Politicus: Chirac rolls out design for U.S.-European ties

Posted in Europe | 14-Dec-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

PARIS In the American mind-set, there's nearly a lifetime to go - think Super Bowl and, maybe, Iraq's elections in the meanwhile - before George W. Bush comes to Europe in late February to make things trans-Atlantically whole and wonderful again.

But European markers are coming down already. In London, the talk in Downing Street runs in the direction of Bush "doing something substantive about the Israeli-Palestinian situation" if he wants to make good on the reaching-out-to-Europe notions that the administration uses to describe his trip.

In Berlin, the Germans clearly want better relations, but have made sealing the "fissures" and "breaches" more complicated by clamoring to sell arms to China and insisting last week that they require a permanent UN Security Council seat with veto power, like the big fellas. This, although a UN panel on reforming the Council does not recommend a German veto, and the Bush administration would likely choke on the idea.

The French, theoretically the ally with the furthest to go in improving ties with Bush administration, (Colin Powell describes the White House as specifically hoping to "mend" the relationship) have smartly laid out through a speech by Jacques Chirac a blueprint of where they want to be positioned in terms of the United States.

The speech was made last month and has gotten only marginal attention. This is curious in the view of an aide to a European prime minister because he considers that Chirac was trying to explain for the first time how his multipolar view of the view of the world can be compatible with good relations between the United States and Europe.

In the speech, where he keeps things simple and away from away the world being organized around the idea of multipolarity - which to the permanent grief of France's global civilizing mission has a conversation-ending, Hegelian sound to it - Chirac is forthcoming, saying things that the Bush administration would presumably like to hear.

Terrorism is not some kind of nuisance as John Kerry promised to make it, but a threat Chirac described as "present and growing." France and the United States are on the same line, "with exemplary cooperation" (no reference to Iran, though) on the issues of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear proliferation, Chirac said. And, he stressed, finding peace in the Middle East "should rally America and Europe together," as should cooperation in reducing poverty, and environmental protection.

At the point where he comes the closest to dealing with why France has explicitly called for European and world counterweights to American power (notably on trips to China and Russia by Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé), Chirac argues, very narrowly, that strengthening European defenses "is obviously not, as sometimes said, about building up a Europe against the United States."

European defense is not the issue though. Rather, talking from an honest nook in a zone of frequent disingenuousness, the Americans really mean it when they say they're in favor of greater European military independence if the result is European willingness to take over greater military responsibilities.

The big question is whether chopping the world up into specific spheres of schematized and artificially defined characteristics and interests, à la Chiracian mulitpolarity, doesn't really concretize its divisions. Not to mention whether in assigning Europe (and other places) polar status, Chirac isn't really trying to seat the American superpower alone, across the table from a committee of global censors.

In his speech, Chirac presents Bush with a Europe that is a clearly separate pole "set to establish special links with the world's major poles," which he lists, beyond the United States and Japan, as China, India, Brazil, Russia and regional groupings in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

In doing so, Chirac transmogrifies Europe into a unified, muscular, spirited entity that it may never be. And he disregards Tony Blair's view that the world is unipolar, or even Gerhard Schröder's acknowledgment last year that Blair's description sounded pretty accurate to him.

If Chirac has been mocked at home for wanting to be the next Third World hero, a French Nehru or Nasser, he persists with the mantra that a "new reality" of a multipolar world "is challenging the longstanding pre-eminence of the West and all its models." This development, he says, "has paved the way for the assertion of another modernity that is emancipating itself from us."

Not exactly George Bush's view of a world clamoring for democracy in the context of a global battle against jihadist terrorism. But Chirac tries in the end, at least, to baste Europe and America's future together by saying, "I believe that [Europe's] harmonious dialogue with the other major poles in the world is helping to promote the universal values that are at the heart of the trans-Atlantic link."

How much of this would Bush like to deal with head-on during a trip seemingly preprogrammed to be nonconfrontational? He has given himself a good three weeks interval between the Iraqi elections (16 days concerning the Super Bowl) and touchdown in Brussels on Feb. 22 to fill in the blanks. Beyond talks with NATO and EU leaders, nothing has been announced about where he is going a-mending. France and Germany are possibles.

In the French case, Bush could take the advice of all those in Washington who say respect France but do not exaggerate the importance of what it says about the world's future. This argument maintains that since Europe will never be a superpower, it makes no sense for the United States to overreact to French theorizing.

A counterargument accepts over- reaction as a mistake, but makes the point that the United States shouldn't just let lie an approach to the world that essentially defines America as the globe's biggest problem. Doing this tends to legitimize French and German ambitions to lead Europe at Britain's expense, and leaves in the lurch the countries in Europe and elsewhere that see their development secured in a comfortable relationship with the Americans - and not rebranded by Chirac as their counterweights.

A traveler from Europe was recently asked in Washington how the Bush administration might best make a gesture toward Europe for delivery before March. He tugged at his jaw in contemplation. "Win the war in Iraq," he said.