Tracing the historical roots of the friction between the US and its European allies

Although president Bush claimed that the US had the right to attack Iraq alone even if no other government supports its position, French president Chirac countered that any attack without UN security council approval would be illegitimate. Both Russia and France had threatened to veto any Anglo-American resolution that authorized the use of force against Iraq. In reply, Bush had declared that he would go to war with Iraq with or without the security council’s approval. That wrangling is history now: the US withdrew its war resolution on March 18 and attacked Iraq after a two-day ultimatum. Needless to say, the invasion is illegitimate, illegal, immoral, even by the West’s own concept of “just war”. The invasion is condemned worldwide, even by Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who was put in power partly by American B-52 bombers in a similar invasion on Afghanistan little more than a year ago.

The depth of current anti-American feeling can be gauged by The Big Lie, a book by one Thierry Meyssan, which has sold more than a million copies in France and other countries. Meyssan claims that the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were carried out not by al-Qa’ida but by a right-wing group in the US government. The author is hailed as a courageous truth-teller up against America, a formidable bully. Americans analysts and politicians are confused and perplexed, and hope mainly that eventually the Europeans will “come to their senses”.

It is important to understand why the Europeans, who supported the first US-imposed war on Iraq in 1990-91 wholeheartedly (the French by 71 percent, according to some opinion-polls), opposed the US attack on Iraq this time; why simmering anti-Americanism came into the political mainstream. The gulf between the Europeans and the Americans will probably grow instead of closing, and may be of strategic importance and value to the Muslims. In fact, European resentment and opposition are not limited to the issue of Iraq, but cover most of the US’s policies, motives, ideas and values. But could the reason for the Europeans’ opposition spring from sympathy for Muslims, or even a broader humanitarian feeling, or is it a purely a pursuit of self-interest? Unfortunately it is the last, and it has deep roots in their colonial history and lust for supremacy in the world.

Global power hierarchy

To understand this growing division we need to study the concepts of global power and hierarchical structure from a historical perspective: how the power position of a country is perceived and measured, and how it is changed or improved in relation to that of other countries. There are two types of competition taking place simultaneously and continuously, one among the western countries, and the other between the west and the rest of the world.

Success in the internal competition among western countries depends upon a country’s having control and access to more and cheaper natural resources, being better organized and more stable politically, being more efficient and advanced industrially, technologically, economically, and militarily, and having more colonies and subjects: all these translate into political and economic weight on the world stage. Whichever country exploits, organizes and manipulates such factors better than the rest will obtain strategic advantages. The more powerful a country isémilitarily, politically, technologically and economicallyéthe greater is its ability to dominate and to impose its choices and priorities on others. There is generally consensus among these western countries and peoples about their right to dominate and exploit the non-western world, but the top position among themselves is decided not peacefully but by wars such as the first and second so-called world wars. Similar positions were attained historically by the Roman, Spanish and British empires. Because of huge power-differences, the big or “superpower” position is accepted by other western countries until the power balance is again changed by wars and other conflicts that eventually decide revised power relations. Thus continuous competition among western states to improve their positions in a global hierarchy, eventually decided by economic and military warfare, is a normal feature of the western political landscape.

One significant way for a western country to improve its political and economic status vis a vis other western countries is for it to expand by invading and colonizing politically, economically and technologically weaker countries. This puts more and cheaper natural resources at their disposal while denying them to others competitors. It also brings more colonies and subjects under their control, which are treated as captive markets and monopolised sources of almost free raw materials for western industries. All this also enhances political prestige and economic power. In other words, any western country seeking to improve its position with respect to other western countries has to expand by colonizing and exploiting other non-western countries, directly or indirectly.

European colonial past

Since the sixteenth century this competition has been going on at the expense of the rest of the world. New sea routes, technological inventions, and political innovations and organizations were the main tools with which western countries colonized other lands, and in the process did their best to enhance their positions relative to western competitors. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries almost all the European colonial powers, including Russia, were vying with each other to conquer colonies in order to claim a higher rung on a vertical power-ladder. Thomas Pakenham in The Scramble for Africa (1991) describes western motives, and shows how weak and technologically less developed countries were attacked and conquered by the destruction of all their social and political institutions, by massacres and by ruthless suppression of all opposition. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in the Russian-British geopolitical struggle called the “Great Game”, Russia conquered all of Central Asia, and Britain consolidated its hold on the Indian subcontinent.

This severe weakening of the European colonial states reduced Europe politically and economically, while the US became pre-eminent and the Soviet Union was second. The status quo of this global hierarchy was maintained by a ‘balance of terror’ until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. This upset the power balance. The US, which had needed west European allies badly during the Cold War, later became relatively independent of such considerations. Although American cinema and television are popular among Europeans, the Americans’ arrogance on the political and economic stage has proved too much for the Europeans to bear, especially given their own former “glorious” colonial status.

The US not only started treating Europeans with contempt, but also ensured that no European power, individually or collectively, could emerge, much less challenge the US. When right-wing conservatives and Zionists in the US produced a document (actually written by Zionists Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby) in 1992 setting out in detail how in a post-Soviet environment the US’s hegemony over the entire world would be maintained, and no power even jointly (meaning not even the European Union) should challenge it, the Europeans were stunned. A milder version of that report, released in September 2002, states that the US will maintain the clear military dominance it has held since the end of the Cold war. “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States,” it says.

European losses in US invasion of Iraq

Whatever position the Europeans had retained in the cold war, it has been eroded further since then. The US has now resumed its imperial quest, briefly interrupted by the “Communist experiment”, with its invasion of Iraq. Now the Europeans fear that the gap in power between them and the US will increase significantly, to the point that the US will treat them with ill-disguised contempt, like any small developing country, and dictate unacceptable terms. If this happens, the Europeans will lose politically, economically and militarily. So, purely out of self-interest, they want to restrain the US.

If the US succeeds in its occupation of Iraq and in reshaping the Middle East, the Europeans will suffer enormous economic, financial and commercial losses. Although the US is dominant economically and commercially in the entire Middle East, nevertheless European countries and companies have a significant share of the market. They would lose hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of contracts and ongoing projects; US companies will be given the lion’s share of the new reconstruction opportunities, for instance.

The US will not only monopolize the Iraqi and Middle Eastern markets, it will also dominate Iraq’s enormous oil-resources (second only to Saudi Arabia’s). That oil will help pay for the invasion and the occupation costs; the US will also control oil-production and oil-flow to world markets. There was no immediate shortage or threat of oil cut-offs for which the US had to invade, but the control and access of all the region’s oil will give the US domination over Europe, Japan, China and all of Asia. The US will be able to manipulate production-quotas, access-routes and oil-prices. If the US were to increase the price of oil to between $60 and $80 per barrel, say, it would have the Europeans and every other potential rival in a stranglehold.

Militarily the Europeans stand to lose hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of arms contracts that have already been signed. This will jeopardize their arms and munitions industries and development of new weapons-systems, independent of the US. It will also result in even more unemployment of skilled workers, in already weak economies.

The losses on the economic and military fields will immediately translate into loss of political influence. The Europeans will lose their current status as important power-brokers on many global issues, such as Palestine, the physical environment, climate change, and so on. European countries might even in effect lose the status of “mother country” to their former colonies.


So it is now clear that the Europeans opposed the US invasion and occupation of Iraq not out of sympathy with anyone, but out of self-interest. They are fearful that the power-gap between them and the US will increase beyond all realistic hope of their being able to redress it. They may like American cinema, music and fashion, but they fear and loathe American political power, policies, values and motives. There can be no doubt that they would prefer to regain their own lost colonial grandeur. Their policies and actions to oppose the US are based on self-interest, just as the US’s were when it pursued European decolonization of Asian and African countries.

President Chirac may be a hero to the French people for standing up to the US bully, but he is just like Bush, Blair, Sharon et. al. as far as the Muslims are concerned. After all, in the middle of the flurry of diplomatic activity in the Security Council before the invasion of Iraq, president Chirac still found time to visit Algeria to demonstrate French support for the Algerian military junta, which is quite as demonic as the regime of Saddam and co. in Baghdad. He is also waging a “war against Islam” in France. Thus we Muslims should beware of any western actions or diplomacy which seem to be in support of us; Muslims can derive only limited peripheral benefit from the divisions between the Europeans and Americans. It must be borne in mind that no one can fight our wars and battles for us; we have to do it for ourselves.

Dr. Perwez Shafi is associated with the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought in Karachi, Pakistan.