Donald Rumsfeld and “Old” Europe’s Fabricated Outrage
Published in The New York Sun, March 9, 2005
by John Rosenthal
If one is to judge by the pronouncements of certain European commentators or Europhile American ones, the path to transatlantic reconciliation passes through the repudiation – and preferably dismissal – of US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Apart from the President himself, Mr. Rumsfeld is unquestionably the member of the current American administration who is most vilified in the mainstream media in the would-be Franco-German “heart” of Europe. What has earned him this distinction? Well, in this connection too, judging by the frequency with which the matter is mentioned, there is not any doubt. It is not his resolute advocacy of the Iraq War in the face of Franco-German opposition, nor even his presumed chain-of-command responsibility for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. No, Mr. Rumsfeld’s greatest offense is to have uttered the words “old Europe” to refer to France and Germany at a news conference on January 22, 2003. Time seems not to have calmed the wounded sensibilities. On the contrary, during President Bush’s recent European tour, as during Condoleezza Rice’s visit shortly before, the editorialists of major German and French publications missed no occasion to bring up the episode and contrived more than a few, displaying a degree of persistence reminiscent of a neurotic disorder.
Back in 2003, the outraged reaction was virtually instantaneous. In a “response” published in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the late French philosopher and doyen of “deconstructionism,” Jacques Derrida, claimed to find Rumsfeld’s remark both “shocking” and “scandalous,” not to mention “symptomatic” – namely, of Mr. Rumsfeld’s alleged ignorance. From the semantic register chosen by Derrida, one might have thought he was commenting on the statement of a Holocaust denier. But showing a gift for dialectic, the philosopher managed, nonetheless, to derive an edifying moral from the “ignorant” American’s vulgarity, which, he concluded, “makes clear, albeit involuntarily, just how urgent the task of European unification is.”
Nearly two years later, soon after the American presidential elections, French President Jacques Chirac’s consternation was still so great that in an interview with British journalists he could not bring himself to utter the Defense Secretary’s name, referring instead to “that nice guy in America — what’s his name again? — who spoke about ‘old Europe’.” Echoing the condescending tone of the philosopher, he added, “It has no sense. It’s a lack of culture to imagine that.”
But what was it exactly that Mr. Rumsfeld said in using the infamous phrase?
It should be recalled first that he was responding to a question from a reporter about “the European allies,” who, the reporter’s assessment suggested, were reluctant to support the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. The reporter mentioned France and Germany. Mr. Rumsfeld replied: “Now, you're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's old Europe. If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east. And there are a lot of new members....and all of those who have been invited in recently.” And he continued: “you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe. They're not with France and Germany on this, they're with the United States.”
Mr. Rumsfeld was right. As subsequent events would make abundantly obvious, the “European allies” – an expression which clearly implies NATO members – were divided on the Iraq issue and the “vast number” would indeed side with the United States. Of the 22 European members of the NATO alliance (not including Turkey), 17 would openly support the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy and contribute troops to the Coalition.
In a recent op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune, Joseph Nye claimed that Mr. Rumsfeld’s “jibe about old and new Europe” was an ominous “sign” of the Bush Administration’s inclination to adopt a policy of “divide and rule” toward Europe. In an article on the President’s European tour in the influential German weekly Die Zeit, Josef Joffe echoes Nye’s interpretation, suggesting hopefully that by his recent initiatives the President “seems to have renounced the ‘Old Europe/New Europe’ strategy, that is to say the diplomacy of divide and rule.” But if such a division existed, how does it constitute a “policy” or “strategy” to have taken note of it? Should the Administration have not sought the support of favorably-disposed European countries just because the German and French governments had made known their objections? To imply as much is to make precisely the sort of conflation of France and Germany with “Europe” as such that Mr. Rumsfeld was justly criticizing, if not indeed tacitly to recognize the French-German partnership as an EU directorate whose wishes the smaller EU nations ought not to oppose.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s assessment of the distribution of American support in Europe was, moreover, also essentially correct. It was indeed among the “new” members of what he called “NATO Europe” that the Administration policy would enjoy its most solid support. Of the ten Eastern European countries that either joined NATO in 1999 or were scheduled to accede (and would do so in 2004), only Slovenia did not actively contribute to the Coalition. It was explicitly by contrast to these “new” and prospective NATO members that Mr. Rumsfeld described Germany and France as “old” Europe. The adjective “old” in his usage thus clearly bore the connotation of anteriority, not those of aged or antiquated, as one would be led to believe by the scandalized coverage in the French and German media, as well indeed as in parts of the American.
In short, far from being the “provocation” or “insult” it has been made out to be, Mr. Rumsfeld’s remark was entirely banal. Why then the outrage?
Well, perhaps because a provocation was wanted. Indeed, the indignant response to Mr. Rumsfeld’s phrase among specifically French public opinion was fueled by a dubious translation. Mr. Rumsfeld was said to have dismissed France and Germany as “la vieille Europe” – with the adjective “vieille” here having a distinct whiff of decadence. But the “old” versus “new” – rather than “old” versus “young” – distinction that Mr. Rumsfeld was making is usually signaled in French by the adjective “ancien”.
As Mr. Derrida’s remarks illustrate, moreover, many French and German intellectuals and politicians have known of no better way to promote closer European integration than by brandishing the supposed menace of a hostile and ill-intentioned America. The German language has a word to describe this sort of procedure – because German history, unfortunately, has been marked by its consequences. The word is hetzerisch, meaning that which is designed to incite hatred. If it is fear or hatred of the United States that is supposed to make the formation of an “ever closer” European Union a matter of urgency, one can well wonder if the advocates of further integration lack more intrinsic arguments to convince their fellow citizens and European partners.
Mr. Rosenthal writes on international politics and has taught at New York University, Rutgers University, and the École Normale Supérieure of Lyon.