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.
But NATO the political alliance remains alive and well, despite France's efforts. This NATO will continue to perform two vital functions: integrating Eastern and Southern Europe into the West and integrating the United States into Europe. When a new military mission looms, Washington can pick and choose allies from among NATO members. Germany, for instance, won't support the United States over Iraq but, along with the Netherlands, it is now leading the peacekeeping force in Kabul. It would be nice to add an official NATO imprimatur to this mission (as general secretary George Robertson wants), but it's hardly essential.
The same ad hoc approach also works in the war on terrorism. It is often argued that we can't afford to alienate our allies over Iraq policy because we need their cooperation to disrupt the terror network. But Europeans aren't working against al Qaeda as a favor to Washington; it's in their self-interest to stop terrorists who may well strike on their soil. No matter what happens in the U.N. or NATO, we can expect French, German, and other European intelligence agencies to continue cooperating with the CIA and FBI to uncover Islamist plots.
So what exactly is the cost of frustrating France's designs to take over Europe? Merely this: the possible loss of French support in the U.N. Security Council for another Iraq resolution. Chirac is tossing around veto threats with wild abandon, because he knows this is the only power that his once-great country has left. But it's an odd sort of power, about as substantial as a rainbow, and likely to vanish as quickly. If France were to exercise its first Security Council veto since 1976, the United States would be less likely to seek U.N. support the next time around, and France could kiss its international influence au revoir. This is why some diplomatic hands think Paris will come around in the end to support another U.N. resolution, once it's finished milking the present crisis. It would be fine if France did, but at this point it doesn't much matter. America has already assembled a substantial alliance to support action against Saddam Hussein, including many European nations.
This doesn't mean all is rosy in transatlantic relations. It is troubling to see the off-the-charts unpopularity of Uncle Sam among ordinary Europeans. A recent poll in Der Spiegel found that 53 percent of Germans believe America is the world's greatest threat to peace, as opposed to only 27 percent who think it's Iraq. (Yet Berlin is preparing for a smallpox attack from Iraq, not America.) Clearly the administration needs to do a better job selling its policies on the "European street"; it would help if top officials like Condi Rice and Colin Powell, who have credibility on the Continent, were to travel there more often to explain America's positions. The decline of NATO and the U.N. as useful forums actually might be helpful in this regard, by restoring the diplomatic focus where it should have been all along--on relations between individual countries.
It's also important to provide greater American support to Eastern European states that may be vulnerable to French retaliation. There are many possible ways to do this, such as turning NAFTA into a North Atlantic Free Trade Area, as suggested by John O'Sullivan, or moving U.S. bases from Germany to Eastern and Southern Europe. That will take some time, of course. In the short term, the best approach is what the administration is already doing: giving key European supporters prestige-boosting "face time" with President Bush. The president rushed back to the White House in a snowstorm to meet with Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga last Monday, and this weekend he hosted Spain's prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, at his Texas ranch. Suffice it to say, Chirac and Schröder's invitations to Crawford must be lost in the mail. This may seem juvenile (you dissed me, so I won't invite you to my sleepover), but that's how diplomacy (and high school) works.
The smartest thing the administration can do, however, is to simply stand back and let Chirac be Chirac. To compound his verbal assault on Eastern Europeans, Chirac last week hosted Robert Mugabe in Paris, even while the rest of the E.U. is trying to isolate the discredited dictator of Zimbabwe. The French president is well on his way to an unlikely achievement: making himself more unpopular in some parts of Europe than George W. Bush.
Contributing editor Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."