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.