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Kupchan: Mood of U.S. Ties with France, Germany Improve with ‘Slim Pickings’ on Substance

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 12, 2007

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Charles A. Kupchan, CFR’s top Europe expert, says the recent visits to the United States by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel produced a major improvement in U.S.-European atmospherics, but only “slim pickings” on substantial policy issues like Iran and Afghanistan.

President Bush last week met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Sarkozy was given a rare White House black tie dinner, and Ms. Merkel met with Bush at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, which is a particular sign of esteem by the President. Do these meetings signify a dramatic improvement in the Atlantic relationship now?

Yes. I think that the symbolic importance of the Sarkozy and Merkel visits overshadowed their substantive importance. Compared with U.S. relations with France and Germany during 2003 and 2004, the situation today is dramatically better. Whereas there was virtually no dialogue between former French President Jacques Chirac and Bush, or former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Bush, we now have leaders in Paris and Berlin who are openly Atlanticist and that have marked access to President Bush. Sarkozy gave an address to a Joint Session of Congress, as well as being feted in the White House. Merkel, of course, visited the ranch in Crawford and during the summer, Sarkozy visited Bush at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, so the atmospherics couldn’t be more different.

On specific issues, I guess a priority for U.S. policy right now is to get another Security Council resolution firmed up against Iran, and, besides that, to get other Western countries to join the United States in ordering further sanctions against Iran until it stops its nuclear enrichment program. How do we stand on getting support for those policies as a result of last week’s meetings?

I think that despite the camaraderie that has prevailed throughout the week, there was not a great deal of progress on substantive issues that were at the top of the agenda. There certainly was no setback, but if you were to say, what concrete steps or measures emerged from the meetings, the answer is “slim pickings.” And Sarkozy, for example, was quite clear that he favors tighter sanctions on Iran, but he also said that he supports Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program.

Which the United States supports in principle, too, doesn’t it?

Only in principle and under quite different political circumstances. And in Merkel’s case, she too talked about tightening sanctions but she made clear that this needs to happen under the appropriate diplomatic auspices: Germany is awaiting the latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency and wants to make sure that Russia and China are on board for additional sanctions at the Security Council. There’s a principled commitment to tighten sanctions, but beneath the surface serious divides remain among Washington, Paris, and Berlin.

A few weeks ago, Germany seemed to be moving away from sanctions. The Germans seemed to be unhappy because sanctions were hurting business. Clearly, they seem to have altered their view.

Merkel is in a tight spot because of German history and the continued pressure on Berlin to engage in international politics only in the consensual fashion. She’s under much greater pressure to keep the sanctions process in the United Nations  than is Sarkozy, but the Germans have always been keen on “effective sanctions,” and by “effective” they mean with the consent of all the major players. They do not want this process to leave the Security Council. If there’s not another resolution, it’s going to be hard for Germany to stay on board.

“There certainly was no setback, but if you were to say, what concrete steps or measures emerged from the meetings, the answer is ‘slim pickings.’”

She has, however, been working the informal side of the equation, and that is in trying to put pressure on German companies to reduce their engagement with Iran voluntarily, and to some extent that is happening. German banks, for example, have dramatically reduced their business in Iran.

Another issue which gets talked about a lot is the situation in Afghanistan, where both France and Germany have troops but are not committed to using them in combat areas. I don’t know if that was discussed at these meetings.

I would think that Afghanistan certainly came up and, there, the Bush administration is happy that talk of the withdrawal of French and German troops has been silenced. When Sarkozy was a candidate for the presidency, he did mention the potential withdrawal of the French contingent. Merkel has been under pressure from the German left to get German troops out of Afghanistan. That withdrawal threat is over for now, but Bush has not succeeded in getting either the French or the Germans to remove the caveats that restrict types of missions in which their troops engage, so effectively they are not engaged in the major fight in the south.

Let’s talk briefly about the domestic situations in France and Germany: The French are about to undergo another big round of strikes because of the Sarkozy administration’s efforts, as other French administrations have tried and failed, to cut down on the pension plans and other benefits of  the workers throughout the country. Any predictions?

Sarkozy has bolted from the gate on both domestic and foreign policy. He’s way out in front of the bureaucracy and the electorate on many different issues ranging from the form of the economy to relations with the United States. And my guess is that he will have to slow down in the coming months, not simply because he’s already beginning to see resistance, particularly on the domestic front. Even though he has a coalition in the National Assembly, there’s a long tradition of civic unrest, primarily through strikes, that could dissuade him from moving forward with his ambitious agenda.

I was interested to read that public opinion polls still show more than 60 percent of the French public agrees with Sarkozy on trying to cut down on some of the more elaborate benefits of the French labor system, that is the generous pensions, the short work week, the long vacations.  But it looks like everybody is going to go on strike, from students to even the stage hands at the Paris Opera.

You know there really is a tectonic challenge now in France, Germany, and Italy. And the traditional left-wing in all three of those countries is digging in its heels to preserve the welfare state against the demands of globalization. And the challenge for leaders like Sarkozy and Merkel, or Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s center-left government in Italy, is to turn the corner and to move towards economies and political landscapes that look a bit more like the United Kingdom’s, for example, where deregulation, greater labor mobility, and more open trading systems, has already taken place.

How did the British accomplish that? Because they had almost the same system before, didn’t they?

They did, and it was really former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a Conservative, who started that process and who ultimately created a political landscape in which the left-wing parties moved to the center, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Laborite, extended that process, transforming labor into new labor. Now there is much less difference between center-right and center-left in the U.K. than there is between center-right and center-left in, say, France or Italy where you still have very strong Socialist parties.

Is there high unemployment in France and Germany?

Yes, and one of Sarkozy’s aims is to reduce unemployment. For example he has passed a law that removes taxation on overtime. That’s a way to give greater incentives to French men and women to work longer hours.

I didn’t know that, that’s interesting. So if you get paid overtime, that part of your salary is not taxed?

Yes. It’s essentially a way of circumventing the 35 hour work week, which at this point is a little bit too sacred to take on politically. And in Germany, an increase in the growth rate has begun to help bring down unemployment. And Merkel has also asked legislation to reduce the non-wage costs of labor.

To come back and finish up with the U.S. relationship, with Bush on his way out, there will be a new president elected by this time next year. Do Europeans have a favorite, do you think, to replace him?

Well, I would say that the Europeans are waiting patiently for the next president. And even though Merkel and Sarkozy are keen to have a good working relationship with Bush, they are also biding their time looking forward to an American president who is likely to be much more popular in Europe and more multilateralist in carrying out U.S.-foreign policy. To some extent the trans-Atlantic relationship has recovered remarkably well since the abyss of 2003, but right now it is to some extent on hold.

“I think that despite the camaraderie that has prevailed throughout the week, there was not a great deal of progress on substantive issues that were at the top of the agenda,” Kupchan says. “There certainly was no setback, but if you were to say, what concrete steps or measures emerged from the meetings, the answer is ‘slim pickings.’”

The one worry I have is that of excessive expectations on both sides—that across Europe there is the belief that the next president, especially if he or she is a Democrat, will turn back the clock to the “good old days,” and that there will be a dramatic shift in U.S. policy. There will be some change, but there will also be a lot of continuity. I think that on the U.S. side there is a belief that the EU, with Bush gone, will now step up to the plate on all kinds of different issues: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Middle East peace, trade. Unfortunately the EU, still internally weak, does not have a lot of assets to offer up, so the Americans may find themselves disappointed by an EU that doesn’t fill the gap to the degree that the Democrats had hoped.

One last question. When you say the Europeans are hoping for the “good old days,” when was there actually such a period? I go back a long time covering diplomacy and I remember the fights the U.S. had with France when Charles de Gaulle was in power. There seemed to always be some problems.

You know there were always good days and bad days, but I think it’s safe to say that from World War Two, through the early 1990’s, there was a trans-Atlantic partnership that was uniquely cooperative and, even if there were disputes over Suez, or pipelines to Eastern Europe, or the Vietnam War, these disputes were muted by the common goal of prevailing against Soviet Communism. Now that that common goal has been achieved, the Atlantic partners are attempting to reach a consensus on all of those issues to which they always disagreed: the Middle East,Iran, Iraq, [and] Asia. That’s why, from my perspective, there is no going back to the good old days.

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