March 9, 2005 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Truths of Power

It's been almost a full year since Spanish voters re jected the chosen successor of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Aznar had cultivated a warm relationship with President Bush and committed troops to Iraq - and Spain went to the polls just days after a vicious terrorist strike.

But Aznar's having no second thoughts about his policies or America's dominant role in the world.

On the contrary, in a recent visit to The Post, Aznar said he sees American power as more important than ever, especially considering the independent, "soft power" foreign-policy agenda being pushed by Europe's dominant powers, France and Germany.

Aznar continues to buck Europe's prevailing (liberal) wisdom. In fact, he believes that it's Europe that needs the U.S. now more than ever - not the other way around.

Aznar's attitude is refreshing, if not surprising.

Remember that a year ago this Friday, al Qaeda operatives brutally attacked Madrid commuter trains with 10 bombs, killing 191 people. The attacks stunned the world . . . and, just days later, sent Aznar's popular, right-of-center government down to defeat in national parliamentary elections.

Aznar's successor, socialist Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero, quickly withdrew 1,300 Spanish troops from Iraq, cooled relations with Washington and lowered Madrid's high international profile.

For its part, al Qaeda could claim a small, but significant, series of victories: It had cracked the Iraqi Coalition, helped bring down Aznar's pro-American government and deepened the ongoing transatlantic estrangement.

But having survived a 1995 Basque ETA terrorist attack himself, Aznar isn't one for going soft on terrorism - or America. In fact, today he appears more convinced than ever of the importance of the transatlantic relationship and America's role in the world.

And for good reason: A number of European powers now downplay the need for military "hard power," while overselling the efficacy of diplomatic and economic "soft power" in resolving global challenges, such as Iran's nuclear-weapons program.

Europe's declining defense budgets and military capabilities are eroding its potential global influence. Europe cannot guarantee its own security, in Aznar's opinion, much less guarantee the security of others.

He's also deeply concerned about European "unilateralism" - a growing inclination (and French obsession) to go it alone, without the United States. Aznar views this approach as counterproductive to European interests.

In Aznar's calculus, European "soft power" alone - no longer pairing itself with America's military might - won't be sufficient for Europe to maintain (much less increase) its global influence.

Aznar's absolutely right on these accounts. And, fortunately, the intellectual chasm between U.S. and European views may actually be closing.

The narrowing of the divide isn't due to the recent diplomatic charm offensives by both sides, though they certainly didn't hurt. But what's really making a big difference in mending U.S.-European ties are a number of far more dramatic events: Lebanon's Cedar Revolution; Elections in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia; talk of political openings in Egypt; Syrian promises to withdraw from Lebanon, and Iranian nuclear negotiations.

It's starting to dawn on European "soft power" advocates that military "hard power" isn't passé after all. Even France's newspaper, Le Figaro, has now asked the once-unthinkable question about Iraq: "What if Bush was right?"

It's reasonable to conclude that American (and Coalition) "hard power" in Afghanistan and Iraq is - at least partly - responsible for sparking the mind-boggling, positive changes that parts of the Arab and Muslim world are experiencing today.

Make no mistake: The ability to back up "soft power" with the credible threat of "hard power" makes a big difference in international affairs, especially when dealing with prickly states like Iran, Syria or North Korea. Europe seems to have forgotten this important canon of international affairs.

Perhaps, equally important is that the success of American efforts in the Arab and Muslim world is changing European minds about President Bush and the wisdom of his brand of forward-leaning American foreign policy.

A greater appreciation for the White House's approach will not only bridge the transatlantic divide, but will hopefully result in greater U.S.-European consultation, coordination and cooperation on a broad range of international issues, from Burma to Zimbabwe.

And, finally, perhaps, the Europeans, will come around to sharing Aznar's fuller understanding that a strong America and a strong transatlantic relationship will amplify - not diminish - Europe's voice on the global stage.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post