Book Review:

April 1, 2005

Allies at War

By Philip Gordon & Jeremy Shapiro

Published By: McGraw-Hill

On: April 1, 2004

Buy Here $4.0

Reviewed By: Ryan R. Miller

In their recent book, Allies at War, Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro describe how a transatlantic split emerged between the United States and its main continental allies, France and Germany, during the lead-up to the Iraq war. The extent of the split, they say, was such that "the result was not only a failure to agree about Iraq, but such damage to the world's most successful alliance that it was a legitimate question whether [the transatlantic link] would endure."1 Their central argument is that this split stemmed in a large part from "diplomatic wrangling," rather than pre-existing divisions between Europe and the United States. In their historical narrative, Gordon and Shapiro give a very balanced assessment, criticizing both the United States and its European allies equally. They describe how the Bush administration pursued an arrogant, unilateralist diplomacy, and how France and Germany departed from traditional alliance norms by openly opposing the United States. Ultimately, according to Gordon and Shapiro, "diplomatic mistakes, personality clashes, unfortunate timing, faulty analysis, and bad luck" played an important role in straining relations.2 The split, in other words, was avoidable. The authors conclude by arguing that the alliance is salvageable, and they propose several measures to restore a healthy transatlantic link: advancing a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; jointly rebuilding Iraq and promoting reform in the greater Middle East; consolidating the alliance around the war on terrorism; coordinating a policy of "carrots and sticks" toward Iran; developing new norms to govern the use of force; and building a robust European Security and Defense Policy to give the US a more capable partner in international affairs.

The principal shortcoming with Allies at War is that the book's central claim is perhaps applicable only with regards to US dealings with Germany, while being less helpful for understanding Franco-American relations. The reason is that Paris and Washington arguably were already parting ways in the "new world order." Pertaining to Germany, Gordon and Shapiro correctly point out that the split between Washington and Berlin came as a result of Shroeder's political exploitation of popular opposition to US plans, as well as the American "berating" of Germany for its opposition to the war. Indeed, German leaders have for a long time placed a premium on good relations with the United States in questions of international security. The authors accurately highlight how the Bush administration's isolation of Schroeder after his anti-war election rhetoric helped drive the German leader into the French camp.

But Gordon and Shapiro do not adequately explore the historical and structural factors driving the animosity that appeared in US-French relations. They focus instead on a series of diplomatic fisticuffs. Concerning the Americans, the authors highlight how Washington undertook a series of actions to punish France for its increasing opposition to the war. These included how the Pentagon prevented the French military from participating in previously arranged exercises, or how Undersecretary Feith admonished a French official who had come to Washington to explore modalities for French participation in the enforcement of UN resolutions. With regards to the French, Gordon and Shapiro critique Paris's "all out attempt to deny legitimacy to [the war] once it had been decided."3 For example, they cite France's threat of its UNSC veto, or how Chirac stated on television that he opposed the war "because [the French] want to live in a multipolar world."4

While it would be difficult to deny that these and other mishaps inflamed the public discourse surrounding US-French relations, the inter-governmental divide currently discussed is a consequence of much deeper factors. A better explanation for the current US-French divide can be found in historical predispositions of the French state, as well as the changed structure of the international system. Gordon and Shapiro deny that French resistance to a war came from "a reflexive desire to resist American power,'' yet the historical record suggests that French leaders have a long history of measuring French stature and power against that of the United States.5 With the hope of "loosening" the bipolarity of the Cold War, Charles de Gaulle and his successors espoused a policy of grandeur nationale, according to which France should plot its own independent course in international affairs. One consequence of the Gaullist tradition has been that French foreign policy elites traditionally have prided themselves on competing with the United States. Some observers have pointed out that when de Villepin took the stage at the UN to denounce American policies, he was personifying how the French are most comfortable when in opposition to Washington.

Furthermore, the shift from bipolarity to unipolarity following the USSR's collapse exacerbated these pre-existing intra-alliance tensions. Gordon and Shapiro admit the importance of the structural shift, conceding that "as the 1990s began, the constraints on intra-alliance disagreement loosened significantly."6 Still, they do not adequately discuss how Washington's increasingly erratic and unilateral policies irritated French leaders, or how France was freed to pursue more openly its traditional Gaullist policy of grandeur vis-a-vis Washington. Brenner and Parmentier note how France in the post-Cold War era "saw itself as a direct rival of the United States - whether in shaping European security arrangements, in deciding on the appropriate approach to regulating international financial markets, or in the images and models of popular culture."7 In short, US-French spats were already becoming more natural because the USSR's collapse allowed Washington to adopt a more unilateral policy, and Paris to pursue more openly its long-standing concurrence with the US. Seen in this light, the Franco-American clash over the 2003 Iraq war was the culmination of a long-term development.

Gordon and Shapiro seek to downplay the influence of these pre-existing trends, but their arguments are unsatisfactory. They assert that leaders in America and France averted earlier transatlantic splits of the current degree because they were willing to rise above their differences, and make a conscious commitment to alliance unity. The problem is that they make comparisons to crises of both a different scale and nature. For instance, the authors point to Paris's acquiescence to America's more aggressive (and often unilateralist) position during the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts as evidence of such a spirit of cooperation. But is this a fair comparison? In the Balkans, the issue was a debate over means, but not ends. Indeed, France and others agreed with the goal of bringing stability to Southeastern Europe and stopping ethnic cleansing. When differences did exist, they concerned the means to achieve these ends, but both sides agreed from the start on the objectives themselves. Conversely, in Iraq, the US had an agenda to topple Saddam's government, while France was opposed to a preventive policy of regime change.

Regarding the American side, Gordon and Shapiro try to show that it was the Clinton administration's concern for allied consensus that prevented a transatlantic rift from forming over Iraq in the late 1990s. The authors contend that, "it was clear from the Clinton administration's effort to reach compromise that it still believed that allied support in the UN was essential for managing the Iraq problem. In three successive crises... the U.S. was unwilling to use force in Iraq without broad international support."8 By implication, it was the Bush administration's disregard for its allies' concerns that brought about the clash.

Here too, the authors make an unfair comparison - the circumstances were different. First, Operation Desert Fox was of a different scale entirely. The fact that leaders on both sides may have prevented diplomatic relations from deteriorating at this point serves as weak evidence for proving the authors' arguments. Second, the question can again be considered one of ends and means. Even when Paris criticized Operation Desert Fox, the ends of Washington and Paris were generally in sync -both saw the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

It is not reasonable, therefore, to compare apples and oranges in international security.

Gordon and Shapiro nonetheless imply that different administrations could have avoided the transatlantic clash. They declare that

... if either Florida's famous butterfly ballot had not deprived· Gore of that state's electoral votes or if fringe presidential candidate Christine Taubira had not kept leading Socialist Lionel Josphin out of the second round of the French presidential election ..., the diplomacy of 2002-2003 might have been significantly different.9

Certainly, one can imagine that had Al Gore won the election, then the US would likely not have decided to overthrow Hussein's regime. But this lies beyond the scope of the authors' analysis. Gordon and Shapiro are not offering to explain why the war took place, but rather why relations between the US and its traditional allies worsened so dramatically. To make a fair comparison, and identify an independent variable explaining the current state of transatlantic tensions, US plans to remove the regime in Baghdad must be held constant.

In other words, the core question becomes the following: if a Gore administration sought to topple the Iraqi regime, or if French Socialists were in power, would relations with France have remained cordiale, and would all partners have adhered to traditional alliance norms? The authors do not explore this point. It is reasonable to suppose that, at best, one could have hoped for a change in tone, but little more. Headlines in The New York Times and Le Monde might have been somewhat less inflammatory, but if the substance of the debate remained the same, it is most likely that a diplomatic split would still have resulted. Thus, with the goal of reinforcing their thesis that the pre-Iraq relationship can be restored, Gordon and Shapiro place too much of an emphasis on the role of diplomatic fisticuffs, and underestimate the extent of the pre-war divisions between the US and France. In the end, a preventive war against Iraq was destined to elicit fierce opposition from Paris because of the long-standing French opposition to the perceived illegitimacy of a unipolar environment.

Despite the weaknesses of the book's main argument regarding France, Allies at War does nonetheless provide an impressive historical account of diplomatic maneuvering. Gordon's and Shapiro's hardback is based on solid research, and is unrivaled in uncovering the behind-the-scenes details of the Iraq crisis. Allies at War also has important lessons for readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Americans reading this book will come away with a better understanding of the extent to which officials in the Bush administration inexcusably neglected its allies' concerns. Readers in Europe, for their part, should hopefully see that French and German leaders too deserve part of the blame for current tensions. Only if both sides accept responsibility for the mistakes that the authors bring to light can the transatlantic partners hope to put the crisis behind them.