The Magazine

Europe 1, France 0

Jacques Chirac's imperious overreach.

Mar 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 24 • By MAX BOOT
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WE INTERRUPT the latest bout of hand-wringing over the fate of the Atlantic Alliance with an important news flash: The United States won a significant victory last week in its long-term quest to ensure that Europe remains a friend, not a competitor.

Jacques Chirac, like every one of his predecessors since Charles de Gaulle, has been trying to turn Europe into a rival power center to balance the American "hyperpower." His latest ploy was to try to rally European states against America's Iraq policies. This would seem a no-brainer given the virtual unanimity in European public opinion against a war in Iraq. But Chirac got a little too cocky, a little too ambitious, and, like Napoleon on the road from Moscow, suddenly saw his Grande Armée disintegrate.

First, the leaders of eight major European countries, including Britain, Poland, Spain, and Italy, signed a letter published in the Wall Street Journal reaffirming "a relationship with the U.S. which has stood the test of time." Then ten Eastern European states known as the Vilnius Ten issued a statement of support for the Bush administration's attempts to confront "the clear and present danger posed by Saddam Hussein's regime."

Poor Paris seemed to have only two friends left--Germany and Belgium, the former because Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was reelected on a hard-line antiwar stance, the latter because it has traditionally been France's poodle. For a month, this feckless trio blocked a resolution to let NATO plan for the defense of Turkey in the event of an Iraq war. But even Germany and Belgium jumped ship when the United States and its friends moved the Turkey decision out of the North Atlantic Council, where France has a seat, to the Defense Planning Committee, where France isn't represented (thanks to de Gaulle's 1966 decision to pull out of NATO's command structure). With not even his ami Schröder supporting him in the end, Chirac was pretty well isolated.

Nor did France get satisfaction from the emergency European Union summit called last week by Greece, which holds the E.U. presidency, to formulate a joint position on Iraq. The resulting statement was a compromise, which reaffirmed the primacy of the U.N. in dealing with Saddam Hussein, as France wanted, but also cautioned that "inspections cannot continue indefinitely," contrary to the de facto French policy.

Clearly this wasn't to the liking of the choleric Chirac. Afterwards, he lashed out at the Eastern European states that had challenged his enlightened leadership. "They missed a great opportunity to shut up," the petulant president snarled, adding that those who crossed him were guilty of "childish" and "dangerous" behavior. He even threatened to torpedo E.U. membership for the Eastern Europeans in retaliation. In other words, he told them: L'Europe, c'est moi.

This public bullying left many Eastern Europeans wondering if they were back in the Warsaw Pact. "We are not joining the E.U. so we can sit and shut up," the Czech foreign minister angrily retorted. Tony Blair was quick to defend the spat-upon Easterners: "I hope no one is suggesting that they should be anything but full members of the European Union and perfectly entitled to express their views."

Pass the popcorn; this is more entertaining than "Joe Millionaire."

Yet some of our foreign policy mandarins are now warning darkly of crumbling transatlantic unity and a setback for the entire West. The cover of a recent Economist showed a torn-up landmass labeled "The West." Calm down, fellas. The only thing that's coming apart is France's power grab, and its failure provides a great opening for Britain to lead the rest of the continent in a different direction--more free-market, more decentralized, and more closely aligned with Washington.

But won't this mean the end of NATO, as many analysts warn? It depends on which NATO you're talking about. NATO the military alliance has been dead for years, if it was ever alive. The Kosovo conflict in 1999 showed it's virtually impossible to wage war effectively when any one of 19 nations (soon to be 26) has a veto on all targeting decisions. That's why, even after NATO invoked its Article V mutual-defense provision following September 11, the United States refused to turn Afghanistan into an alliance war. The boost to Europe's ego, the administration calculated, would not have been worth the price in lost military effectiveness.