Rethinking the United States — A European Perspective

Will the United States and Europe both embrace the "global constitution" of the United Nations?

March 23, 2004

Will the United States and Europe both embrace the "global constitution" of the United Nations?

On September 11, 2001, despite all of their power —and for the first time in many generations — Americans suffered from a violent attack on its own soil. This experience led the U.S. leadership to use their enormous military power to fight the so-called "war on terrorism."

As a result, tendencies toward hegemonic behavior vis-à-vis other nations appear to have come to the forefront.

An imperialist element within the foreign policy of the United States has always co-existed with isolationism, and also with internationalist idealism (which is nowadays called "multilateralism"). Sometimes, one of these elements prevailed — and sometimes another.

The history of imperialist tendencies goes back to the middle of the 19th century — back to Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in the Bay of Tokyo, back to the wars against Mexico and Spain and back to Teddy Roosevelt, who was called an "imperialist" by his contemporaries — which was not a negative word at that time.

In modern times, we have heard catchwords like “rogue state,” or "axis of evil." We also saw Presidents Reagan and Clinton bombing Grenada and Belgrade and Sudan — without a decision by the UN Security Council.

Of course, the United States is not, by far, the only state that has violated the Charter of the United Nations. And U.S. leaders are not, by far, the only ones who forcefully try to spread their own ideologies beyond their borders.

The sense of mission has been an element of American strategy for a long time. Think, for instance, of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, George Marshall — and Harry Truman.

Right now, a European might characterize the United States' strategy by two principles. Number one: freedom of action not to be impeded by "entangling alliances." And number two: The will to wage preventive wars.

Many Europeans interpret these guidelines to be democratic imperialism. It seems thinkable that these guidelines will persist for a longer time than the period of President George W. Bush in office.

Most people, particularly in Europe, would prefer the United States to act as a leader in international multilateralism. They try to influence America in that direction.

My own guess is that, for a while, the world will have to live with a considerable degree of U.S. unilateralism. But such a situation will not necessarily entice other nations and governments to voluntarily engage themselves.

In my view, it would be helpful for Americans today to analyze the reason for the rather quick — but totally unforeseen — disappearance of sympathy and solidarity that after 9/11 had overwhelmingly characterized public opinion all over Europe, including France and Germany.

Why has it disappeared? Why has that changed happened?

The several possible answers to these questions easily lead to the basic question, which many leaders outside the United States ask themselves.

Namely, will the United States stick to the Charter of the United Nations? Or is it thinkable that unilateralism will for decades prevail upon America’s geostrategy?

Later on, the historians may come to understand whether the early years of the 21st century were a watershed.

My private guess is this: Not quite soon, but somewhat later, Americans will once again become conscious of the fact that this century will certainly present mankind with dangers and challenges that no state or nation — not even the most powerful United States — is capable of standing up against just on its own.

Whether these challenges take the form of the global population explosion or global warming?

Whether mankind is confronted with global environmental decay or global epidemics, global crime, a globally operating terrorist organization or organizations, or global monetary disorder?

In none of these fields will the United States or any other great nation be able to unilaterally impose the answers, provide means — nor even to unilaterally provide shelter for herself.

And, of course, the same goes for every less powerful nation. And it goes for the European Union.

After all, it is the non-perfect United Nations — and its non-perfect charter — on which the rule of law in international affairs is based.

This non-perfect world has no other globally binding constitution.

This text was adapted from a speech Helmut Schmidt gave at the German Historic Institute in Washington, D.C. on September 17, 2003.