The Blog

A Two-Tier Alliance

Germany and France undermine NATO.

12:00 AM, Apr 2, 2008 • By NILE GARDINER
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AS THE 26 leaders of the NATO Alliance gather in Bucharest this week for the organization's 59th summit, there will be simmering tensions between the United States and what Donald Rumsfeld memorably described in 2003 as "Old Europe." As the Bucharest meeting will show, the traditional rifts between Germany and France and America on some of the biggest foreign policy questions of the day is still firmly in place. The notion that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy are ushering in a new era of transatlantic cooperation, with Europe and the United States walking hand in hand solving the world's problems is a romanticized fiction that bears little relation to reality.

It is true that the venomous anti-Americanism of Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac has been replaced by a softer and subtler message, and the rhetoric coming from the Chancellery and the Elysee Palace is less openly hostile, but the harsh fact remains that France and Germany's foreign and domestic policies are largely unchanged. The United States and the Franco-German axis are still worlds apart on the war on terror, Iraq, Russia, the Middle East Peace process, global warming, trade, economic policy, and social and religious outlook. Public opinion in both countries is still overwhelmingly anti-American, a long-term trend that will almost certainly outlast the Bush administration. Only on the issue of Iran has there been a significant shift in policy in the case of France, with Sarkozy advancing a tough message to the Mullahs of Tehran. Germany has been far less willing however to support a rigorous sanctions regime against Tehran, with 5,000 German companies still operating there.

The French and Germans remain the dominant powers in Brussels, the administrative center of the European Union, and are the driving force behind the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy and European Security and Defense Policy. Like their predecessors, both Sarkozy and Merkel remain committed to what is commonly known as "the European Project," or the drive towards ever closer union within the EU.

Both leaders are champions of the new European Union Reform Treaty (Treaty of Lisbon) which is to all intents and purposes a reheated European Constitution, almost the same document that the French and Dutch publics emphatically rejected in referenda two years ago. The Treaty is a blueprint for a European superstate, with proposals for a long-term EU president, an EU foreign minister, a European diplomatic corps, a pan European magistracy, and a federal EU police force. Nicolas Sarkozy might not talk of the EU as a rival pole of power to the United States on the world stage, as his Gaullist predecessors did, but in practice his European policies advance exactly the same goal, with an even more distinctly protectionist bent.

On his trip to London last week, the new French president spoke warmly of his British neighbors and declared a new era in Anglo-French relations. In reality however, both sides distrust each other, and the British still remain far closer militarily, culturally, and economically to the United States than they do to their Gallic cousins. In contrast, Franco-German cooperation within the EU advances at every level in international organizations, from the United Nations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Indeed it is not uncommon for Paris and Berlin to be represented by a single official at the negotiating table, jointly representing the two power's interests.

Unsurprisingly, Germany and France have joined forces this week to oppose President Bush's proposal to bring pro-Western Ukraine and Georgia into NATO's Membership Action Plan, a critical first step towards the admission of the two former Soviet satellites into the Alliance. Chancellor Merkel, backed by Paris, has threatened to use her veto if the Americans push ahead with the issue. Her spokesman has cited Russia's "legitimate security concerns" as the key reason for Berlin's opposition, in effect giving Moscow a huge and unacceptable say over NATO's internal affairs. Germany's weak-kneed approach towards the Russians sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to derail any further expansion of the alliance beyond Albania, Croatia and Macedonia.