Cameron and Obama

European Hawks, American Doves

Not so long ago, Europe restrained America. Now, it urges us toward intervention. Peter Beinart on how we switched places with our allies across the Atlantic.

05.14.13 8:45 AM ET

Once upon a time, skittish European leaders came to Washington to warn their trigger-happy American counterparts about the dangers of war. Not anymore. Yesterday at the White House, Barack Obama hosted British Prime Minister David Cameron, who—along with French President François Hollande—has for months been pushing to arm Syria’s rebels. Earlier this year, France dragged a reluctant Obama administration into supporting its intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali. And in 2011, Team Obama at first declined to embrace a British and French push for a no-fly zone in Libya (before ultimately assisting in the war that drove Muammar Gaddafi from power).

Since when did the cheese-eating surrender monkeys on the other side of the pond change their spots? Actually, they haven’t. It’s we who’ve changed.

Despite the stereotypes sometimes peddled by American jingoists, Britain and France have not spent the last decade practicing pacifism. In 2000, Britain sent troops to Sierra Leone to prevent rebels from overrunning the capital. In 2002, France sent troops to quell unrest in Côte d’Ivoire. Together, Britain and France have lost over 500 troops in Afghanistan.

The first reason for British and French hawkishness is historical. Sierra Leone was once a British colony. Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Syria are former colonies of France. Libya was an Italian colony, but France has long seen all of North Africa as its backyard. And both London and Paris feel a special obligation to uphold human rights and public safety (or neo-imperial domination, depending on your point of view) in nations and regions they once controlled.

The second reason stems from more recent history: the Balkan genocides of the 1990s. David Cameron spent his early years in government watching another Tory prime minister, John Major, dither as Serbian militias, backed by the government in Belgrade, raped, murdered, and expelled tens if not hundreds of thousands of Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars. Richard Gowan, a European politics expert at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, notes that at the highest levels of today’s British government “the memory of Bosnia is really strong.” Cameron’s chief of staff, Edward Llewellyn, worked in the former Yugoslavia in the years following the war. And Cameron mentions Bosnia a lot. In 2011, in advocating military action in Libya, he noted that “many say we have to learn the lesson of Iraq. But we also have to learn the lesson of Bosnia.” This March, he told Parliament that “some of the arguments that were being made about not putting more weapons into Syria … seemed to me to be very familiar to the discussions we had about Bosnia.”

According to the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who himself played an outsized role in the West’s war in Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was deeply influenced by the Balkans as well. Sarkozy “was in favor intimately, in his heart, of intervention in Bosnia,” Lévy told Fareed Zakaria, and “had this sort of guiltiness since [for] years and years.” Sarkozy has hinted as much, telling European leaders during a debate over intervention in Libya, “Think of Bosnia. Journalists said ‘Where is Europe?’” Since defeating Sarkozy last May, Hollande has upheld the same interventionist spirit on Syria.

So if British and French hawkishness is nothing new, what’s changed in the United States? Obviously, Iraq and Afghanistan have created a deep intervention fatigue. Foreign policy has faded from public discussion, and the military is trying to slash costs and pivot to Asia at the same time. In addition, while administration officials like Samantha Power were deeply shaped by the Balkan wars, President Obama himself—who unlike his French and British counterparts did not serve in national government in the 1990s—seems to have been relatively unaffected. A search of The Audacity of Hope turns up only one, fleeting, reference to Bosnia.

This transatlantic shift can be exaggerated. Germany, Europe’s most powerful country, doesn’t share France and Britain’s eagerness for humanitarian intervention. And leaders in Paris and London know that unless they prod the United States into backing military action, there’s little they can do on their own.

Still, as Cameron visits the White House, it’s worth remembering that Americans aren’t always hawks and Europeans aren’t always doves, no matter what they say on Fox News.