Governance and Multilateralism

The war on terror: the last drift before the 2004 EU eastward enlargement

The whole world welcomed the beginning of a new millennium with spectacular celebrations and new hopes. In people’s mind, the year 2000 meant a jump in the future, in which technological development would have reached new and undiscovered worlds. According to popular beliefs, what was about to start was the millennium of the end of the world, virtual life, hover cars and robots. The perspective of the date changing its initial number from 1 to 2 scared and fascinated at the same time. This notwithstanding, hopes run high in the fantasy of both people and policy-makers, that envisioned a future of collective growth and renewal.

For Europe, the beginning of the year 2000 coincided with a series of new challenges, including the enlargement to Central Eastern Europe and the institutional renewal necessary to live up to such a disruptive momentum. For Central Eastern Europe, equally, the new millennium would have eventually complimented the dream to return to Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic, Washington was getting ready to elect a new president. Bush’s election to the White House had significant consequences for Europe and the transatlantic relations. Most importantly, the new administration was a vocal and harsh opponent of Clinton’s attitude vis-à-vis Europe and stood by a less interventionist approach[1]. Indeed, the Bush Administration adopted a different outlook in foreign affairs: the cultural individualism and the historical exceptionalism belonging to the United States gave birth to a minimalist unilateralism. To reach prosperity, America should have followed its national interests as it did in the past, leaving behind any Wilsonian internationalist ideal.

Accordingly, multilateralism was not perceived as the right answer to international challenges and as well as the need to discern between primary theatres and secondary theatres[2]and not to intervene in specific situations directly was seen as extremely important. The transatlantic relations, indeed, worsened over Iraq already in the 1990s. Even ten years before the 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), the Americans had clear in mind their target: beheading the regime and removing Saddam Hussein. However, the gap between the allies dramatically widened in 1997, again on economic sanctions[3]. As the Polish crisis experience showed, the Europeans hardly loved sanctions but what truly divided the allies was America’s belief that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed from power to pacify Iraq. Europe, on its part, was more in favour of a rehabilitation of the Baathist leader. Indeed, as argued by Robert Kagan, the Europeans believed that the risk of removing Saddam was less bearable than the actual threat posed by his presence[4]. Warsaw, however, supported Washington’s stance and offered intelligence support to the US just two years after the end of the Cold War. As reported by the New York Times, in 1990 “Polish agents saved 6 American Spies”[5], while receiving a partial reparation of the communist-era debts in return. The first Gulf War, furthermore, proved counterproductive also for EU’s attempts to build a cohesive foreign policy.

At the dawn of the new millennium, the Union expressed a preference for a  diplomatic approach when dealing with Saddam Hussein’s regime, asking the member states to “take the initiative at the United Nations to propose the formation of an ad-hoc International Tribunal on Iraq to investigate the responsibility of Saddam Hussein’s regime in crimes of war, crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide”[6].

While Brussels was busy reading the world’s events in a way that would have distanced it from the US in the future, it was also working to acquire autonomous defence capacity. However, the steps taken by the EU scared Poland, whose main worry was a possible consequence of the EU’s autonomy on NATO. An undermined Atlantic Alliance would have sent a wrong message to Russia, that in turn would have gained more influence over Eastern Europe[7]. Doubtlessly, all these reckonings pushed the V4 and the Vilnius Ten[8]to open up their stances and support Washington in Iraq in 2003.

However, the last years of the 1990s gave a significant push to the East’s reconciliation with the West. Following Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic’s steps, in 2002 also Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were invited to join the Alliance. In the same way, the EU proactively entered the new millennium and at the 2001 Göteborg European Council stated that the Eastern applicant states “should [have] participat[ed] in the European Parliament elections of 2004 as members”[9].

However, while Washington was getting ready to welcome Bush as the new POTUS and Brussels was moving in the direction of “a deeper and wider debate about the future of the European Union”[10], the world was about to change permanently. The New York terroristic attacks of September 2001 shook the international system dramatically and created the opportunity to use the North Atlantic Treaty Article V for the first time in the history of the Alliance. The attacks aimed at the heart of America, at its people and its political centre. In the morning of 11 September 2001, four hijacked aircrafts crashed against the New York-based World Trade Centre, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, and a field in Pennsylvania[11].

The Western world cohesively reacted to the events, sharing America’s pain and sorrow. However, notwithstanding the enormous solidary shown right after the attacks, Europe’s point of view on terrorism slightly diverged from that of the US. Due to their experience with it, the Europeans had a different approach vis-à-vis the terroristic threat imposed by Al Qaeda, before and after the attacks took place. Moreover, Europe’s past was a troubled past, if compared to the more relaxed and safe American history. Terrorism, however, was particularly felt as a primary threat by the Central Eastern Europeans. Being surrounded by countries with a fertile terrain for terrorist groups, the CEECs lived the entire experience more profoundly than their Western counterparts. The Caucasus and Southeastern Europe, for example, posed an asymmetric threat to Hungary[12]. The instability of the Balkan region worried Budapest, that positively welcomed NATO’s readiness to “help deter, defend, disrupt and protect against terrorist attacks directed from abroad, as and where required”[13].

In response to the overwhelming solidarity demonstration from the rest of the world, in his Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, the POTUS invited every nation to join the US in its war against intolerance and violence[14].  Bush addressed one of the main worries the Americans seemed to have and blamed Al Qaeda for the 9/11 bloodshed. In other words, America’s minimalist unilateralism was about to transform into a maximalist and militarist unilateralism.

With little surprise, the CEECs welcomed this surge of responsiveness. Pluralism, tolerance and freedom were three of the main beneficiaries of Washington’s declared war on terror and were three fundamental values that the Eastern Europeans reconquered less than 15 years before. Everything would have been accepted in order to destroy any subtle possibility to see them negated again.

On 12 September 2001, NATO stated its willingness to apply the collective defence clause, regulated in art. V of the North Atlantic Treaty. The Extraordinary European Council of 21 September 2001 reacted to these decisions positively but continued to underline Brussels’ willingness to use diplomatic means as much as possible. On 2 October, the invocation of Article V was confirmed and five days later the Operation Enduring Freedom began. On the basis of Al Qaeda’s geographical administrative location, Washington recognised the Afghan government accountable for the 9/11 events. Osama Bin Laden became the main target of the America-led operation, that began with an aerial campaign managed by Washington and London. After the West’s troubled success at Tora Bora, in January 2002 in his State of the Union speech Bush spoke about the existence of an “axis of evil”[15]: the war on terrorism was expanding its aims and targets, and the civilized western world was about to experience a new, profound, crisis.

The 9/11 terroristic attack had a remarkable effect on the Western world. It shook the international system and brought along a new, dangerous threat. In Europe, however, it had also essential consequences on the relationship between the fifteen EU member states and the thirteen Central Eastern Europeans, willing to enter the EU after 2002.  This divergence was better explained by the US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, when he spoke about the American-perceived divide between new Europeand old Europe[16]. The former, consisting of the V4 and the Vilnius Ten, reacted to the attacks in a more American fashion compared to the latter, that believed war was always the worst viable solution[17].

Washington, on the contrary, was convinced that the war on terror, with the successes obtained in Afghanistan, was only at its beginning[18]. The discoveries made in the country reinforced Bush’s willingness to destroy the threat hiding behind the so-called axis of evil.  The scare provoked by Iraq’s possession of chemical weapons, coupled with the threat of a changing balance of power in the Gulf region led Bush to consider invasion, and on 9 September, the US started deploying tanks in Kuwait to get ready for possible military action in the neighbouring country. As soon as America’s plan to possibly use force against Iraq came out, different reactions showered Europe, divided between those who sustained Washington and those who believed war was avoidable.

Indeed, if the CEECs did not want to upset the US and relax their ongoing integration into NATO and for this reason decided to assist Washington, France and Germany expressed a different view. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made it soon apparent that his country would have not offered any support to America’s campaign against Iraq[19]. The public opinion in Europe shared the same point of view adopted by Paris and Berlin.

However, in the 2003 State of the Union Address, Bush welcomed the necessary steps forward taken in fighting terrorism. The US was ready to call on the UN Security Council to take a harder position vis-à-vis Baghdad’s behaviour and to lead a coalition of willingto act against him, in the case he would not have aligned with the requests of the international community. As a consequence, if war should have been the only means left, the US would have fought it “with the full force and might of the United States military”, and it would have done everything in order to prevail[20].

The idea of acting preventively against the enemy, once found, was entirely shared by the Polish President Kwasniewski. On his visit to the US on 13 January, on the same day London declared it would not have waited for the UN decision to act in Iraq, he stated that a strategy of waiting for the enemy’s actions had to be necessarily avoided. Indeed, the enemy should always be “neutralised before [it] grow[s] in strength”[21]. According to Warsaw, furthermore, the US had an unquestionable leadership in the fight against terrorism and the role that Washington gained at its own expenses must have been preserved, and used to act promptly[22].

The Polish President confirmed his “complete trust”[23]in Bush and at around the same time the POTUS declared his willingness to invade Iraq notwithstanding the UN missing sustain, the Polish Foreign Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz confirmed Poland’s support to the US even without the mandate of the UN Security Council.

Right after these first expressions of solidarity to Washington in its plan to continue fighting terrorism until the threat could have been considered neutralised, Poland, as well as other seven countries, signed the “letter of eight”.On 30 January, 8 NATO members, guided by Blair’s United Kingdom, issued an open letter to confirm their willingness to support the US’ struggle. With the main aim to “safeguard world peace and security”, the eight governments clarified their position about an intervention in Iraq.

Just a week before, Germany and France vocally rejected any involvement in the war. On the same day, Rumsfeld spoke against old Europe, arguing that the centre of gravity in Europe was slowly moving eastwards, meaning that if Germany had been a problem in the past it would not have been a problem in the present. Following the example of the letter of eight, in early February the Vilnius Ten released a new letter addressed to the US, stating their willingness to support Washington in the fight against terrorism in Iraq. This stance deepened the divide in Europe, between the preparation for enlargement taking place in Brussels and the decision of the future members to follow a different path in the ongoing crisis. Prodi distanced himself from the position taken by the CEECs, saddened about their pro-American turn. According to the Head of the Commission, the Easterners were missing the real nature of the Union: what they were about to join was not only an economic Union. Chirac expressed the same worries as Prodi as he harshly criticised the CEECs’ decision to support Washington upon their entrance in the Union. However, Warsaw reacted promptly to Paris’ accusations and, as Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld stated, “France [had] the right to its opinion and Poland [had] the right to decide what is good for it”[24].

Warsaw and Washington, indeed, shared similar political interests and the former was using all its means to demonstrate to its strategic partner its fidelity and trust for the years to come. To a certain extent, Poland tried its best to make sense of the recent NATO enlargement but at the same time it failed in doing the same with the EU, whose eastward opening was about to happen. America, as largely proved until now, meant safety and protection for Warsaw, while the EU was rationality and prosperity: in choosing what to follow, Poland decided to follow its gut over its mind. In fact, as argued by Olef Osica, the Polish government highly evaluated America’s intervention in case of danger for the country and promising its support in that critical moment for Washington seemed the right way to pay for future protection[25].

Moreover, to demonstrate its engagement in following the US’ example in defence, Poland adopted in May 2001 the Program of restructuring, technical modernization and financing of the Polish armed forcesfor the years 2001-2006. Following this trend, in 2004 Poland would have been entering a Union whose military spending had been declining for years[26]. On this matter, Europe diverged drastically from America and, in turn, Poland. As Robert Kagan illustrates, the European integration “was not based on military deterrence or the balance of power” but “the miracle came from the rejection of military power and of its utility as an instrument of international affairs”[27]. Hence, just few months before the Athens Summit, a drift in the relations between the EU and the future members complicated the prospect of future membership.

After the American release of the list of countries belonging to the so-called “coalition of the willing” on 18 March, two days later Washington began the invasion of Iraq. On the same day, Prodi’s statement on Iraq resonated from Brussels to Washington. The President of the Commission underlined the disruptive potential of the war “for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, for the European Union as a whole, for the authority of the UN, for NATO, and for transatlantic relations”[28]. Again, Prodi harshly referred to the different paths taken by EU member states, since the EU could have made “an effective contribution to peace in the world only if its nations pull[ed] together within the European Union”[29].

The Union reacted to the start of the war coherently with the stance it took since the beginning. Indeed, as soon as the aerial campaign began, working closely to the UN, the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Poul Nielson, publicly announced the allocation of €21 million in humanitarian aid for Iraq[30]. The day after, on 21 March, Brussels authorised an emergency relief program with the help of the Red Cross[31]. At the European Council, furthermore, the commitment “to the territorial integrity, the sovereignty, the political stability and the full and effective disarmament of Iraq” was again confirmed as well as the central role Brussels wanted the UN to have[32].

At the same time, in Washington Bush met the Cabinet and the press and concentrated his attention mainly on how his country was performing in the conflict[33].

The huge and always growing set of differences between the US and the EU becomes even clearer looking at the two key documents released by the two in September 2002 and December 2003 respectively. In its European Security Strategy the Union sought to photograph the security environment in which the EU played as an international actor. The same was done by the National Security Strategy of the United States, which was more than ever focused on America’s role of a resilient and exceptional victim of a new, crawling threat. The two documents, however, particularly highlighted the differences between the way the two were dealing with the threats they were facing. First of all, the EES never refers to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and North Korea as rogue states but prefers a lighter definition, such as that of failed states. However, and most importantly, both strategies concentrate on the challenges posed by terrorism. For the EU terrorism must be dealt with a mixture of instruments, of which the military is only one of the last options. On the contrary and with little surprise, Washington sees military power as the main means to react to such a threat.

According to Brussels, fighting the threats directly to security was not the right way to address the problem. The EU encouraged the international community to understand the latent factors at the basis of these threats and to act on them.

In the East, governments acted vis-à-vis the terroristic menace, leaving a lot of space for their own past and history to come afloat. Even if with a different degree of involvement, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic sustained the American military version of war on terrorism in a desperate quest for protection. Budapest shared in part Poland’s aim and hoped to be, once in the EU, America’s strategic partner. Even in Slovakia’s case, NATO obtained a stronger role than the EU in the country’s security[34].

What happened in the first years of the new millennium paved the way for a critical drift not only in transatlantic politics but mostly in the relationship between the EU and the soon-to-be members of Central Eastern Europe. Just a month before the signing of the Treaty of Accession, the V4 and the Vilnius Ten decided to follow Washington in the fight against the axis of evil, notwithstanding Brussels’ divergent position. France and Germany shockingly witnessed Poland’s proclaimed independent and pro-American foreign policy in the eve of the country’s long-hoped-for entrance into the EU. According to Chirac the stance taken by the CEECs could have only reinforced “an attitude of hostility” over future EU membership.

Only three months before the beginning of the aerial campaign in Iraq, the EU member states and the candidate countries were about to conclude the accession treaty. In Copenhagen they agreed that “the Union [would have] remain[ed] determined to avoid new dividing lines in Europe and to promote stability and prosperity within and beyond the new borders of the Union”[35]. This notwithstanding, the ten new members would have entered the EU while still engaged in a war highly despised by Brussels. The Iraqi war became the theatre of a deep division between the europeist perspective of the European core and the most Atlanticist outlook of the soon-to-be members of the Union.


[1]Mario del Pero, (2007) “L’ultima delle crisi transatlantiche: l’inizio di una nuova era?”, in M. Del Pero e F. Romero (a cura di), Le Crisi Transatlantiche: Continuità e Trasformazioni. Roma, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2007, pp. 111-132.

[2]Mario del Pero, (2007) “L’ultima delle crisi transatlantiche: l’inizio di una nuova era?”, in M. Del Pero e F. Romero (a cura di), Le Crisi Transatlantiche: Continuità e Trasformazioni. Roma, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2007, pp. 111-132.

[3]Robert Kagan, “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the new World Order”, (Vintage Books, Random House: New York), 2003.


[5]“During Gulf War, Polish agents saved 6 American spies”, New York Times, New York, New York Times, 18 January 1995, pg. A4.


[7]Tom Lansford and Blagovest Tashev, “Old Europe, new Europe and the US: renegotiating transatlantic security in the post 9/11 era”, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2005).

[8]The Vilnius Ten (or Vilnius Group) was an organization of NATO aspirant countries, made up by Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

[9]European Council of Göteborg, Presidency Conclusions, 15 and 16 June 2001.

[10]Official Journal of the European Communities (2001), Treaty Of Nice: Amending The Treaty On European Union, The Treaties Establishing The European Communities And Certain Related Acts, C 80/1, 10 March.

[11]See Tom Lansford and Blagovest Tashev, “Old Europe, new Europe and the US: renegotiating transatlantic security in the post 9/11 era”, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2005).

[12]Tamas Barnoczky (Liutenant Colonel) (2004), “Hungarian NATO Membership After 11 September 2001”, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Carlisle,  3 May.


[14]Office of the Press Secretary , Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., 20 September 2001.

[15]Text of President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, The Washington Post, 29 January 2002.

[16]US Department of Defence, Secretary Rumsfeld Briefs at the Foreign Press Center, 22 January 2003.

[17]“France and Germany unite against Iraq war”, London, The Guardian, 22 January 2003.

[18]Text of President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, The Washington Post, 29 January 2002.

[19]Geir Lundestad, From “Empire” by Invitation to Transatlantic Drift, in, Lundestad G. (ed.), The United States and Western Europe since 1945, (Oxford, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003), pp. 215-34.


[21]President Aleksander Kwaśniewski pays a working visit to USA, 13 January 2003.,38,president-aleksander-kwasniewski-pays-a-working-visit-to-usa.html. Accessed on 3 February 2019.


[23]Olaf Osica, “Poland: A New European Atlanticist at a Crossroads?”, European Security, 13:4, 301-322, 2004.


[25]Olaf Osica, “Poland: A New European Atlanticist at a Crossroads?”, European Security, 13:4, 301-322, 2004.

[26]Tom Lansford and Blagovest Tashev, “Old Europe, new Europe and the US: renegotiating transatlantic security in the post 9/11 era”, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2005).

[27]Pg 59 of Robert Kagan, “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the new World Order”, (Vintage Books, Random House: New York), 2003.

[28]European Commission (2003), Press Release Database, Brussels, 23 March.


[30]European Commission, Press Release Database, Conflict in Iraq: Commission sets aside EUR 21 million of humanitarian funding for possible victims, Brussels, 20 March 2003.

[31]European Commission, Press Release Database, Iraq: Commission provides details of immediate humanitarian relief through the Red Cross (EUR 3 million), Brussels, 21 March 2003.

[32]European Council of Brussels, Presidency Conclusions, 24 and 25 October 2002.

[33]The White House, President Discusses Beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Radio Address Archive, 22 March 2003.

[34]Tom Lansford and Blagovest Tashev, “Old Europe, new Europe and the US: renegotiating transatlantic security in the post 9/11 era”, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2005).

[35]European Council, One Europe, SN 369/02, Copenhagen, 13 December 2002.

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