Commentary: The Shape of the Alliance to Come

By John Rossant

The joyous scenes of happy Baghdadis mean the conflict in Iraq is all but over. Yet in Europe, the wounds caused by that conflict to relations with the U.S. remain raw. Already, the prospect of a fierce new diplomatic rift over postwar Iraq is looming. The leaders of France, Russia, Germany, and the U.N. plan to meet in St. Petersburg on Apr. 11 to discuss what to do next -- and there is little likelihood that what comes out of the conclave will be a ringing endorsement of U.S. plans. "This war was started against international law, so we have to return to the U.N. as quickly as possible," is how one Russian diplomat put it. Try getting Donald Rumsfeld to agree with that one.

Yet despite all the hard knocks it has taken, the Atlantic Alliance lives. And in other ways, the war and its aftermath will have profound and long-lasting effects on everything from the delicate power balances among the Continent's nations to the way the European Union expands. Many of those effects could well be positive ones.

For starters, the healing process is under way. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder reminded the Bundestag "not to forget that states spearheading the war against Iraq are alliance partners and friendly nations." And a group of German executives, headed by Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement, plans to visit the U.S. soon to reemphasize German-American ties. "We strongly advocate taking emotions out of the debate," says Hubertus Erlen, chairman of Berlin drugmaker Schering. "Instead, we want to pursue our joint interests in the world economy."

Meanwhile, French President Jacques Chirac, the leader of the antiwar bloc, is establishing new channels of communication with British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- channels clearly designed to resurrect ties with Washington. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw and Dominique de Villepin, his opposite number in France, are already making conciliatory moves. On Apr. 9, deputies in Chirac's party called for a renewal of the Atlantic Alliance. And French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin now loses no opportunity to underscore France's support of "the democracies" fighting in Iraq: References to America's illegitimate war are out. Germany is also holding high-level meetings with the Polish government of Prime Minister Leszek Miller, whose strongly pro-U.S. position on the war stung Berlin and Paris. "There is a visible trend now to glue together the china that has been broken," says Janusz Onyskiewicz, a former Polish Defense Minister now at Warsaw's Center for International Relations.

As the Europeans put out these feelers, both they and the Americans will rediscover their need for one another. The $2.5 trillion transatlantic economy is by far the most important trade and investment relationship in the world. That's why the Bush Administration wants to block riders to legislation that would penalize French, German, and Russian companies seeking U.S.-funded Iraqi reconstruction contracts. And it has shot down an attempt by Congress to mandate a boycott of the Paris Air Show in June. There are even signs that the French, if they contribute to the cost of reconstructing Iraq, could land rebuilding contracts of their own.

The White House knows, too, that it needs full European cooperation in its fight against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. "The U.S., with all its might, requires allies. If you want to fight money laundering, you need help from Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Switzerland," says Karl-Heinz Kamp, head of the international planning staff at Berlin's Konrad Adenauer Institute.

If the Atlantic Alliance will reassert itself after the Iraq crisis subsides, the primacy of France within Europe will not. France has been fighting an increasingly uphill battle for years to remain the political pivot of Europe. Using the Iraq crisis to revitalize relations with Germany, France aimed to counter the increasing strength of newer, more dynamic EU members such as Britain, Spain, and Finland. Along with the members-to-be in the east, these states have outstripped France and Germany in economic growth.

If Chirac's antiwar drive was meant to reassert France's role on the Continent and in the world, it has backfired. Because of opposition from Britain and Spain, France already looks isolated. More important, the French bid to build an anti-U.S. bloc has alienated those Eastern European countries, most of them strongly pro-U.S., that are seeking entry into the EU. "There simply is a different vision of Europe emerging with enlargement, and it is not a French vision," says Julian Lindley-French, an analyst at Geneva Center for Security Policy. "The idea of a confederated Europe revolving around France is completely finished." The future shape of NATO will increase France's isolation further. "NATO will become more American," says the Adenauer Foundation's Kamp. "From 2004 on, we'll have 10 new eastern European members who want to be allied with the U.S."

That's why recent French moves -- such as an effort inside the EU to create a new defense axis around France and Germany -- are falling on deaf ears. They are seen as a final bid by the French to reassert their authority. "We've taken the heat on this [Iraq] crisis, and now we have to open our arms to Chirac?" asks a Spanish official in Madrid. "The French are going to have to pay for the mess they have made."

That's not a bad thing -- Europe needs voices other than France's as it struggles to reinvent itself. Yet in one sense, the French did the Europeans a favor by taking on the U.S. "The critics of the U.S. now see their powerlessness -- they see how Europe cannot keep up," says Stefan Kornelius, editorial page editor of the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "We are not up to forcing through our policies."

That's a huge lesson the Europeans are learning -- that they cannot hope to assert Europe's role in the world without robust, coordinated defense spending. The money that EU members allocate to defense is well under 3% of GDP, vs. almost 4% for the U.S. Indeed, Germany's per capita defense expenditures are less than those of Luxembourg.

Now, the Germans are starting a real debate on how to improve the Bundeswehr. And Chirac's party is calling for a vastly increased European defense effort. We've heard elements of this debate before. But at least the Iraq crisis has served to put Europe's weakness front and center.

Another long shot to pursue as the fighting dies down: a permanent peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Bush has put his prestige and that of the U.S. on the line in this quest. If the U.S. doesn't act, Europeans -- Tony Blair included -- could find another reason for a rupture. Instead, they could patch up their differences with the Americans and work together. It has happened before: After the first Gulf War, intense U.S. and European diplomatic efforts led to the groundbreaking Madrid Peace Conference in late 1991. Gulf War II isn't over, of course. But it's time for the Europeans to think of the role they will play in the new world that's emerging.

Regional chief Rossant covers European politics from Paris.

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