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Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2003

Trans-Atlantic arrogance defeats unity


LONDON -- One of the most depressing features of the past few weeks has been the arrogance displayed by political leaders. With some leaders, power goes to their heads. They are surrounded by sycophantic underlings and protected by posses of security guards. The media are bludgeoned by press offices who hand out stories to the advantage of their bosses, who themselves generally read only what feeds their inflated egos.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is, of course, the most extreme example of the arrogance of power. Ruthless and self-serving, he has oppressed the Iraqi people for decades and cruelly eliminated his opponents. In the Far East he is matched by Kim Jong Il, whose regime in North Korea -- tragically for the rest of the world -- either already possesses several nuclear weapons or is now developing them.

Another on a shortlist of people who would not be missed is Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who starves his people and uses every trick against his opponents. I don't think that there was anyone in Britain who did not squirm and wish to spit when they saw Mugabe, whose regime has so blatantly flouted human rights, received by French President Jacques Chirac in Paris at his African summit when he should have been banned from traveling to Europe.

Everyone was disgusted that Mugabe and his entourage were put up in the wing of a luxury hotel at French expense, while Mrs. Mugabe indulged herself with a shopping spree in the expensive shops of Paris and demonstrations against him were put down by heavy-handed French police.

Other arrogant politicians fall into a different category. They are not dictators; they are not starving their people, putting them in concentration camps or torturing and killing their opponents. But by their arrogance they do make it more difficult to achieve unity and sensible solutions to the dangerous problems we all face.

In Europe, Chirac is surely No. 1 in arrogance. Ever since his re-election last year and the defeat of the socialists, his self-confidence has grown hugely. He seems to have forgotten that he only won the election because no sensible voter could possibly vote for Jean-Marie Le Pen, his far-right opponent in the runoff. He was elected not because the French people necessarily backed his policies, but for faute de mieux. He now seems to see himself as another Charles de Gaulle with an ego growing to Napoleonic proportions.

His arrogant behavior in laying down the law and upbraiding anyone who disagrees or criticizes him has made him many enemies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Belgian Prime Minister sided with him over Iraq, but his outspoken attack on new EU candidate nations from east and central Europe for supporting the solidarity of the British, Spanish and Italian prime ministers with the Americans left a nasty taste even among his friends. When he threatened that if they did not toe the French line, France might not ratify the agreement admitting them to the union, he surely overreached himself.

Many in Britain have begun to ask whether he aims to destroy the EU, NATO and the authority of the United Nations. I don't think so, but his behavior undoubtedly undermines all three institutions. As a Francophile, I deplore the way in which Chirac has stirred up anti-French sentiment in Britain by his lack of humility and "I know I am right" attitude. The French cultural heritage should encourage rational debate, but Chirac prefers to appeal to emotion rather than to reason.

Perhaps the only excuse for Chirac has been the arrogance shown by some on the other side of the Atlantic, particularly U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His capacity for making provocative statements and diplomatic gaffes has been frequently demonstrated.

His attempt to divide Europe into "old Europe" (essentially France and Germany) -- which, he asserts, comprise the appeasers -- and "new Europe" -- whose members generally support the American line -- has infuriated many European friends of America as well as many people in Europe who do not necessarily agree with the American line. Recalling that Rumsfeld was quite ready in the past to support Iraq against Iran, they see him as the leading American warmonger. His attitude has also made reasoned debate more difficult and fueled anti-American sentiment in Europe.

We should not, however, allow the behavior and rantings of men like Chirac and Rumsfeld and the emotions that they arouse to distract us from the real issues. If Hussein does not disarm within weeks, action will have to be taken to remove him. It is important, for the sake of U.N. credibility and its ability to help find peaceful solutions to other conflicts, that action be taken with U.N. backing.

Maintenance of NATO unity is essential for European peace and security, and all NATO countries should strive to reach a reasonable consensus. EU enlargement needs to go ahead smoothly if the process toward a united and peaceful Europe is to be continued. No sensible leader in Europe or North America would disagree with these objectives. It is therefore all the more important that those in power should exercise restraint in what they say, and should tame their arrogance.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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