The Magazine

Continental Drift

Europe gets even less serious.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By GERARD BAKER
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It is four years this month since the 60-year-old transatlantic alliance, the pillar of European security, the bridge uniting the two great centers of Western civilization, nearly collapsed amid the diplomatic traumas that preceded the Iraq war. Four years later--with the United States mired in a messy and still inconclusive war, and European governments anxious not to repeat the missteps that threatened potentially ruinous rifts on their own, historically fractious, continent--there is much optimistic talk about a revived alliance. Diplomats on both sides say, and many even seem to believe, that the transatlantic partnership has been brought back from the brink, and is once again playing a central role in global security. They speak of progress in transatlantic efforts to defuse Iran's nuclear program, to bring a lasting peace to Lebanon, and to move the Balkans steadily toward a lasting stability.

The Bush administration, which in the pre-Iraq period seemed to go out of its way to poke Europeans in the eye, has in the last few years been whispering sweet nothings into their ears. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Atlantic Council in Washington last month that all was unity and peace again: "I think I can say with great confidence, and I think most European diplomats would say the same, that [the] alliance is now back together again."

In Europe, the public version is that the two sides have indeed converged, and that areas of agreement now far outweigh in number and importance areas of contention. In private, Europeans will tell you, with undisguised glee, that the reason things are calm again is that they have won all their arguments against the now battered and worn-out Bush administration. They note that a majority of Americans now share their view that the United States should never have gone to war in Iraq. They say that the brutal political realities of Iraq have induced a change of tone and substance from the White House since those rough days of 2002-03.

Events in the last few months give a hint of how much American policy has evolved towards Europe's. The cash-for-nuclear-suspension deal with North Korea is deemed a belated but welcome shift back to U.S. multilateralism. Talks concerning Iraq's future, with Syrians and Iranians participating, are planned for the weekend of March 10 in Baghdad and taken as further proof that the United States has gone all European. E.U. diplomats hear, perhaps strangest and sweetest of all, the gentle music of concern about global warming emanating from the White House.

Many of the personae that dominated the drama four years ago have exited. On the U.S. side the removal of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary last November was, for Europeans, the next best thing after the near-miss of John Kerry's election in 2004. But in Europe, too, Rumsfeld's principal antagonists have largely left the stage. Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, has gone on to pursue more lucrative opportunities with his friends in Moscow, replaced by the profoundly Atlanticist Angela Merkel. In France, Jacques Chirac is entering the final two months of a calamitous presidency, derided and unmourned. The narrow favorite to replace him is Nikolas Sarkozy, a man who, if his past is any guide to his future, is the nearest French politics has to an Americophile. Tony Blair may be exiting to a chorus of Iraq-inspired boos in Britain, but no one thinks Gordon Brown, his anointed successor, will significantly change the U.K.'s commitment in Iraq or its centuries-long alliance with Washington.

It's quite easy, then, to endorse the view that what happened a few years ago was all some terrible aberration, an unwelcome but brief interruption in Atlantic unity. And it's hard to dispute that the Europeans are right that America has indeed discovered the perils of unilateralism and finally come again to sample the pacific balm of European multilateralist wisdom. Yet while no one can seriously doubt that the Bush administration has made some catastrophic errors, it would be unwise to invest too heavily in the European model of statesmanship. The brutal reality is that in the last four years, on what matters most to America, Europe has actually become an even less reliable ally than it seemed back in the tumultuous days before the Iraq war. To get a sense of Europe's priorities, and how they are shifting in the new transatlantic environment, consider the tale of two meetings.