The Magazine

Continental Divide

America needs a serious Europe policy.

Jun 9, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 38 • By MAX BOOT
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A VISITOR TO NATO headquarters can be forgiven some momentary disorientation. Braced for NATO's rumored imminent demise, he is met instead with boasts of its Jack La Lanne-like vigor.

Today's euphoria results from several developments--above all, the agreement between the United States, France, Germany, and Russia that resulted in the Security Council's lifting sanctions on Iraq and giving a U.N. imprimatur to the Anglo-American occupation. This is seen as ending the prewar rift that reached a crisis point over France and Germany's initial refusal to aid Turkey. Less noticed is the agreement by the North Atlantic Council to assume peacekeeping duties in Kabul and to provide logistical and planning support that will enable Poland to manage a sector of occupied Iraq.

NATO officials are so giddy over how well things are going that they openly speculate about new missions--perhaps even policing an accord between Israelis and Palestinians. The Group of Eight summit in Evian, France, is designed to showcase the transatlantic reconciliation.

Alas, this era of good feeling is unlikely to last. The gaps in capabilities and perceptions between the Europeans and Americans remain vast and daunting.

The United States, which spends more on defense than the rest of NATO combined, has long importuned its allies to carry their own weight. But the Continent's anemic economic performance, soaring budget deficits, and aging populations make a major reversal unlikely. So does Europe's distinctive perception of the world. The Europeans still don't understand how deeply 9/11 has changed our outlook. They are not exactly oblivious to the danger--they have provided good cooperation on law enforcement operations against terrorism--but they still place their faith in international law over military action, engagement over confrontation. Suspicions of American "unilateralism" run deep on a continent where the most widely read commentator on U.S. foreign policy appears to be Noam Chomsky.

Much as French and German officials may try to be more diplomatic and constructive since the Iraq war, their sullenness emerges. Dominique de Villepin, France's Napoleonic foreign minister, maintains that only the anti-Iraq war views of Pope John Paul II and President Jacques Chirac saved the world from a cataclysmic "clash of civilizations." He makes no secret of his desire to see the European Union balance the American "hyperpower." Indeed the leaders of Belgium, France, Germany, and Luxembourg recently met to discuss the creation of an E.U. military force entirely separate from NATO.

It's easy to dismiss such posturing with a French joke. (But be warned--French officials think they are the victims of intolerable ethnic slurs, akin to anti-Semitism, from les anglo-saxons!) And, luckily, French highhandedness rankles fellow Europeans too. But Chirac and de Villepin are convinced that they speak with the true voice of Europe--and based on public opinion polls, they may be right.

The recent Iraq war was wildly unpopular even in the 18 European nations whose governments basically supported the U.S. position. There is a good chance that pro-American governments will fall in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. In France, no major party offers an alternative to the regnant Gaullism. In Germany, it is striking that the Christian Democratic Union, formerly the most pro-American of parties, did little to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat, while he thumbed his nose at Uncle Sam.

We can't necessarily count on nationalist rivalries to stymie the Paris-Berlin axis in the future, because national polities will count for less and less as the European Union becomes increasingly centralized. While Americans are focused on more important matters like the NBA finals and the opening of "The Matrix Reloaded," a European constitutional convention is completing its work. The principal drafter of the new basic law is former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, and his work is unlikely to warm the heart of anyone who doesn't eat snails.

One of Giscard's ambitions, in line with longtime French foreign policy, is to increase the likelihood that Europe will speak with "one voice" in foreign and defense policy. Whether that's good or bad from an American perspective depends on what the voice says. The optimistic line is that Gaullism will be stifled in a new, expanded European Union, with Poland, Spain, Britain, and other states combining to form a solidly pro-American bloc. This view holds, essentially, that Europe will be Anglicized. The pessimistic alternative is that greater E.U. integration will turn the entire continent into a Francophone zone. The fear here is that Britain, with its traditional ambivalence toward the continent, will never emerge as the leader of Europe. Instead, Germany and France will muscle the smaller states into line.