In Other Words

Is Europe Too Cautious?

Esprit(Spirit), No. 297, August-September 2003, Paris After stripping away the rhetoric, the differences between the United States and France over the use of force in Iraq came down to contrasting perceptions of, and tolerances for, risk. The Bush administration argued that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein outweighed the risk that his ouster would provoke ...

Esprit(Spirit),
No. 297, August-September 2003, Paris

After stripping away the rhetoric, the differences between the United States and France over the use of force in Iraq came down to contrasting perceptions of, and tolerances for, risk. The Bush administration argued that the threat posed by Saddam Hussein outweighed the risk that his ouster would provoke further instability in the Middle East. The French government argued that the dangers of war — such as postwar chaos and increased terrorism — outweighed the likely benefits.

This difference reflects a broader divide. Buoyed by a greater confidence in technology, Americans seem more willing than Europeans — especially the French — to employ innovations that carry potential environmental or health risks, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A collection of essays on "Risks and Precaution" in the French journal Esprit underscores that the French (and many other Europeans) tend to be more prudent, evaluating new technologies based on the "precautionary principle," which echoes the old adage of medicine: First, do no harm.

For 71 years, Esprit has explored timely issues — from fascism and communism to feminism and the welfare state — with an eclectic mix of humanist, communitarian, and religious perspectives. In that tradition, the essays address risk and precaution from several angles that highlight a larger trans-Atlantic divide.

In "Why Do We Need the Precautionary Principle?" Mark Hunyadi of the Geneva-based Biosafety Interdisciplinary Network defines the logic of the principle. "When there is a reasonable presumption of an unreasonable risk," he writes, "the absence of scientific certitude with respect to the risk’s realization should not be a pretext to delay the adoption of measures aiming to limit or eliminate the risk." In other words, policy should mitigate even unproven risks. Asserting that deliberative democracies can best employ the precautionary principle, Hunyadi proposes public forums where "groups can mobilize themselves to debate the technological choices that confront society." The precautionary principle would thereby guarantee equitable conditions for decision making without prejudicing the outcome — a typically French emphasis on political process over substance.

Contrasting European and U.S. perspectives on risk are evident in discussions of balancing economic growth with environmental protection. In "Sustainable Development Against the Precautionary Principle?" Philippe Mongin of the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique explains that, although the 1992 Rio Summit on the Environment and Development endorsed the precautionary principle, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg watered it down a decade later. Mongin attributes this change to the rejection of the principle by the United States, developing countries, and business groups, which oppose restraints on economic growth. The European Union (EU) and France, however, support applying the principle as a check on development, both in their own countries and overseas. The EU’s Maastricht Treaty establishes the principle as the basis for European environmental policies, and the French cabinet recently approved a proposal by French President Jacques Chirac to enshrine it in the nation’s constitution.

The precautionary principle has also affected debates over molecular biology and genetics. In "Research on Human Stem Cells: What Is the Ethical Approach?" Anne Fagot-Largeault, chair of Philosophy of Biological and Medical Sciences at the Collège de France, worries that "therapeutic enthusiasm will push researchers to attempt audacious medical strategies before having learned to master the risks" of stem-cell research. Similarly, a report in 2000 by the European Commission’s Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies concluded that a "principle of prudence" dictates that it would be "premature" to create human embryos for research purposes. In practice, however, European countries’ policies on stem-cell research range from the prohibition of any research on embryos in Ireland to the authorization of creating embryos for research in Britain. U.S. federal policy falls between these extremes following U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to allow research only on embryonic stem-cell lines created before the summer of 2001. On GMOs, the trans-Atlantic gap is clearer: The EU has firmly opposed their use while the United States has aggressively promoted them worldwide.

For all the uncertainties that these issues present, one trend is clear: The emergence of the precautionary principle as an ideological battleground bodes ill not only for the resolution of scientific disputes, but for the health of trans-Atlantic ties. In fact, policymakers on both sides of the ocean might be well advised to apply the principle to the U.S.-European relationship: Just because the risks of its strains remain unknown does not mean that policymakers should fail to address them.

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