top of page

The trans-Atlantic aftershock of September 11

Immanuel Wallerstein

Picture: Immanuel Wallerstein with Fernand Bradel

If the attack on the Twin Towers on Sept 11, 2001 can be considered to have been a political earthquake for the American people, the US is now suffering from the aftershock. The most recent and most dramatic instance of that aftershock has come from across the Atlantic and reveals the tectonic shift that has gone on largely unnoticed in the last decade.

What was so unsettling about Sept 11 was the fact that the US, for the first time in its history, felt vulnerable. A direct assault of such magnitude within the continental United States had been previously unknown and unthinkable. The immediate response of most of the rest of the world - all of whom had lived with such kinds of vulnerability for a long time - was massively sympathetic. Remember the now classic editorial in Le Monde of Paris the day after: "We are all Americans now."

In less than 18 months, the Bush administration has squandered all that sympathy and now finds itself diplomatically isolated. This is the second great shock, the aftershock of Sept 11. Since 1945, the United States has pursued its global policies with the assurance that it had secure allies - western Europe, Canada, Japan and South Korea. However much one ally or another had reservations about this or that policy, and however much the fuss they may have made (a tactic for which France was particularly famous), the United States always counted on the fact that, when the moment of decision came, these allies would be behind the United States.

Up until February 2003, the US government has been sure that such deferral to their leadership in world affairs by the allies was a constant on which they could rely. Suddenly this has changed. France and Germany are now leading a "coalition of the unwilling," supported by Russia and China, and overwhelmingly by world public opinion. When the massive peace demonstrations occurred on Feb 15 across the world, the largest demonstrations were in the three countries that have most ostentatiously supported the US position on Iraq - Great Britain, Spain, and Italy. In the beginning of March, the UN Security Council is going to vote on a US-British-Spanish resolution to legitimate military action against Iraq. They are being met by a French-German-Russian "memorandum" which, in effect, says that there is no justification yet for military action. It is very doubtful that the US resolution can get the nine votes it needs, even if there is no actual veto.

The immediate result has been a shouting match between the US (with Great Britain) and France and Germany. It has been much more shrill on the US side than on the Franco-German side. Jacques Chirac, a conservative politician who has spent time in the US and who has long been considered one of the French political leaders most friendly to the US, is being vilified and even demonized. How has the relationship of Europe and America deteriorated to the point that the press is asking whether it can ever be repaired, whether we are in the midst of a divorce? To understand that, we have to take the story from the beginning, that is, from 1945.

In 1945, the United States was all-powerful, and western Europe was suffering badly from the economic destruction of the war. Furthermore, a good 25 per cent of western Europe's population was voting for Communist parties, and most of the others genuinely feared that the combination of their internal Communist parties plus the immense Red Army, stationed in the middle of Europe, represented a real threat to their survival as non-Communist states. The alliance of western Europe with the United States, concretized in the creation of NATO in 1949, had the strong support of a majority of the population which feared US isolationism more than US imperialism. The US encouraged and supported the establishment of European transnational structures, primarily as a way of making acceptable to the French an involvement of west Germany in the alliance structures.

By the late 1960s, the material and political base of European enthusiasm for the Atlantic alliance began to fritter. Western Europe had revived economically and was no longer dependent on the US. Quite the contrary! It was becoming an economic rival. The internal strength of the Communist parties began to dissipate. A Soviet threat began to seem quite distant. Meanwhile, US enthusiasm for European institutions began to wane, as a strong Europe began to seem a risk for the Atlantic alliance. The US encouraged British adhesion, in the hope of diluting Europe (as indeed de Gaulle charged at the time). And later, the US would press for rapid expansion "eastwards" in a similar hope.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989/1991 represented a disaster, from the point of view of US control over its allies. It undid the major justification for US leadership. Of whom was western Europe supposed to be afraid now? The US searched for a substitute for the Soviet Union to offer western Europe as a reason for faithful adherence to US leadership. Basically, what the US offered was the class interest of the "North" against the "South" - the common interest of the US and western Europe in global order, neoliberal globalisation, and military containment of the countries of the "South" (that is, continued and intensified insistence on no nuclear proliferation).

These were common interests, indeed, but none of them posed the urgency of the erstwhile Soviet military threat. And western Europe felt that its approach to particular problems was at least as intelligent and useful as that of Washington. In the days of the first President Bush and of Clinton, these differences led to serious arguments, but the arguments remained civil. Along came the hawks of the second President Bush. They were not interested in debating the fine points of what to do in Iraq, Palestine, or North Korea. They felt they knew what to do and they were anxious to make sure that western Europe accept, as it had once upon a time, the unquestioned leadership of the US. They inherited an old American contempt for the Europe the immigrants had left behind.

However, the geopolitical realities are quite different today. Western Europe feels that Bush's policies in Iraq are as much aimed at them as at Saddam Hussein. They see Bush trying to destroy the possibility of a strong and politically independent Europe, at precisely a very delicate moment in the constitutional construction of this Europe. Furthermore, the defeat of the Socialists in France and the victory of the Social-Democrats in Germany were both serious setbacks for Bush. The defeat of the Socialists in France allowed France, with its curious constitution, to have a president who had the authority to be decisive, because he didn't have to share power with a prime minister of another party. Chirac saw France's interest in asserting its Gaullism unreservedly. In this Chirac has the overwhelming support of French public opinion and politicians, which a Socialist prime minister would never have had. In Germany, on the other hand, only a Social Democratic-Green coalition could have taken the clear stand the government has taken, and found it politically rewarding.

All the bluster of Rumsfeld about how "old Europe" was isolated has been shown to be unfounded. There is not a single country in Europe, including eastern Europe, where the polls are not against the US position. The US that advocates preventive wars and would engage in them unilaterally is seen as a far greater danger than an encircled and constrained Saddam Hussein. Europe is not anti-American, but it is definitely anti-Bush. Meanwhile, the same thing is happening in East Asia, where Japan, South Korea, and China are aligned against the US approach to handling North Korea.

We shall never go back to the old ways. What will happen now depends a lot on the actual military process of the Iraq war. Europe may emerge much strengthened or in tatters. But US ability to count on automatic support from western Europe and east Asia is probably gone forever.


Immanuel Wallerstein is Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, and the author of over 30 books, including the forthcoming, Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World. He is also the co-founder, with Terence Hopkins, of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations at Binghamton University (NY), and a past president of the International Sociological Association. This article was first published by YaleGlobal Online, a publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author. Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author.


bottom of page