Franco-German Shot at US Punctures Dream of European Power

The status of the US as 'the leader of the free world' has come under threat again this week, but the US may not be the only one to get hurt. In an unprecedented challenge to American leadership in NATO, France, Germany, and Belgium vetoed a US proposal to create contingency plans for Turkey. To do so, they claim, would be tantamount to conceding to Washington's desire to wage war on Iraq. The bitter dispute has thrown into doubt the credibility of the 54-year old NATO and endangered the European Union's expansion plan. - YaleGlobal

Franco-German Shot at US Punctures Dream of European Power

NATO tussle over Iraq undermines European Union expansion plan
Shada Islam
Friday, February 14, 2003
US secretary of State Colin Powell with NATO leaders in happier times. (Photo courtesty of NATO)

As the U.S. presses ahead with plans for military action against Iraq - with or without the backing of a second United Nations Security Council resolution - the rift between Washington and its key European allies is getting wider. "The threat of force must remain," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Security Council on Feb. 14. But the U.S. faces stiff resistance from the veto-wielding French and from a newly-assertive Germany which says it will not take part in any war against Baghdad. The dispute has not only put NATO - the 54-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization - in disarray but has also thrown the future of an expanded European Union into serious doubt.


The crisis at NATO's headquarters in Brussels erupted on February 10, as France, Germany and Belgium slapped an unprecedented veto on U.S. calls for contingency planning to boost Turkey's defenses in case of an Iraqi attack. The unusual disagreement had "triggered an undoubtedly difficult situation," admitted NATO chief George Robertson, adding grimly: "Our argument is of a serious nature."


It certainly was. And as the argument grew increasingly fierce during the week, NATO was plunged into its worst crisis since it was established as an anti-Soviet defense pact 54 years ago. Day after day during a long and difficult week, Robertson made repeated appeals for NATO solidarity while an increasingly ill-tempered America warned the three renegades not to endanger NATO credibility. But France, Germany and Belgium dug in their heels to block pre-war planning for Turkey, the only Alliance member to share a border with Iraq. Their argument? NATO must not enter the "logic of war" while efforts to find a diplomatic solution were still being explored, insisted Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel. "If Turkey was really under threat, France would be one of the first at its side," added French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. "Today, we don't feel the threat is there."


It was a question of timing, said French foreign ministry spokesman François Rivasseau. A NATO decision taken before UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed El Baradei presented their report to the United Nations Security Council on February 14 could only prejudice the body's decisions, he explained. Berlin made it clear meanwhile that its veto in NATO reflected a more general opposition to military action against Baghdad. "We can disarm Iraq without war. I see it as my responsibility to exploit that opportunity," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told the Bundestag. "Every means to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict has to be exhausted…and that means continuing inspections," Schroeder insisted.


As Robertson struggled to narrow down the long list of U.S. demands to cover only Turkey's defensive needs, NATO watchers agreed: Turkey's allies would come to its aid in the event of war but the wounds left by the acrimonious tussle between the U.S. and its three European allies were unlikely to heal in a hurry. The Alliance may well survive the Iraq crisis just as it overcame a 1980s row over the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe by hammering out a pragmatic compromise that allowed some nations to opt out. But the fissures caused by differences over Iraq threaten to transform the one-time supreme anti-communist fighting machine into a toothless tiger, an organization ignored by the U.S. and of increasingly little interest to a European Union intent on developing its own Rapid Reaction Force. The 60,000-strong European force, separate from NATO, is set to become operational this year with a focus on humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.


The rift in NATO goes much deeper than disagreement over timing for Turkey's defense, insists Dominique David, security expert at the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations. "The U.S. sees NATO as a reservoir of force - political and military - which it can use when it needs it," says David. But, he warns, "France is against the idea that the Alliance should be a simple support system for U.S. strategic interests." French President Jacques Chirac may, in the end, vote for war in the UN Security Council, but bitterness in Paris over America's strong-arm tactics in seeking to force a NATO decision ahead of the UN vote will not dissipate soon. Quite simply, says David, France is questioning America's role as a "supreme power."


Chirac is also worried about France's declining status and role in an enlarged NATO and EU which will include central and eastern European nations which make no secret of their pro-American sentiments. "The balance of power in Europe is shifting... and France fears losing influence," underlines Annalisa Monaco, acting director at the Centre for European Security and Disarmament in Brussels.


The gap between an American President determined to go to war and a German Chancellor resolutely opposed to military action will be equally difficult to bridge. Schroeder's no-war stance may be unpopular with the domestic opposition and business leaders fearing American retaliation - not to mention U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has bracketed Germany with Cuba and Libya for its refusal to support force against Iraq - but the Chancellor has public opinion on his side. And not just in Germany. Opinion polls show up to 80 per cent of Europeans against military action - including in Britain, Spain and Italy, countries whose leaders have enthusiastically espoused America's calls for military action against Iraq.


But NATO can hardly survive without the U.S. As such, growing irritation in Washington at the French and German blockage over Iraq will have serious repercussions for the organization. U.S. officials, already seething at the "war by committee" they were forced to conduct in Kosovo under the Alliance umbrella, now look set to become even more determined to bypass NATO in favor of forging easier ad hoc bilateral coalitions with allies. "If NATO is not used for relevant military operations, it will become a security talk shop," predicts Monaco.


NATO could do without new challenges. Having lost its way after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the erstwhile Cold War organization has been struggling to reinvent itself for over a decade. It took a public beating after September 11, when despite an enthusiastic decision by allies to invoke NATO's little-used collective defense clause in favor of the U.S., Washington opted for bilateral aid from allies rather than NATO assistance in its military campaign in Afghanistan.


There was a ray of hope at an Alliance summit in Prague last November, when NATO leaders promised a "comprehensive transformation" of the organization from a body geared to fight communist foes to one ready to battle al-Qaeda terrorists and tackle weapons of mass destruction. Also agreed was a historic Baltic-to-Balkans expansion, with NATO promising to take in new members - Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia - in 2004.


NATO leaders announced the creation of a rapid Response Force for global anti-terror missions. Different from the European army, which will participate in only humanitarian missions, the Alliance force will tackle the 21st century's new security threats. A statement by summit leaders said the new force - with land, sea and air power - would have initial operating capability by 2004 and be fully operational by 2006. "This is the emergence of a new and energized NATO," Robertson predicted with characteristic optimism.


The reality has turned out to be more somber. "NATO is being squeezed from all sides," underlines an EU diplomat. The U.S. ignored it in Afghanistan - and probably will do so again in Iraq - while European members, building their own defense and security arm, are impatiently waiting to take over NATO operations in Macedonia and Bosnia. "With its scope for operations shrinking, the question is this: what's left for NATO?" asks the EU official.


But the Alliance isn't the only casualty of transatlantic differences over Iraq. America's drive to win support for military intervention in Iraq has also caused deep and damaging fractures within the EU. In a controversial public statement published late last month, Britain, Spain and Italy talked up Washington's cause against Iraq, provoking affront not only in Paris and Berlin but also among other EU leaders who favor a more cautious approach to tackling Baghdad. Greece, as current EU president, has called a crisis summit of the bloc's leaders in Brussels on February 17. Greek officials say the meeting will aim to paper over the cracks in the Union - and to remind feuding members that they have a treaty obligation to consult each other on key foreign policy challenges and to defend common positions in international fora including the United Nations.


Washington's tough line on Iraq has also prompted unexpected discord between current EU states and the 10 mostly central and eastern European countries set to join the bloc in 2004. Breaking ranks with Germany, their long-standing EU mentor and main source of aid and investments, all ten future members of the Union have signed up to a joint statement supporting U.S. policy in Iraq. Rumsfeld's pointed denigration of "Old Europe," as symbolized by France and Germany, and the "new Europe" of pro-American former communist nations of Eastern Europe has helped widen the divide. In retaliation, Berlin and Paris have made sure that the would-be members are not invited to next week's EU emergency summit.


For many Europeans, divergences over Iraq are only the tip of the iceberg. The relationship is also burdened by differences over trade, the environment and even social questions like the death penalty. But the core problem, say EU policymakers, is that the world's only superpower, as managed by President George W. Bush, is unwilling to abide by internationally-agreed rules. "EU governments - even those like Britain which are siding with Washington over Iraq - believe that all powers should be accountable to a global system of law," says John Palmer of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre. Washington, on the other hand, is ready to discard the global rule book in favor of unilateral action. By standing up to the U.S. over Iraq, France and Germany are signaling their frustration at dealing with a superpower that doesn't listen. "They really think the U.S. is out of control," says Palmer. "And they worry: after Iraq who will be next?"


There are other differences. While the U.S. focuses almost exclusively on military measures to fight terrorism, EU policymakers like External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten insist on efforts to tackle the root causes of terrorism including poverty and humiliation. "The revolt of the alienated feeds off the frustrations of the dispossessed," Patten warned recently while in similar vein, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has spotlighted the urgent need to tackle Palestinian demands for an independent state. "Of course the U.S. today is spectacularly powerful," said Patten. "But it cannot do everything on its own."


One area where the U.S. will need EU help is in providing post-war humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq. The EU is already the biggest source of foreign assistance in Afghanistan but Patten has warned that Europeans will not pick up the tab for relief operations in Iraq if the US acts unilaterally to disarm Saddam Hussein.


With Russia and China also calling for more time for UN inspections, France, Germany and Belgium are certainly not as isolated in urging caution over Iraq as Washington would like to believe. The Bush Administration may take satisfaction at being backed by a majority of European governments - and has certainly done its best to play off one European leader against the other. But whether the U.S. likes it or not, mass anti-war protests in European capitals over the weekend have shown that the vast majority of public opinion in all European countries, including Britain, share French and German anxieties about war. And no amount of U.S. invective against Paris and Berlin will change that.

Shada Islam is a Brussels-based journalist specializing in EU trade policy and Europe’s relations with Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

© Copyright 2003 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization