“We are all Americans,” headlined the French newspaper The world in a cover editorial the day after the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The text reflected the commotion in Europe by the images of the planes crashing against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and the thousands of deaths. And it was a testament to the instant communion of Europeans with Americans.
“We had to express solidarity towards all the American people,” recalls Jean-Marie Colombani, then director of The world and author of the editorial, “in the same way that they expressed themselves when we were the ones who were sunk.”
Twenty years later, the fright of President Joe Biden in Afghanistan and the defeat of the United States and its allies in a war that began days after 9/11 has doubled the doubts in Europe about the reliability of the American protective umbrella. In Europe, the discussion about the need for a European military force that allows the partners to act outside of Washington is emerging. The hypothesis that the United States definitively ignores the problems of the world worries as much or more than it irritated the war fury of then-President George W. Bush two decades ago.
The millennium was beginning and it was a special moment. After the attacks, as Professor Bertrand Badie, a specialist in international relations, recalls, “there was again talk, at least in France, of the West, a notion that had disappeared from the political vocabulary”. The echoes of the 1990s – a decade that in retrospect may seem prodigious despite being plagued by wars, genocides and disorders of all kinds – were still alive. The prospect of EU enlargement to the east reinforced the idea that a happy ending to history was possible. Interventions in the Balkans had convinced many leaders that just wars existed, and worked. The illusion of an unstoppable advance of democracy persisted after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
During the minutes of the attack, and during the days and months that followed, many Europeans believed they were traveling in the same boat as the Americans. Hervé de Charette, French Foreign Minister in the nineties, recalls in a conversation with EL PAÍS: “It was the Europeans, in NATO, who asked, in response, for the activation of Article 5”. This article of the North Atlantic Treaty obliges to consider the attack against one member of the alliance as an attack against all. “It was,” he adds, “a show of solidarity with the United States and a confirmation of the seriousness of what happened.”
But the “unlimited solidarity” proclaimed at that time by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, took little time to be truncated. Badie, author of the newly published essay Globalized powers (The globalized powers), comments: “There is something that we do not dare to say, and that is that in Europe there was, in a more or less hidden way, not among political leaders but in public opinion, reactions of a certain satisfaction when seeing that the American hegemony was stumbling ”.
Bush, despite Article 5, acted on his own. “We Europeans did not make any intellectual contribution,” says De Charette. “It was the Americans who decided everything and, as you can see now, it was not what to do.”
The invasion of Iraq has just shattered any illusion of a transatlantic communion. “The American reaction, which was absurd, changed our gaze,” says Colombani. Europeans were no longer Americans. The problem is that the Europeans did not agree with themselves either: Iraq pitted the Europe that supported Bush against Franco-German Europe. It was the prologue of two decades in which, in the relationship with successive US presidents, horror would alternate with fascination: Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden … It was sometimes forgotten that, at least since the failure of Iraq and the arrival of Barack Obama to the White House, there was a continuity in the politics of the first power, a common thread, between the withdrawal of the Bush wars and the reorientation towards the Asia-Pacific region.
20 years later, NATO has gone from activating Article 5 to French President Emmanuel Macron having declared that he is in a state of “brain death”. In Europe, they went from looking with horror at Bush’s security policies that limited civil rights after 9/11, such as the Patriot Act, to adopting their own emergency laws like the French ones after the 2015 attacks. momentum in the EU —the euro was coming into circulation, a common foreign and security policy was emerging, Europe was reuniting with enlargement—, there was a risk of global irrelevance in the face of the weakened United States and the booming China.
“The real factor in the redistribution of powers, more than 9/11, is the emerging powers,” summarizes Professor Badie, “and, above all, the ability of these emerging powers to take advantage of globalization. This is what makes the difference now ”.
August 15, 2021, the date on which the Taliban reconquered Kabul, closes an era for Europeans as well. Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, was a legal and part European war. The debate is between those who see the US exit from Afghanistan as a signal for the EU to finally take responsibility for its security – with France, a nuclear and military power embarking on its own endless war in the Sahel – and those who hope to continue enjoying North American protection. “At bottom”, argues Badie, “Europe does not want the umbrella to disappear because it knows that if it had to assume its defense alone it would be too expensive.”
Europeans and Americans are still in the same boat, but the boat is leaking and no one knows if the captain wants to stay at the helm for long. “In spite of everything, we are still bound by a community of destiny,” says Colombani, the man who 20 years ago wrote “we are all Americans.” “But Europe must assume its responsibilities if you want to defend its values and continue to exist in this recomposed world,” he concludes.
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