News Analysis: For allies, well-tempered sparring

Posted in NATO , United States | 09-Feb-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

MUNICH - A master of excess, Donald Rumsfeld sought this time to be resoundingly lukewarm. Asked just before the opening of the Munich Conference on Security Policy to describe the current state of trans-Atlantic relations, he said, smiley-faced, "fairly normal."

It was the moderate/cautious/mildly consensual public approach to Europe of the U.S. secretary of defense over the weekend. In an election year, a new round of insults and shrillness with old allies like France and Germany over Iraq and how to deal with the dangers of the world would not do the Bush administration much good with American voters, however little they may really care.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, who emotionally battled Rumsfeld in the same hotel conference room a year ago, reciprocated with non-hysterics, saying, "We have to look forward."

Finished was the environmentalist peace-guardian binding himself to a tree of virtue. Twelve months later, for Fischer, the apparent futility of the French and German effort to turn Europe against the Americans on the Iraq war seemed to be a lesson well taken on board, if never to be acknowledged in confessional terms.

But all the willful moderation at the conference Saturday could not hide the mutual skepticism, or the degrees of mistrust and contempt, and plain disagreement running inches below the surface.

The doggedly civil exchange between security officials and experts about how the allies and NATO could combat Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and help install security and modernity in the Middle East came down to a tacit reconsecration of the Alliance's split between those who want to do and those who want to talk.

On the German side, there was an unusually open acknowledgment about "destructive jihadist terrorism with its totalitarian ideology" as the greatest global threat - but by American definition at least, no "do" on Iraq. Zero troops from us, said Fischer. After all, Germany's antiwar position, he insisted three paragraphs into a keynote speech, had been proven right by events.

Rather than offering antiterrorist fighters for the front lines, Fischer called for a joint European-American plan for the Middle East. Elevating talk to complete equality with doing, Fischer claimed that alongside security matters it was "of almost even greater importance" that "social and cultural modernization issues, as well as democracy, the rule of law, women's rights and good governance" get full attention.

Applause (moderate, in keeping with the conference tonality) and mumbling in the audience. Ulrich Weisser, a retired German vice admiral, leaned toward a neighbor and said, "That speech was from Venus," reworking the caricature of Robert Kagan's remark comparing American Martians with European Venusians.

Was Fischer prescribing a division of labor among the allies where the Americans went after the killers and the Europeans spread the peace and re-painted schoolrooms?

Former Senator William Cohen of Maine, a secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, formulated this thought more indirectly and elegantly by wondering, in a question asked of Fischer, how come Germany was not furnishing military assistance in Iraq if stabilization there was the obvious prerequisite to modernization, democracy and Mediterranean free trade zones. Another American asked rhetorically how the allies were to install dialogue and détente with a security threat that is clearly not open to them.

But the Germans were intent on appearing active and full of gabby initiative. While Rumsfeld stuck to saying that NATO showed "a good deal of life," promising that a Mediterranean dialogue would find a place high on the NATO summit meeting in Istanbul in June (and with a little more heat, remembering out loud that his audience in Munich last year included people from countries who said they did not care who won in Iraq), Defense Minister Peter Struck proposed that the Alliance commission a statement on its future at Istanbul.

He called it a "new Harmel report," a reference to a 1967 document that the then West Germany considered a legitimization of its policy of détente toward the Soviet Union. In a sense, Struck seemed to be interested in a reworked mission statement that would bring soft diplomacy an official and respectable place alongside search-and-destroy missions as NATO's zone of geographic preoccupation spread into the Middle East.

Without any elaboration, Struck also advocated "sensible complementarity" between NATO and the European Union's projected military units and coordination between the two concerning their "level of ambition."

What? For Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, that seemed to sound like very willful ambiguity. He said that it was nice to talk about complementarity and Harmel reports, but that unless NATO was Europe's explicit court of first resort in a crisis, "we're on the road to destruction."

Struck gave Scowcroft one of the clearest responses of the weekend. It rivaled Rumsfeld's remark in response to a Palestinian's question about Israel's atomic weapons: that if the Israelis had them it was because they alone had to deal with forces in the Middle East that sought their country's extinction.

"NATO is first choice for me," Struck said. "There's no doubt that NATO is in the forefront."

But that was the German defense minister. A high NATO official said that nothing of like clarity could be expected from France. Indeed, the French defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, in talking about the EU's defense efforts, succeeded rhetorically and without harshness in placing a larval European notion and NATO on exactly the same plane, mighty coequals in a world known only to the imagineers, in Walt Disney's phrase, of France's security-policy think tanks.

All these exchanges - their moderation and their more jagged subtext - wound up without discussion of at least three potentially raw and critical areas of trans-Atlantic disagreement.

In recent weeks, both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Jacques Chirac have said they would like to consider arms sales to China. The U.S. State Department responded disapprovingly, calling this a very poor idea. The EU will probably be asked to consider lifting a ban on weapons deals soon.

At the same time, many in Europe, including a big segment of the Bush administration's conservative friends, do not like the United States' open pressure on the EU to accept Turkey as a candidate member.

They say American involvement feeds the arguments of those who describe U.S. policy as seeking to foil European integration. And they fear that with American strategic goals in the Middle East being of greater interest than pleasing Europe, the Americans will not find a way to back off from aggressive support of the Turks.

Most important, the willful courtesies of the well-mannered sparring in Munich left out the enormous implications of the administration's $401.7 billion defense budget for next year. Senator John McCain did mention in passing that of more than two million Europeans under arms, some 5 percent of them were deployable on really tough assignments.

But this was a weekend when contentiousness was not the intent. Considering the virtually unbridgeable gap in capabilities, nobody had the heart to smudge the occasion by saying that trans-Atlantic solidarity in 2004, to use the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's words, is just no longer a given.