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Why the US and Europe should say 'Yes!' to Mr Putin

by David Heilbron Price © 20000607


The US wants to build a shield to protect its population from ‘rogue’ states’ ability to launch death-dealing missiles. Western European politicians are hesitant to support this unilateral move.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that instead of a single-nation effort to create an anti-missile shield, Europeans and NATO should collaborate. Mr Putin made this new proposal in Italy, on his first presidential trip abroad. NATO has welcomed this idea.

Many people across the world, Mr Putin said, were worried about undermining the 1972 anti-ballistic missile agreement. It could also set back world security based on agreed rules.

Mr Putin is therefore grabbing the high moral ground by making himself the spokesman for peace through international law. Is he bluffing? Russia is hardly a prize example today of a state governed by the rule of law, nor a spotless democracy. Just the day before Mr Putin's surprise announcement, it was the Americans who seemed to be pointing the finger. Speaking to the Russian Parliament, the Duma, President Bill Clinton urged Russians -- to the resentment of some nationalists -- to put their house in order and build up their fragile law-and-order and human rights institutions.

Europeans, above all, know about -- and are grateful for -- international law. This year the nations of Western Europe (the founders of the European Community) have begun a new adventure into the unknown. Peace. The have experienced the longest period of peace -- 55 years-- in all their long history. They have unlocked a secret.

For the six states that created the European Union, the great period of peace came after the Napoleonic wars in 1815 until the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870. But even in that period of 'peace' many died in battles and revolutions. The first half of the twentieth century soaked the whole continent in blood.

A special form of international law rescued Western Europe from what seemed an inevitable cycle: European Community law. The reconciliation of wartime foes was accomplished through this special type of law. European supranational law provided the means to arbitrate between conflicting national laws, economic interests and reduce barriers. The European Single Market was forged through law between states. It strengthened democratic trends in Germany and other countries.

Why did European law succeed so well when other international law is sometimes no more than a wish list, to be broken when the first state says so?

According to the European Union's founding father and legal innovator, Robert Schuman, it works because it engages not only governments but the solidarity of the people themselves. The governments are engaged because the Union forms not a super-state but a democracy of democracies. The governments agree by majority vote only to what they all consider fair proposals of law. Law is reinforced by means that no other form of international law has: solid institutions and people power including an independent court, and a watchdog European Parliament. Now a myriad of individuals and non-governmental associations can compare facts across internal borders and take governments to court for slack justice.

What is the lesson to learn for Mr Putin? Simply this: if Europe and North America really want lasting peace they have to engage their populations on common goals in a frame of workable, international law. Law and trust can detoxify Cold War attitudes.

The first step can be made relatively easily. In Moscow Presidents Clinton and Putin signed an accord establishing a system to detect missile launches. This could provide the first, already-agreed element, for further cooperation and trust-building. Such a nucleus of collaboration could lead to other peaceful goals: the use of satellites for pacific purposes, reinforcement of joint work on space stations and environmental investigation and climate-change prediction.

However a new path needs to be struck. In the space age it is no longer sufficient that vital matters can be managed only by the centuries-old state treaty system. We need to engage our populations, businesses, and parliaments more fully.

How can this be done? The European Union -- today the greatest trading unit in the world-- began simply as a supranational community in one specific sector: coal and steel. But it had a special parliament for this, a court and other representative bodies. These institutions are now the pillars by which the 370 million people of the Union found the reinforcement of their own democracies and the solidity of the bond that unites.

If we say 'Yes!' to Mr Putin we should also insist that we forge new international, democratic, goal-setting institutions based on the same successful Community method. Russia needs such strengthening rods for its own democracy and fragile rule of law. We can help Russian democrats in the same way that post-Nazi Western Europe had its own dramatic, democratic rebirth. Europeans learnt that reconciliation and learning to trust each other was a better form of security than guns.

Robert Schuman was conscious that the system he had developed in Europe was a new beginning not only for France and Germany but for mankind. He said the Community method was acquired for ever (acquis pour toujours). It is 'an innovation as powerful as a scientific discovery, the result of which will not just remain in its own field but which open up new areas of progress better fitted for the needs of a more mature period of development'.

It can give all the peoples of Europe and North America real hope for the new century.

D Heilbron Price, vice president of the Institut Robert Schuman pour l’Europe, is author of several works on Robert Schuman, including 'New Cold War or Common European Home?' (ISBN: 095 27276 17) He can be contacted at


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