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Stratfor Weekly: Davos, Multilateralism and the Crisis of the Alliance

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Davos, Multilateralism and the Crisis of the Alliance


"Multilateralism" was the main theme at the annual meeting of the 
World Economic Forum, recently concluded in Davos. For European 
states, the first half of the 20th century was a time of 
unprecedented savagery. In European minds, the culprit was 
nationalism -- or, more precisely, the unilateral pursuit of 
national interest. Multilateralism -- the creation of 
multinational institutions and a multinational mode of thought -- 
is the Europeans' response to their history. It has become a 
moral category. The United States, however, has a very different 
history and a very different set of fears. The United States has 
no historical reason for fearing its own nationalism, but it does 
have reason to fear inaction. The U.S. need to deal with Islamic 
radicalism collides with the European fear that the shattering of 
multilateralism once again will release the demons of 


Stratfor was present at the annual meeting of the World Economic 
Forum in Davos, Switzerland, during the week of Jan. 23. The 
meeting was fascinating, but not necessarily for the reasons the 
organizers intended. At Davos, you could hear history creaking in 
the woodwork -- the strains of the old international systems 
beginning to splinter under the weight of new realities. It was a 
meeting in which many participants expressed substantial anger at 
the United States and fear of the future, particularly over the 
coming war with Iraq. Underlying all of this, however, was the 
belief that ultimately there was nothing broken that could not be 

Those present at Davos were far from representative of the world 
or even of the world's elite. The World Economic Forum is an 
organization comprising business leaders who head the major 
global organizations. But many others attend the annual 
conference: Senior government leaders -- including several heads 
of state from each continent; armies of ministers, assistant 
ministers and minor non-ministers; officials from multinational 
organizations like the World Bank and United Nations; leaders of 
various non-governmental organizations, such as Amnesty 
International; and representatives from think-tanks. Finally, 
there are hordes of prestigious academics. 

This does not necessarily mean a vast divergence of opinions. The 
World Economic Forum has an embedded ideology, developed in the 
1980s and forged in the1990s. The organization believes that the 
business community, united and combined with these other 
constituencies, can dramatically improve the human condition 
through good will and good policies. Rising to its heights during 
the 1990s, it held that economics had superceded geopolitics as 
the driver of human events. At root, most of its members either 
still believe this or wish this were true. At the recent 
conference, it was not just the United States that was resented -
- the real resentment was at the betrayal by history, and an 
underlying commitment to reversing that process. 

What was present was that segment of the international elite that 
is committed to preserving the international system as it was 
prior to Sept. 11, 2001. The world view at Davos was of those who 
remain committed to the world and the alliances founded by 
American power after World War II -- and adopted by much of the 
rest of the world since then. Resistance to the idea that this 
world now could be defunct was intense, as much among the 
American representatives as among the rest of the world. It was a 
meeting in which two concepts, never expressed clearly but always 
present, dominated: Preserve what is; restore what has been lost.

The NGOs and the think-tanks, combined with the multinational 
organizations, form the intellectual center of gravity at Davos. 
Combined with representatives of the European Union, they 
constitute a powerful phalanx of thought. They are strongly 
supported by most of the academics present, including those from 
the United States. Other blocs are present. The Asians spent 
their time thinking about economics, trying to drive away 
thoughts of international conflict. The Asians also wistfully 
recalled their former days of glory -- assuring everyone that the 
glory lives on in China, and hoping that no one posed any serious 
security or geopolitical questions to them. Muslim leaders, 
seeking to block U.S. adventures in Iraq, aligned with the 
Europeans, although their mindset was far from that of Brussels 
on most issues.

The main thrust of the conference can be summed up in one term: 
multilateralism. Multilateralism, in the context of Davos, is an 
attack on the legitimacy of the United States in exercising 
sovereign national rights outside the framework of international 
institutions. The U.N., International Monetary Fund, EU and 
various multinational NGOs are multilateral organizations. This 
means two things: First, they are the creations of more than one 
nation; second, their mission is to bridge the gap between 
nations, thereby reducing conflict. There is an ethical 
imperative here. The view is that nationalism is the problem that 
drove the world to catastrophe in two world wars -- and that 
multinational organizations are more than simply useful 
contrivances that serve the interests of various nations; they 
are moral enterprises whose very existence helps save the world 
from conflict.

This is very much the European view, and it is understandable. 
European nationalism led the Continent and the world into 
unprecedented exercises of barbarism throughout the first half of 
the twentieth century. The Europeans, deeply traumatized by the 
horror that clearly ran just beneath the surface of their 
civilization and which they no longer could deny, grabbed hold of 
the U.S.-inspired system of multinational relations and expanded 
on it for two reasons. One was the explicit mission (such as 
economic development), and the second was the moral mission, 
which was to limit the autonomy of European nations in order to 
prevent another outbreak of European nationalism. NATO and the EU 
were useful as ends in themselves, but their deepest purpose was 
to prevent the outbreak of another Franco-German war by tying the 
two nations together in a single network of relations.

For European leaders, multilateralism is a moral category, 
designed to restrain the brutal consequences of nationalism. In 
the distrust of national ambition and their a priori commitment 
to entities like the IMF, World Bank and multiple U.N. agencies -
- as well as purely European contrivances -- the Europeans are 
joined by the functionaries of international humanitarian and 
human rights NGOs, as well as diplomats and public officials of 
many countries -- especially European -- for whom the rhetoric of 
multinationalism and multilateralism has become the common 
currency of public discourse. 

The United States has a very different experience of nationalism 
and therefore a very different view of multilateralism. From the 
U.S. point of view, World Wars I and II were exercises in 
European savagery; it fell to the United States to save Europe 
from itself. However, the United States never saw itself as 
responsible for Europe's disease, nor did it see itself as 
susceptible to it. Washington was not afraid of its own 
nationalist tendencies. Americans believed that the Europeans 
would not behave as civilized human beings unless they were 
forced into institutions that limited their sovereignty and 
behavior. In the American view, the lesson of the 20th century 
was precisely the opposite: The United States could be trusted to 
behave responsibly without institutional constraints. During the 
Cold War, an American might argue, nuclear holocaust was 
prevented precisely because the United States unilaterally 
managed its nuclear strategy. Had the European statesmen of 1914 
or 1939 had nuclear weapons, or had the weapons been held 
multilaterally, another holocaust might have followed. 

>From the U.S. viewpoint, it is altogether reasonable that the 
Europeans demand multilateralism for themselves. It is not 
reasonable to demand it of the United States. The current 
alliance structure has two purposes: One is to facilitate the 
effective defense of the West, the other is to create a framework 
for controlling European excesses. The alliance now is hindering 
rather than facilitating defense and, one would hope, the 
Europeans are now sufficiently chastened and mature to restrain 
themselves within their own multilateral systems. NATO's 
consensus system should not be permitted to impede U.S. war-
making strategy, particularly when it permits countries that 
commit and risk little or nothing to control the United States, 
which is committing and risking much. From Washington's 
perspective, NATO might have outlived its usefulness.

At Davos, Secretary of State Colin Powell made the argument for 
the United States, although he left much unsaid. In general, the 
U.S. academic and NGO attendees sided with the Europeans, while 
the business leaders maintained a muted tone, focusing on the 
effects a war might have on the economy. There is a self-
selection process at Davos that results in a certain stratum of 
U.S. views being represented while others are not. But it was 
more interesting than that. There was continual talk about 
European opposition to U.S. "unilateralism," but the Europeans 
were deeply split as well. The Spanish government has come in on 
Washington's position, and the Italian government is close. Most 
of Eastern Europe is siding with the United States. And of course 
the British government stands with the United States. Germany and 
France do not speak for Europe; they speak for themselves in a 
deeply divided Europe. The divisions within Europe did not come 
through clearly. 

In a sense, that's reasonable. Many Americans oppose President 
George W. Bush's policies, and many Europeans oppose the Franco-
German position. But this is more than a question of public 
opinion at any given period. The fact is that, at the deepest 
intellectual and moral level, a divide is opening between Europe 
and the United States. And with that gap, the entire edifice of 
the post-War alliance structure is cracking apart.

>From a practical point of view, we can already see the shifting 
alliances. What Turkey or Saudi Arabia or India do has a direct, 
potential effect on the United States. What Germany or France do 
really doesn't matter that much in a practical sense. Geography 
defines interests, and the geography of Europe has little to do 
with contemporary U.S. interests and fears in 2003. The Fulda Gap 
is infinitely less important than the Shatt al-Arab to the United 
States. History has turned, and the incomprehension and anger of 
the Europeans at Davos is directed less at the United States than 
at a lack of ability to control events.

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