The joint declaration on Jan. 22 by French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that Paris and Berlin will work together to oppose America’s long-evident determination to go to war with Iraq is portentous. When future historians write about how American hegemony ended, they will point to the events of that day as a decisive turning point. America’s coming collision with France and Germany—continental Europe’s two most powerful states—is not a bolt from the blue. Discord in the transatlantic relationship has been building for over a year now, since President George W. Bush spoke of the so-called “axis of evil” in last year’s State of the Union address and made clear that the administration is prepared to sweep aside European doubts about the wisdom of U.S. policy and fight a go-it-alone war with Iraq.


Iraq is an important issue in its own right, but the causes of the coming train wreck in U.S.-European relations go much deeper. For Paris and Berlin, the real issue is American hegemony. Here there is an interesting historical irony, for Chirac and Schroeder used the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Franco-German Treaty to express their opposition to Washington. That treaty—negotiated by Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer—was itself intended as a bulwark against American hegemony. To grasp the full significance of the transatlantic collision between the U.S. and France and Germany, we need to understand the context, which is rooted both in history and in international relations theory.


Why do France and Germany (and much of the rest of the world, including other major powers like Russia and China) worry about American hegemony? The simple answer is that international politics remains fundamentally what it always has been: a competitive arena in which states struggle to survive. States are always worried about their security. Therefore, when one state becomes overwhelmingly powerful—that is, becomes hegemonic—others fear for their safety. Hegemony triggers what scholars of international relations call “balancing.” In plain English, this means that other states will try to offset the hegemon’s “hard power” (its military and economic capabilities) by forming counter-hegemonic alliances with other states or by building up their own hard power capabilities or by doing both.


The historical record shows that sooner or later, hegemons are defeated by the balancing behavior of other states. Yet this has often not been a smooth process, which allows would-be hegemons to believe that they can succeed where others have failed. Precisely because they are so powerful, there are many risks involved in stopping a hegemon. And this gives rise to what political scientists call “collective action” problems. Simply put, a hegemon threatens other states in the international system, but each of those states would prefer that another state bear the risks and costs of stopping a hegemon—that is, states prefer to pass the buck. (Buck passing explains, by the way, why burden sharing controversies have been the hearty perennial of transatlantic relations since the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949.)


It is axiomatic that the Soviet Union’s collapse left the United States as the sole great power in world politics, and each of the last three administrations has been determined to preserve America’s post-Cold-War hegemony (though without the current administration’s sledge-hammer diplomacy). American policymakers have come up with a number of (too) clever rationales to convince themselves that the U.S. will escape the fate that invariably befalls hegemons. One of these is to deny that America is a hegemon at all. Another is to admit that the U.S. is a hegemon but to claim that it is a different kind of hegemon—one that is non-threatening because it acts altruistically in international politics and because others are attracted to America’s “soft power” (its political institutions, values, and culture). Yet another argument also acknowledges the reality of U.S. hegemony and concludes that the United States can do as it pleases because it is so far ahead in terms of hard power that no other state can possibly hope to challenge American hegemony.


Now for sure, hegemony has been a huge issue in U.S.-European relations since the United States emerged as a great power at the end of the 19th century. The United States fought two big wars in Europe out of fear that if a single power (in this case, Germany) attained hegemony in Europe, it would be able to mobilize the continent’s resources and threaten America in its own backyard, the Western Hemisphere. After World War II, the United States sought to prevent the re-emergence of a hegemonic threat from Europe by establishing its own hegemony over Western Europe.


In fact, U.S. strategy toward Europe since World War II has been remarkably consistent and has been the outcome of a delicate balancing act by Washington. On the one hand, for economic reasons, the U.S. encouraged Western Europe’s integration into a single common market. On the other hand, American policymakers understood the reasons that the U.S. had gone to war in 1917 and 1941, and the last thing they wanted was to encourage the emergence of a new pole of power on the European continent—whether in the guise of a resurgent Germany or of a politically united Europe. That is, they did not want Europe’s economic integration to lead to its political unification. So the U.S. sought to “de-nationalize” Europe by establishing a military protectorate that integrated Western Europe’s military forces under, and subordinated them to, American command. By so doing, Washington aimed to neuter Western Europe geopolitically and thereby circumscribe Western Europe’s ability to act independently of the Untied States in the high political realms of foreign and security policy.


Although it is often said that NATO was created to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” the truth is somewhat different. NATO had very little to do with the Cold War, and the U.S. would have created something very much like it even if there had been no Soviet threat following World War II (which is why the Soviet Union went out of business but NATO did not). In reality, Washington created NATO to keep the U.S. in Europe so that it could keep the Germans down and keep the Europeans apart. These are still the goals of U.S. policy.


Now just as fear of a European hegemon led the U.S. to intervene in Europe’s two great wars of the 20th century, the Western Europeans after World War II understood that the United States had established its own hegemony over them. And, as international relations theory would suggest, Western Europe tried to do something about it. Indeed, in the late 1940s and 1950s one of the hopes of the founding fathers of today’s European Union (EU) was that the European Coal and Steel Community, and then the Common Market, would prove to be the embryo of a united Europe that could act as a geopolitical and economic counterweight to the United States.


For sure, Western European balancing against the United States was constrained. On the one hand, although the Western Europeans feared American power, during the Cold War they feared the Soviet Union even more. And, in a more positive sense, following World War II, Washington was able to use the carrot of economic assistance—for example, the Marshall Plan—to keep Western Europe aligned (albeit very tenuously at times) with the U.S. But by the early 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle believed that Western Europe —led by France—was poised to balance against American hegemony.


De Gaulle was one of the 20th century’s towering figures, and he was well versed in the realities of international politics. Following Washington’s successful facing-down of the Soviet Union in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, he concluded that the world had become “unipolar”—dominated by a hegemonic America. To balance U.S. hegemony, De Gaulle pushed for France to acquire its own independent nuclear capabilities, and he sought to build a Western European pole of power based a Franco-German axis. That is what the 1963 treaty—the one Chirac and Schroeder were commemorating this past week—was all about.


Washington’s reaction to the Gaullist challenge was to reassert its own hegemonic prerogatives over Western Europe. By pushing for a Multilateral Nuclear Force for Western Europe (in reality one that one keep Washington’s finger firmly on the trigger), the U.S. sought—unsuccessfully—to derail France’s nuclear ambitions. With considerably more success, however, the United States took the teeth out of the Franco-German Treaty. In so doing, Washington played the hardest kind of hegemonic hardball. Threatening to rescind the security guarantee that protected West Germany from the Soviets, the U.S. insisted that the Bundestag insert a preamble to the treaty reaffirming that Bonn’s Atlantic connection to the U.S. and NATO took supremacy over its ties with Paris. And the U.S. blatantly interfered in West German domestic politics to secure Adenauer’s removal as chancellor and his replacement by the more pliable Atlanticist Ludwig Erhard.


Now, forty years later, the U.S. and Europe are engaged in the same game. America is asserting its hegemony, and France and Germany are seeking to create a European counterweight. Washington is employing a number of strategies to keep Europe apart. First, by opposing the EU’s Rapid Reaction Force (the nucleus of a future EU army) and by encouraging European NATO members to develop “niche” military capabilities, Washington seeks to prevent Europe from developing autonomous (that is, outside U.S. control) military capabilities that could rival its own. Second, the U.S. has encouraged NATO expansion in the hope that the “new Europe” (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Romania) will support Washington against France and Germany (what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sneeringly called the “old Europe”). Third, the U.S. is pushing hard for the enlargement of the EU—and especially the admission of Turkey —in the expectation that a bigger EU will prove unmanageable and hence unable to emerge as politically unified actor in international politics.


This is not 1963, however. The Cold War is over, and France and Germany are freer to challenge American hegemony. The EU is in the midst of an important constitutional convention that is laying the foundation for a politically unified Europe. To be sure, this may prove to be an EU based on “variable geometry” because there are important divisions within the EU about whether to support Washington’s Iraq policy, and some EU members fear Franco-German dominance (a fear Washington attempts to exploit). Still, at the end of the day, it is a pretty solid bet that the Franco-German axis will prove to be the core of a European counterweight to U.S. hegemony. And, in the long run, that counterweight will begin to acquire hard power capabilities.


In the short term, however, Paris and Berlin are bound to lead the way in “soft” balancing to counter U.S. hegemony. By using international organizations like the United Nations to concert opposition to the United States, France and Germany—and similarly inclined powers like Russia and China—are forging new habits of diplomatic co-operation to oppose Washington. In so doing, they both signal their collective determination to oppose U.S. hegemony and reduce the “collective action” problems involved in facing down a hegemon.


Now for sure, many in Washington couldn’t care less about Franco-German opposition, and they assert that the U.S. has the right to act unilaterally to ensure its security. And indeed it does. But this argument misses the point. This new crisis in transatlantic relations is not about choosing between multilateralism and unilateralism. Paris and Berlin understand what an increasing number of Americans are beginning to realize. The coming war with Iraq has nothing to do with 9/11 and is not necessitated by any threat to American national security. Following its 1991 defeat, and more than a decade of economic sanctions and isolation, Iraq, is far weaker than it was when it invaded Kuwait in August 1990—and it has been successfully contained and deterred. France and Germany (and others) realize that in going to war, the Bush II administration is, in the memorable July 1914 phrase of the then-German chancellor, “taking a leap into the dark,” and they worry about the ramifications of U.S. military action in a region where they—and others—also have important political, strategic, and economic interests.

Make no mistake, the U.S. will go to war with Iraq. But the diplomatic emperor has no clothes, and France and Germany see U.S. behavior for what it really is: the United States is acting as an aggressive hegemon engaged in the naked aggrandizement of its own power. As such, it is inviting the same fate that has overtaken modern international history’s other contenders for hegemony. In the sweep of history, the Bush administration will not be remembered for conquering Baghdad but rather for a policy that galvanized both soft and hard balancing against American hegemony. What the administration will trumpet as “victory” in the Persian Gulf will, in reality, prove to the beginning of the end of America’s era of global preponderance.   
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Christopher Layne is Visiting Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. He is writing a book on America’s hegemonic grand strategy for Cornell University Press.