Courtesy Reuters

America's Crisis of Legitimacy


"What kind of world order do we want?" asked Joschka Fischer, Germany's foreign minister, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. That this question remains on the minds of many Europeans today is a telling sign of the differences that separate the two sides of the Atlantic -- because most Americans have not pondered the question of world order since the war.

They will have to. The great transatlantic debate over Iraq was rooted in deep disagreement over world order. Yes, Americans and Europeans debated whether Saddam Hussein posed a serious threat and whether war was the right way to deal with it. A solid majority of Americans answered yes to both questions, while even larger majorities of Europeans answered no. Yet these disagreements reflected more than just differing tactical and analytical assessments of the situation in Iraq. As Dominique de Villepin, France's foreign minister, put it, the struggle was less about Iraq than it was between "two visions of the world." The differences over Iraq were not only about policy. They were also about first principles.

Opinion polls taken before, during, and after the war show two peoples living on separate strategic and ideological planets. Whereas more than 80 percent of Americans believe that war can sometimes achieve justice, less than half of Europeans agree. Americans and Europeans disagree about the role of international law and international institutions and about the nebulous but critical question of what confers legitimacy on international action. These diverging world views predate the Iraq war and the presidency of George W. Bush, although both may have deepened and hardened the transatlantic rift into an enduring feature of the international landscape. "America is different from Europe," German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder declared matter-of-factly before the war. Who can deny it any longer?

At the beginning of 2003, before the Iraq war, the transatlantic gulf was plainly visible. What was less clear then was how significant it would turn out to be

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