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Joffe Says France, Germany Learned They Could Not Stop U.S. Power; a New 'NATO II' Seems to Be Emerging.

Interviewee: Josef Joffe
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 16, 2003

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Josef Joffe, the publisher and editor of the Germany weekly, Die Zeit, says that the effort by the French and Germans to prevent the United States from using its power in Iraq failed and there now is a “sobering-up” process underway. This is coming when it is clearer than ever that the Europeans are suffering enormous economic problems because of the continuing efforts to bolster “the old economies” of steel, coal, and agriculture at the cost of the new.

As to the future of NATO, Joffe, a well-known commentator on both sides of the Atlantic, says that the alliance set up in 1948 in effect died when it “won”--when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991. But he says that to his surprise, a “NATO II” seems to be emerging consisting of many European nations.

Joffe was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on June 16, 2003.

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At the start of the Iraq war, it was clear that Europe and the United States were far apart on many issues. This led to strong anti-French sentiment in this country, and in Europe, President Bush was pilloried. How are things in the aftermath of the war?

A certain sobering-up process is underway. And the reason is that some Europeans, notably the Germans and the French, went for a power-play in order to stop the use of American power in the Middle East. And they did this in the [United Nations] Security Council, they did this in terms of rhetoric, they did this by recruiting the Russians. On March 5 for instance all three of them appeared on stage together and said, “We are all saying no to the war.” But although this was a full-power press by Germany and France, it didn’t work. They could not muster the power to stop American power. That is the first and most important factor. The second factor is that they’ve learned there’s a cost to anti-Americanism. It may help you, as it did in [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroder’s case, to win a very tight election in September of last year. But there’s a cost in terms of having bad relations with “Mr. Big” that’s not easy to sustain.

Has the United States made the French and Germans pay?

The Bushies have been cleverer than one normally gives them credit for. The first thing they did was to break up this axis. Although [National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice said the famous line, “Punish the French, ignore the Germans, and forgive the Russians,” what they actually did was something different. They made a conscious attempt to flatter the French. The French have much more clout than the Germans. They have a veto in the Security Council. This drove a wedge between the [French and Germans], and then the United States ignored the Germans and Schroder in a pretty demonstrative way.

Are you talking about the Evian meeting of the Group of Eight in early June in particular?

I am talking about all these symbolic moves, which work in personal life and apparently work in public life as well. There was this demonstrative flattery of [French President Jacques] Chirac and demonstrative ignoring of Schroder. The Germans have tried hard ever since [the Iraq war ended] to get at least partially back in America’s graces. And you know how the European press is. I would say that in general the German press, like the European press in general, is very critical, particularly of Bush’s foreign policy. But then being the press, they also have the instinct of those sitting in the Roman Coliseum and watching other gladiators perform. And when they see that Schroder does not get access to the White House, does not get a smile, then that instinct takes over and they start dumping on him.

That has egged on Schroder in a tremendous way, especially since his administration was very demonstrative toward the opposition. So when Frau [Angela] Merkel, the opposition leader [of the Christian Democratic Union] shows up to visit [Vice President Richard] Cheney, and suddenly out of nowhere, Bush comes in to welcome her. It is a silly game, but it is a high-stakes game. To break up this French-German axis, that was a quite clever move.

If there hadn’t been a parliamentary election last September, do you think Schroder would have adopted such an anti-war position?

No. This gets into the nitty-gritty of German domestic politics. Let’s start with the numbers. Throughout the summer, leading up the September election, Schroder was trailing by six to seven points because of the economic situation. Then, he made a rather obvious move. He was looking at the strategic weakness of the Christian Democrats, the conservatives, in the former East Germany. The population there is more pacifist, more anti-American than the rest of the population. And in the end, that’s where he won the elections. If you look at the electoral map of Germany, you would see that East Germany is practically an SDP [Social Democratic Party] country. That’s where Schroder won the election.

How has Schroder been doing in the local German elections since last summer?

In the end, foreign policy doesn’t trump domestic politics. You can go just that far with jingoism, or in this case, pacifism. In Germany, there were two critical regional state elections, in Hesse and Lower Saxony. The SPD was wiped out in Hesse, which used to be a traditional “red” state. The conservatives garnered an absolute majority. Lower Saxony is Germany’s “Texas.” That’s where Schroder comes from; that’s where he governed. It is Schroder-country. The Social Democrats were decimated there too. So, the moral of this story is that in the end, domestic politics is more important. There is relentlessly rising unemployment, relentless refusal of the economy to go back into a growth mode. And Germany is now officially in recession. It has now had two quarters of negative growth and 5 million unemployed. That will get you to 10 percent. That is quite an unemployment rate.

I would extend this diagnosis to all of continental Europe. The way Europe has organized its public and economic life after World War II was enormously successful during the growth period of the 1950s and 1960s. It was the period of the “Economic Miracle.” But now, growth is hampered throughout Europe. There are large unemployment rates, large rates of subsidies that protect the old economy and withhold resources from the new. We subsidize steel, coal, and agriculture to an enormous rate. These are 19th century industries. So, in short, we have built in rigidities to our system— large rates of taxation, large rates of subsidization, large rates of welfare spending, large structures of regulation, and labor laws which make firing virtually impossible.

What’s going to happen with NATO? Do you agree with Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Charles Kupchan that NATO will just die out in a decade or so?

You know there is a very simple but profound law of history: Alliances die when they win. No alliances last long after victory. NATO certainly did win. And it won on Christmas Day, 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. It self-destructed. NATO has been dead ever since. But a different kind of NATO has survived which may last longer than we think. The funny thing about this alliance is that it is supposed to be dead but it keeps growing. More want in than out.

But it is not the old NATO that would either act together or not at all. So it is a NATO II. I think there is more of a future for the alliance than history would lead us to believe. The traumas of the first part of the 20th century are so completely embedded in the Europeans that they remain attached to two keys of NATO. One is denationalizing defense. As long as we don’t go back to a purely national defense strategy, we will keep one genie in the bottle, which is a strategic arms race. And the other key is the idea that NATO was to have America as a European power, as an actor which has the will and wherewithal to use military power. And those two things have continued to put more life into NATO than you would have thought.

As a European, what would explain this very strong animosity towards Bush? Is it because he’s a Republican and not an “intellectual?” President Ronald Reagan wasn’t very popular when he took over either.

Europeans naturally are more drawn to Democrats, because they’re “left.” The press in Europe, as in this country, is more liberal/left, and there is the tendency to [take] the template of European politics and place it on American politics and say, “Well, Republicans are to the right and bad, social Democrats are good.” So that’s one factor.

The second factor is that the Clinton administration in part conducted American foreign policy in the way of those Renaissance meetings, organized by the Clintons. This big schmooze-fest— you hang out, you drink, you chat— and the style of the administration was a bit like that. Madeleine [Albright, Clinton’s U.N. ambassador and later Secretary of State] went around and talked up Joschka Fischer [Germany’s foreign minister, a prominent member of the Green party]. Clinton, for all of his failings, was and is a very charming, lovable kind of guy. Now Bush and Cheney and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld are not cuddly, Renaissance-weekend types. Somebody like Rumsfeld would rather lose a good friend than a good quip. There’s a certain arrogance of demeanor that doesn’t sit well and those who depend on American power suffer the consequences. So the style of an administration does matter, but it doesn’t solve the big problem, which is the vast and growing disparity of power between the United States and Europe.

Many people think the French were really envious of American power and were trying to block it?

Here are these Europeans, former great powers, former rulers of the universe at one point or another— Britain, France, and Germany— and they have been declasses as the French would call it, and they’re being more declasses by the day as American dominance of world affairs increases, and as the one factor which kept in check American power, namely the existence of another superpower [the Soviet Union], disappeared. So America is becoming absolutely more powerful, and certainly is becoming militarily more powerful. There’s nothing to counterbalance U.S. power. And what you see is an attempt by some Europeans to balance against the United States. Even if next year Howard Dean becomes president, this will not change the basic nature of the game, which is that American power will not end.

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