Criticism of U.S. obscures growing disunity on Continent

Posted in Europe , NATO | 20-Jan-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Joint Press Conference US President George W. Bush (left) and former NATO Secretary General, Lord Robertson (right)
What does Europe want? Rhetoric and reality

PARIS This is the second of two articles

Barely a week ago, Peter Struck, the German defense minister, told a political forum in Berlin that Europe must become a world political actor with a determining role, ready for "wide-ranging preventative engagement." That required greater military capabilities, he said.

In the next days, the Defense Ministry said it would cut E26 billion, or $32 billion, from previously budgeted programs to allow Germany's military to fashion itself a kind of global reach. At the least, this looked like a difficult ambition since there was no indication German defense outlays would actually rise from a current level of 1.5 percent of gross national product, about half of West Germany's targets of 25 years ago, and less comparatively than Italy spends now.

This comes in a period of relative estrangement between the United States and parts of Europe, and at a time when the Bush administration continues to see significant political elements in Europe incapable of acting frontally against obvious threats to peace. Opposing this among some of the United States' old allies, there is a description of the administration as both systematically applying power and military solutions to negotiable problems, and being instinctively drawn to the use of the United States' predominant force in every kind of relationship.

The recommended response from the Europeans who regard present-day America in this way is to build the European Union into a credible grouping that can look the United States in the eye from an equal level of political and military power - an undertaking that Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, insists on calling Europe's "emancipation."

"The international emancipation of the European Union is both inevitable and desirable," Verhofstadt wrote. "It means that the European Union develops a credible international policy, which is based on European defense. The United States sees the European defense plans as a threat. To my regret, I've noticed that the United States too often considers" European "integration running counter to its own position of power."

Putting more money into defense, in part because it is said to be America's gauge of respect, and the parallel creation of a real EU common foreign policy are held by the backers of this creed in France and Germany as the essentials in creating what the French call "Europe puissance," or very roughly, Power Europe.

But reality enters here, and it is not certain if its intrusion intensifies or winds down the alienation. The fact is, statements like the German defense minister's on a global political ambition for Europe as a determining player and the German press's description of the country's diminished military spending do not necessarily match up. Neither is there much positive evidence to shore up the idea of a cohesive Europe ready for "wide-ranging preventative engagement" in the implosion of talks on a new EU constitution last month, or last week in the European Commission's decision to take France and Germany and others to court for destroying the EU's Stability and Growth Pact.

This disarray cannot be explained alone by European suspicions of American attempts at disaggregating the EU, or a so-called lack of American respect for European ideals of enlightened environmentalism or the universal primacy of international institutions. Europe's miasma of dissatisfaction with itself in 2003, its palpable nonunity, its public opinion's very vague interest in power, has not disappeared like an old address book with the new year.

Polling over the past two weeks shows that 59 percent of European public opinion, headed by Germany and Italy, considers that the euro, once the EU's most glowing achievement, has disadvantages in comparison with the abandoned national currencies. In France, perhaps because Europe's expansion in May to 25 members signals a sharp decline in French influence, a rising majority of 55 percent now opposes taking the America-friendly countries of the old Soviet bloc into the democracy and modernity of the EU.

Not much surprise then, when a senior administration official in Washington commented that "Europeans' aggravation with the United States is in some ways about their own inability to complete their vision. Their anxiety about us is deflected anxiety. It's not about the U.S. alone. It's about Europe."

But there is something close to startling when Hubert Vedrine, the former French Socialist foreign minister, who in 1998 called the United States under President Bill Clinton a unilateralist hyperpower that needed restraint by a multilateral network of nations, also suggests these days that a serious element of Europe's so-called alienation from America is really a Europe-on- Europe question. To the extent that both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany and President Jacques Chirac of France have pulled back considerably from day-to-day confrontation with the Americans, and have reassured businessmen at home that they are going find big contracts in Iraq after all, this change in tone suggests moderately less spiky circumstances in 2004. European unity, as conceived on both sides of the Rhine, could be becoming less assertively a matter of opposition to the United States than a year ago when the French and Germans appointed themselves, without consultation, the joint EU-voice of confrontation with the Americans. In one of a series of interviews for this article, Vedrine spoke of France's lack of ease with the United States. "There's jealousy," he said. "The United States became what France wanted to be, the universal country. When I criticize the French, I recognize the neurosis here."

As for Europe, although Vedrine wanted it to emerge as an influential pole in a multipolar world, it was "simplistic" to talk of a Europe as a counterweight to the United States. Real cooperation, real partnership was what he believed in, and accepting this, Vedrine said, would represent a real sacrifice by the United States. Besides, he went on, it was "not clear" at all if Europeans wanted to become a power.

"This will change," he said, "if the Europeans ever think one day that their lifestyle is in danger. Otherwise, they don't give a damn."

Indeed, Vedrine considered that all the European demonstrations against the war in Iraq in early 2003 weren't so much tens of thousands shouting for a Power Europe, but Europeans expressing their phobia to the use of force - and in the particular instance, American force.

Egon Bahr, the German geopolitical gadfly who was the architect of Ostpolitik under Willy Brandt, insists these days that Europe's chasing after the United States in an attempt to appear respectable militarily is a pathetic and futile waste of time that actually perpetuates trans-Atlantic tensions and Europe's inferiority complex in relation to the Americans.

He called for a redefinition of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: let America serve as the armed torque in what he called "forcing" peace, and Europe as the mutually recognized central element in "the maintenance of peace."

"That would be a partnership," Bahr said in an article. "It takes in a European independence that is not defined as opposed to but alongside America." This sense of contradiction, of European ambiguity about what Europe does or can do - make peace, for example, but not war - carries into the public opinion surveys that last fall showed Europeans much less confident about American leadership. The polling by the German Marshall Fund, supported in part by American contributors, marked declines in respect for U.S. sagacity even in traditionally Atlanticist countries like the Netherlands and Britain. But other findings in the poll, barely noted in Europe, savaged the premise of deep public support for calls like Struck's for a decisive global role for a Europe bolstered by its own expanded military capability. In the case of Germany, none of the poll's hypotheses that projected the use of international force - responding to terrorist or nuclear threats even with the approval of the UN Security Council, the EU and NATO - got majority support.

In one example, when the German Marshall Fund asked Germans specifically if they would support a Security Council-authorized attack (countries and means unspecified) on Iran to force it to give up weapons of mass destruction, a majority of Germans said they would not. A strong majority in the United States, and much thinner ones in Britain and France, answered that they would. But concerning North Korea in the same circumstances, a UN-sanctioned attack got majority backing in neither France nor Germany.

It is against the psychological backdrop of the issue of how Europe deals with the menace of violence the world over - conscious disengagement or limited responsibility seem to define the parameters of European public opinion on the subject - that the harshest attacks on the United States of President George W. Bush resound.

At their theoretical extreme, to counteract America's course there is a call for a literal union of France and Germany. This alliance, a French advocate wrote, "ipso facto, would be the second power in the world. Economic power, nuclear power, armed with a Security Council seat, it would be an incontrovertible force even for the United States."

Jacques Julliard, the French political journalist who has published a short book advancing this thesis, describes Bush as gaining power through a judicial coup d'état. When it comes to advocating France and Germany's explicit seizure of European leadership, he acknowledges other European "governments won't fail to denounce the power grab of our two nations. Of course. But so what?"

At the anti-Bush arguments' most intense, John le Carré, the British spy novelist, has referred to a neoconservative junta seizing power in America and "limiting human rights in the United States to an extent that is quite unimaginable." The junta's "adventurism" involved its links with Israel, and paraphrasing a part of the diary of Victor Klemperer, a Jew hiding from the Nazis in Germany during World War II, le Carré said, "I'm waiting for the real Americans to return." To a radio interviewer who asked if there was an implied association between the Bush administration and the Nazi regime, le Carré replied, "I did not make that association myself."

Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch European commissioner and a committed Atlanticist, talking about European alienation and anti-Americanism in Europe, said that "it has been and will always be there." "In this sharper phase, the Bush crowd is the detonator. In my country even responsible people say America is the cause of instability in the world - and they are not contradicted. That's new and perhaps a sea change. How do we get out of this hole? Not so easy. People don't like to be dependent, although they are." But for some European politicians, the Bush bogeyman characterization, finding daily resupply in arguments from the U.S. domestic political scene, is a type of diversion from focusing on more painful issues closer afield.

Bernard Kouchner, the French Socialist who polls show remains the most popular opposition figure in his country in spite of his criticism of the government's position on Iraq, said of the French, "We've turned Bush into the great enemy as if that could cement together a scared and hesitant country."

"Yes, the French are anti-American, and something new, anti-Semitic and racist," Kouchner told a French reporter. "Something's gone wrong in France's head." Denis MacShane, Britain's minister for Europe, said at the end of the 1990's, "We awakened with an enfeebled Europe in every sphere. Maybe not socially or culturally, but our general attractiveness was zilch. We had also lived through the humiliation of Bosnia and Kosovo."

European-American alienation in terms of this reality, he said, "is all about Europe's sense of growing inferiority." Indeed, MacShane said the Bush administration's first year in power was incoherent, and its policies since, on China or Russia for example, often inconsistent.

But Europe, he said, had made the mistake of "patronizing" Bush in its longing for Clinton, "a Social Democrat who put Europe on Valium, who could schmooze Europe, talk European."

After Clinton, when what MacShane called "old America" reappeared, Europe was caught by surprise. But the United States was not immutable or dense or unaware it made mistakes. Now, MacShane felt, "America has had its year and a half of neocon glory."

Although MacShane did talk about it, an official in Brussels pointed to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's extreme caution in avoiding any personal involvement in the tense discussion through December about the possible creation of an EU military planning headquarters separate from NATO. He suggested it was a clear change in American fine-tuning in its approach to Europe.

"There's a recognition that deeper-lying state interests exist and the United States is reverting back to them," said MacShane.

José Manuel Durão Barroso, Portugal's prime minister, a rare European leader in the sense that he has actually lived and worked in the United States outside any official capacity, talks readily about differences in "sensitivity and style" between America and Europe, and the administration's failure "to pay enough attention to the presentation" of its arguments.

Estrangement? In some respects, he said in an interview, America's more pragmatic culture grates. But a certain kind of pragmatism, he felt, would serve Europe well in relation to the United States. "In some European capitals there's the idea that we'll be more integrated if we're a counterweight to America. My position on building Europe is that you should think of it as a counterpart. A European defense identity, yes. But a counterweight? Constructing America as an adversary? What's strategically intelligent in building an identity against the United States?"

That's stupid, Durão Barroso said. Silly, he went on. Nonsense.