The Magazine

The Axis of Rudeness

Europe's diplomats wax undiplomatic about Bush's speech.

Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By PETER D. FEAVER
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President Bush's "axis of evil" speech has provoked an extraordinary degree of vitriol from our European allies. The yowling from the press and intellectuals is predictable and returns those cosseted elites to their familiar habit, interrupted ever so briefly after September11, of viewing every American initiative in the worst possible light.

What is noteworthy this time, however, is the extent to which senior government officials are willing to be shrill on the record, with apparently little thought and less care to the diplomatic repercussions.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake for U.S. leaders to brush off the European reaction as merely a temper tantrum. It is still unclear what the Bush administration intends to do about the axis of evil, but whatever it attempts will be easier if the allies are alongside--and given our shared interests and values, they should be, if the administration plays its hand well.

European complaints about America are rarely newsworthy, but there is a desperate intensity to recent outbursts that deserves a closer look. Shortly after the speech, Britain's foreign secretary Jack Straw dismissed it with the contemptuous speculation that Bush was engaging in election-year pandering.

France's foreign minister indulged in an even more impolitic hissy fit, claiming that Bush now posed a grave threat to France: "Today we are threatened by a new simplistic approach that reduces all the problems in the world to the struggle against terrorism . . ."

Or consider Chris Patten, the bureaucrat in charge of "international affairs" for the European Union. Europe's seniormost diplomat dismissed the speech with the derisive comment, "I find it hard to believe that's a thought-through policy."

The irony is that these European leaders have used extraordinarily undiplomatic means to protest a speech that they disliked on the grounds that it was undiplomatic.

It scarcely needs saying that their shrill outbursts would be considered intolerable were they coming the other way across the Atlantic. In point of fact, no American diplomat would ever treat a policy dispute with the rudeness and petulance that is standard fare over here. Witness the masterful response from Secretary Powell: "There are strong points of view in Europe, and we always appreciate hearing strong points of view. . . . I hear them whether I appreciate them or not."

If European leaders really want to be heard in the United States, then they will have to master their emotions. Prime Minister Blair of Britain understands this instinctively. Blair may have had reservations about the speech, but he registered his concerns privately and constructively. As a consequence, he has influence in Washington.

Of course, diplomacy sometimes involves "a full and frank exchange of views." But among close allies, there is a time and a place, and by choosing a knee-jerk reaction in on-the-record interviews, these European officials violated basic time and place tenets. One wonders whether they were doing some domestic pandering of their own.

Instead of a substantive (and private) exchange, Europeans have chanted the tired "unilateralist" mantra, the charge that the United States does not care about the views of other countries. This canard substitutes for serious thought, and is usually mobilized when the critic cannot think of a substantive reason for opposing a policy. For the record: No dominant state in history enjoying the power advantage the United States currently enjoys has ever been more multilateralist or has accepted more institutional constraints on its freedom of action. Europeans who accuse the United States of stubborn unilateralism have no historical perspective, and must have in mind some Shangri-La in which America never articulates a national interest.

The Europeans, in short, deserve to be scolded for the scolding they unleashed on the president. But that is not the end of the matter, for the administration also needs to do some remedial work of its own. It cannot expect Europeans to accept the axis of evil approach blindly and uncritically, and should address carefully their questions.

For example, Europeans ask whether the president has exaggerated the urgency of the threat. Hasn't Iraq been largely deterred? Isn't North Korea a basket case? Isn't Iran's problem the divisions within its government--rogue operators rather than a rogue state? Bush has a tough row to hoe here, precisely because he appears to be talking about preemptive action, moving before any of these rogue states can trump al Qaeda's attack on the United States. Under the circumstances, it is not obviously wrong to wonder whether it makes sense to win round one against al Qaeda before starting round two. It is not simply carping to ask the administration to explain and justify the sequencing envisioned in the new strategy.