements in public ought to be considered part of the normal debate among allies. No democratic country can afford to go to war without the backing of a majority of its citizens.

What is true for the debate at home, surely, applies to decisions taken by alliances of democratic countries. There should be broad agreement about the goals of an alliance's policies — and the methods of achieving them.

Otherwise, one is reminded of the historic example of the Athenian Empire, which pioneered democratic rule at home — while lording over its subject states and cities around Greece.

It also doesn't do for proponents of tough U.S. military action against Iraq to label German or other European opposition to invading Iraq — or South Korean concern about a confrontational policy towards North Korea — as "anti-Americanism." The current strong opposition to U.S. policy mostly falls into the category of "anti-Bushism."

Germans have a particular interest in building a truly democratic alliance that errs on the side of caution. After all, few Germans believe that Americans were rightfully keen on re-democratizing Germany in the late 1940s and 1950s only to create an ally who is a pure "yes man" and a heel-clicking "follower nation" bent on military adventures around the world.

Quite to the contrary, German military strategy emphasizes peacekeeping and conflict prevention — as is evidenced by the roughly 10,000 German troops currently serving in Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

But most of all, Germans are terrified by the prospect that any single nation — in pursuit of single-minded goals — could plunge entire regions of the world into conflict.

That is why they see it as imperative to exhaust all other options — primarily via a tough inspections regime — before considering military alternatives.

And that is also why they are deeply worried about U.S. inclinations to browbeat allies into supporting war against Iraq — without intense debate and a real system of checks and balances that should be a minimum standard for coalitions of democratic countries.

All this may explain why Germany is one of the countries taking the lead in questioning U.S. policies. But many U.S. allies are grateful for that more mature German stance.

Quite frankly, many Europeans are worried about the Bush Administration's clear preference to go it alone on issue after issue, riding roughshod over the concerns of people in other parts of the world. It is simply dishonest to distort criticism of a particular President as anti-American.

This vital task of U.S. allies as a quasi-domestic opposition is all the more relevant as Washington's own checks and balance mechanism seems out of whack.

First of all, the Democrats fell far short of offering a thorough investigation of Bush's priorities — and if they best serve the U.S. national interest — despite the potentially staggering geopolitical consequences of (unilateral) U.S. action against Iraq.

And second, there was also a near-complete breakdown in much of the think-tank world. Instead of providing the gung-ho Bush team with a healthy and vigorous reality check, the new generation of geo-strategic minds is all too wrapped up, and reveling, in its self-perception of the United States as a new world empire.

As a result, key parts of the U.S. policy establishment are quite deficient in their self-critical skills — which are a core ingredient in the art of what one would consider empire maintenance.

A United States policy apparatus that is deluding itself with the self-image of an omnipotent "hyper-power" is surely not in the American interest.

Viewed in that light, the charges currently levied from Washington against those allied countries that dare to criticize it betray a sense of lèse majesté, of insulting his majesty the king.

That concept, however, has been out of fashion since the French revolution. (And the establishment of the United States itself proudly had a lot to do with the demise of royalty whose views cannot be questioned under any circumstances.)

In short, the sympathy is still there. People around the world still view the United States as an important ally — and, indeed, as the likely (but not unquestioned) leader for global policy in areas ranging from terrorism to trade.

But they believe that good policy need not only be "made in the U.S.A." — or worse, be unilaterally decided by it. And they resent being told that they cannot have a voice in world affairs. Is that so unreasonable in a democratic world?