In U.S., mixed prospects for trans-Atlantic ties

Posted in United States | 31-May-05 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON The United States reacted carefully Monday to the French vote against the European constitution, saying that it looked forward to continuing a cooperative relationship with Europe, "however the EU evolves."

But analysts said that the French "no" raised a more worrying concern for the Bush administration, ushering in an uncertain time of weak leadership in nearly every major country in Europe even as the Continent turns decidedly inward.

"The United States will face a rash of weak governments right across Europe," said Charles Kupchan, director of Europe studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Tony Blair is still in power, but very weakened by recent elections. Schröder is virtually a lame duck. Chirac has just been dealt a major blow. Berlusconi's government is teetering on the edge," Kupchan said.

"That's not a rosy picture for an American government that is looking for help on just about every major international issue."

The vote was seen above all as a blistering blow to President Jacques Chirac, with whom the Bush administration has been slowly mending relations strained grievously over the Iraq war.

The U.S. State Department, in a brief statement on the vote, emphasized continuity in trans-Atlantic relations, not concern. The administration has remained aloof from the particulars of the constitutional debate.

"We welcome a strong, integrated Europe that is an effective partner for addressing the many challenges we face together," said a State Department spokesman, Noel Clay. "We have such a partnership now with the European Union and expect to continue to build on this relationship, however the EU evolves."

Some in Washington have questioned whether the United States should embrace a more united Europe that could become a counterweight to U.S. interests and a competitor.

And some welcomed the French vote.

"I think the results should be quite good for trans-Atlantic relations because it weakens the most anti-U.S. politician in Europe, namely the French president Jacques Chirac," said Radek Sikorski, executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute. He also said that Chirac had "committed the sin of pride, and it's come back to haunt him."

"Many French seemed to be voting down the constitution because it was not socialistic enough," said Sikorski, a former Polish deputy foreign minister. "But I think the false consciousness you have in France is largely Mr. Chirac's fault, who calls himself a conservative but has done nothing to educate his public about the demands of a competitive global marketplace."

To the extent the vote Sunday was a setback for Chirac, some of his American critics seemed bound to cheer.

"To be honest, France's critics would have had a field day either way," said Philip Gordon, director of the Center on the United States and Europe, at the Brookings Institution.

"If France had voted for the constitution, they would have said, 'There they go again, trying to build a united Europe with a single foreign policy against the United States."' Gordon said. "Now that they've voted against, it's 'They're showing they're nationalistic and short-sighted and not willing to work with others."'

But Gordon sees troubles ahead, even if not in the short term.

"Even though some Americans will welcome a slap in the face to Chirac and a slap to the notion of a counterweight, I think it's a bad outcome. It means a Europe obsessed with itself, victory for anti-globalization forces and a blow against European enlargement."