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Gary Younge
Twin vision of empire

They badger me as though their own reference points represent the sole prism through which global events could possibly be understood. As if the struggle for moral superiority between Europe and the US could have any relevance to someone whose ancestors were brought to the Americas as slaves and whose parents and grandparents lived through the war under colonisation.

"If it wasn't for us you would be speaking German," they say. "No, if it wasn't for you," I tell them, "I would probably be speaking Yoruba."

As the diplomatic process over a possible war in Iraq approaches its endgame, the spat between Europe and America is an unwelcome diversion. There are some disputes, we are led to believe, that have a significance beyond themselves alone. Rows with origins in one place and ramifications in many others, which produce not a victor in a single clash but help shape a trend in the bigger scheme of things. Sometimes, as in the conflict between the Soviet Union and the US during the cold war or between cricket (slow, colonial, in decline) and basketball (fast, commercial, on the rise) in the Caribbean, the broader themes are obvious. With others, as with the rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown or Blur and Oasis, it is difficult to see quite what relevance the disputes hold beyond the immediate outcome and the immediate participants.

The quarrel between Europe and the US falls into the latter category. Those who understand it as a battle between a Europe that is peace-loving, multilateral and sophisticated and an America that is belligerent, isolationist and brash make too much of the differences and too little of the similarities.

As negotiations unfold in the coming weeks, such distortions will become increasingly crucial. By mistaking European pragmatism for principle, it leads many to pin hopes on a European resistance that will almost inevitably falter under US pressure. By underestimating the domestic pressure that George Bush is under to make his case, it obstructs the potential for solidarity with the growing number of Americans who oppose war.

That does not mean that the differences are not significant. Most of Europe is embarking on a grand, multilateral project to build an ever enlarging EU. Meanwhile, the Bush administration spent its first 100 days pulling out of the Kyoto accords and reneging on the 1972 treaty banning germ warfare. Nor does it mean that the differences are not important. Whoever emerges with the upper hand in this particular conflict could well be a matter of life and death for millions of Iraqis. But what we are seeing now is not a clash between two competing world views but the testing of the balance of forces within the same one.

The split between Europe and the US is strategic, not moral. There is nothing inherent in European political culture that makes it more liberal and less imperial than America. European leaders and commentators are right to criticise the US for its brutality and imperialist pretensions. But they must do so with sufficient self-awareness to see what most of the rest of the world has seen: that their nations have acted in similar and even more pernicious ways whenever they have had the opportunity.

Without that humility in tone and historical perspective they open the door to those on the right in the US, who dismiss accusations of American wrongdoing as little more than sour grapes that Europe is no longer at the helm. Before long they are arguing not about democracy, human rights, poverty and fair trade but which empire was more benign.

This kind of bickering between the powerful has little interest to most of humanity. The difference between Europe and the US is significant and has been accentuated in recent months, but to the vast majority of the developing world American domination represents a development in the narrative of European empire, not a break from it.

At times it can even appear like an improvement. Even as anti-American sentiment is growing in France, there have been anti-French demonstrations in the former French colony of the Ivory Coast, where a peace deal brokered by France has been greeted with opposition. Last week, as the French expressed their scepticism at secretary of state Colin Powell's presentation to the security council, protesters in the capital, Abidjan, waved American flags and placards saying: "Bush please help Ivory Coast against French terrorism." The fact that America backed the very deal they were demonstrating against shows how great is the confusion and how little there is to choose between the two powers.

So long as the French, Russians, Germans and Chinese are arguing for more time for the weapons inspectors, we should support them. But we should be under no illusions as to how long that opposition will last. The more inevitable war appears, the more likely both the French and the Russians will be to cut a deal, in order to protect their interests. If America's push for war is motivated by oil, then France and Russia's push for peace is no less so - both have lucrative contracts in the region that they are keen to preserve.

Even as the French rail against US hegemony, they are carefully preparing an exit strategy. The day before Powell presented his case to the security council, a French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, headed off for three weeks of manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean, including joint exercises with America's USS Harry Truman.

The key factor in stopping the war remains public opinion. That is what has delayed the bombing thus far, shoring up the rhetoric from European leaders and slowing down the pace of the Bush administration. The toughest test for that opposition will come if the security council lends its imprimatur to military action in a second resolution. Rather than being sidetracked by transatlantic rifts, we must argue now that while a second security council resolution would make war legal, it would not make it moral.

While it is vital that military action should take place only within international law, those laws have any credibility only if they are applied fairly, adhered to universally and executed consistently. While Powell excoriated Iraq for flouting the wishes of the international community, the UN's world court ruled unanimously that the US should stay the execution of three Mexicans on death row in Texas and Oklahoma. The US has disregarded the court in the past and is likely, on this issue, to do so again.

Both Europe and America sold arms to the Iraqi regime and have constantly shown more interest in the oil reserves under its soil than the human rights abuses that have taken place on top of it. We should support those western governments that urge caution, but we should not rely on them. We should side not with Europe or America but with the Iraqi people against both Saddam Hussein and a war that will inflict untold misery upon them and make us more vulnerable to terrorist attack than ever before.

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