A visitor to NATO headquarters can be forgiven some momentary disorientation. Braced for NATO's rumored imminent demise, he is met instead with boasts of its Jack La Lanne-like vigor.
Today's euphoria results from several developments— above all, the agreement between the United States, France, Germany, and Russia that resulted in the Security Council's lifting sanctions on Iraq and giving a U.N. imprimatur to the Anglo-American occupation. This is seen as ending the prewar rift that reached a crisis point over France and Germany's initial refusal to aid Turkey. Less noticed is the agreement by the North Atlantic Council to assume peacekeeping duties in Kabul and to provide logistical and planning support that will enable Poland to manage a sector of occupied Iraq.
NATO officials are so giddy over how well things are going that they openly speculate about new missions— perhaps even policing an accord between Israelis and Palestinians. The Group of Eight summit in Evian, France, is designed to showcase the transatlantic reconciliation.
Alas, this era of good feeling is unlikely to last. The gaps in capabilities and perceptions between the Europeans and Americans remain vast and daunting.
The United States, which spends more on defense than the rest of NATO combined, has long importuned its allies to carry their own weight. But the Continent's anemic economic performance, soaring budget deficits, and aging populations make a major reversal unlikely. So does Europe's distinctive perception of the world. The Europeans still don't understand how deeply 9/11 has changed our outlook. They are not exactly oblivious to the danger— they have provided good cooperation on law enforcement operations against terrorism— but they still place their faith in international law over military action, engagement over confrontation. Suspicions of American "unilateralism" run deep on a continent where the most widely read commentator on U.S. foreign policy appears to be Noam Chomsky.
Much as French and German officials may try to be more diplomatic and constructive since the Iraq war, their sullenness emerges. Dominique de Villepin, France's Napoleonic foreign minister, maintains that only the anti-Iraq war views of Pope John Paul II and President Jacques Chirac saved the world from a cataclysmic "clash of civilizations." He makes no secret of his desire to see the European Union balance the American "hyperpower." Indeed the leaders of Belgium, France, Germany, and Luxembourg recently met to discuss the creation of an E.U. military force entirely separate from NATO.
It's easy to dismiss such posturing with a French joke. (But be warned— French officials think they are the victims of intolerable ethnic slurs, akin to anti-Semitism, from les anglo-saxons!) And, luckily, French highhandedness rankles fellow Europeans too. But Chirac and de Villepin are convinced that they speak with the true voice of Europe— and based on public opinion polls, they may be right.
The recent Iraq war was wildly unpopular even in the 18 European nations whose governments basically supported the U.S. position. There is a good chance that pro-American governments will fall in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. In France, no major party offers an alternative to the regnant Gaullism. In Germany, it is striking that the Christian Democratic Union, formerly the most pro-American of parties, did little to challenge Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, a Social Democrat, while he thumbed his nose at Uncle Sam.
We can't necessarily count on nationalist rivalries to stymie the Paris-Berlin axis in the future, because national polities will count for less and less as the European Union becomes increasingly centralized. While Americans are focused on more important matters like the NBA finals and the opening of "The Matrix Reloaded," a European constitutional convention is completing its work. The principal drafter of the new basic law is former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, and his work is unlikely to warm the heart of anyone who doesn't eat snails.
One of Giscard's ambitions, in line with longtime French foreign policy, is to increase the likelihood that Europe will speak with "one voice" in foreign and defense policy. Whether that's good or bad from an American perspective depends on what the voice says. The optimistic line is that Gaullism will be stifled in a new, expanded European Union, with Poland, Spain, Britain, and other states combining to form a solidly pro-American bloc. This view holds, essentially, that Europe will be Anglicized. The pessimistic alternative is that greater E.U. integration will turn the entire continent into a Francophone zone. The fear here is that Britain, with its traditional ambivalence toward the continent, will never emerge as the leader of Europe. Instead, Germany and France will muscle the smaller states into line.
In light of recent experience, this may seem unlikely; the Poles, Czechs, and other easterners were outraged— not chastened— when Chirac snarled that they had missed a good chance to shut up during the Iraq crisis. But, from a French perspective, this merely shows that the socialization of the unruly easterners is only just beginning. "The new countries will learn how to be part of the club," a senior French official said, rather ominously, to some visitors from les Etats-Unis.
It would be a mistake to dismiss this as a French fantasy. Eastern European gratitude to, and affection for, America is sure to fade with the passage of time, as Western European gratitude already has. The easterners are dependent economically on Germany, and that relationship will deepen. They will not jeopardize vital economic ties over peripheral policy disputes. Such economic links may also draw Russia into the E.U.'s orbit.
There is still little chance that the E.U. will ever realize French ambitions of "balancing" America, since Europe is in long-term decline, economically, militarily, and demographically, while the United States continues to grow. The real danger is not that the E.U. will become a global political giant (to match its economic stature). It is that a lowest-common-denominator foreign policy directed by Brussels bureaucrats will rob the United States of the support of its closest allies— even Britain.
Given America's vast power, this would not be catastrophic. As Donald Rumsfeld indelicately pointed out, we could have beaten Saddam Hussein without British help. But would we have gone to war at all if Tony Blair had not stood with George W. Bush? Maybe so, but it would have been much harder to rally support from the public and Congress if the only allies we'd been able to muster had been Micronesia and Eritrea. Europe matters in another way too: It helps shoulder the peacekeeping burden. Already Europeans are carrying the bulk of the load in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Kabul, and if a humanitarian intervention occurs in the Congo it likely will be a Europe-only affair.
This is not meant to suggest that Europe matters as much as it did in the past— or as much as it still does in the minds of many self-absorbed Europeans. But neither is Europe irrelevant, as some jingoistic Americans like to imagine. For that reason, the anti-American drift of the E.U. is cause for concern. At a minimum, it should lead Washington to rethink its traditional enthusiasm for greater European integration. Much as British entry into the euro zone might make life easier for American businesses (and tourists), it is sure to make life more difficult for American diplomats.
Open American opposition to the European Union would probably backfire, but it makes sense to work behind the scenes to strengthen U.S. links with close allies and to forestall as much as possible the centralization of European security policy. Giving Poland its own sector in Iraq was a brilliant move that boosted "new Europe" without giving the appearance that it was motivated by hostility to "old Europe." Instead of wasting time turning French fries into "freedom fries," we need more such ideas that will cleverly promote U.S. interests without annoying a European public that already is suspicious of American motives.
Max Boot, a contributing editor, is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."