As the 26 leaders of the NATO Alliance gather in Bucharest this week for the organization's 59th summit, there will be simmering tensions between the United States and what Donald Rumsfeld memorably described in 2003 as "Old Europe." As the Bucharest meeting will show, the traditional rifts between Germany and France and America on some of the biggest foreign policy questions of the day is still firmly in place. The notion that Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy are ushering in a new era of transatlantic cooperation, with Europe and the United States walking hand in hand solving the world's problems is a romanticized fiction that bears little relation to reality.
It is true that the venomous anti-Americanism of Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac has been replaced by a softer and subtler message, and the rhetoric coming from the Chancellery and the Elysee Palace is less openly hostile, but the harsh fact remains that France and Germany's foreign and domestic policies are largely unchanged. The United States and the Franco-German axis are still worlds apart on the war on terror, Iraq, Russia, the Middle East Peace process, global warming, trade, economic policy, and social and religious outlook. Public opinion in both countries is still overwhelmingly anti-American, a long-term trend that will almost certainly outlast the Bush administration. Only on the issue of Iran has there been a significant shift in policy in the case of France, with Sarkozy advancing a tough message to the Mullahs of Tehran. Germany has been far less willing however to support a rigorous sanctions regime against Tehran, with 5,000 German companies still operating there.
The French and Germans remain the dominant powers in Brussels, the administrative center of the European Union, and are the driving force behind the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy and European Security and Defense Policy. Like their predecessors, both Sarkozy and Merkel remain committed to what is commonly known as "the European Project," or the drive towards ever closer union within the EU.
Both leaders are champions of the new European Union Reform Treaty (Treaty of Lisbon) which is to all intents and purposes a reheated European Constitution, almost the same document that the French and Dutch publics emphatically rejected in referenda two years ago. The Treaty is a blueprint for a European superstate, with proposals for a long-term EU president, an EU foreign minister, a European diplomatic corps, a pan European magistracy, and a federal EU police force. Nicolas Sarkozy might not talk of the EU as a rival pole of power to the United States on the world stage, as his Gaullist predecessors did, but in practice his European policies advance exactly the same goal, with an even more distinctly protectionist bent.
On his trip to London last week, the new French president spoke warmly of his British neighbors and declared a new era in Anglo-French relations. In reality however, both sides distrust each other, and the British still remain far closer militarily, culturally, and economically to the United States than they do to their Gallic cousins. In contrast, Franco-German cooperation within the EU advances at every level in international organizations, from the United Nations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Indeed it is not uncommon for Paris and Berlin to be represented by a single official at the negotiating table, jointly representing the two power's interests.
Unsurprisingly, Germany and France have joined forces this week to oppose President Bush's proposal to bring pro-Western Ukraine and Georgia into NATO's Membership Action Plan, a critical first step towards the admission of the two former Soviet satellites into the Alliance. Chancellor Merkel, backed by Paris, has threatened to use her veto if the Americans push ahead with the issue. Her spokesman has cited Russia's "legitimate security concerns" as the key reason for Berlin's opposition, in effect giving Moscow a huge and unacceptable say over NATO's internal affairs. Germany's weak-kneed approach towards the Russians sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to derail any further expansion of the alliance beyond Albania, Croatia and Macedonia.
It also pits much of continental western Europe against the new eastern and central European members of NATO. Above all it reflects a fundamental divide between Washington's vision of advancing and protecting liberty in eastern Europe, and Paris and Berlin's immediate concern of keeping the Russian bear happy. As Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili commented to the Financial Times on Merkel's call for a united front against his country's admission: "I think this is a very, very wrong argument. NATO united around what? Around appeasement? We've seen Europe united once like this in the last century and we saw where it led."
Germany, and to some extent France, will also find themselves at loggerheads with the United States over the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Washington's request for a greater, no-strings attached military contribution by both countries is likely to fall on deaf ears. Germany and France combined have around 4,700 troops serving as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), but they are based away from the main battlefields in the south and rarely see combat. German forces, like those of many European countries, are protected by a series of "caveats" aimed at keeping them out of harm's way, and are reportedly banned by their political chiefs from traveling more than two hours away from a major medical facility or from flying at night.
Sarkozy has indicated that Paris may offer an extra 1,000 troops for the Afghan mission at the Bucharest summit, but it is unlikely they would be sent to the war zone and probably would not make a significant difference to the war effort. In addition, the French president's demand that this offer be linked to U.S. and British support for an independent EU defense identity within NATO is likely to be rejected, killing the deal. There is also the not insignificant matter of strong French public and parliamentary opposition to sending more troops abroad, which could bar Sarkozy from even enacting his offer.
In contrast, the English-speaking nations of Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia (a NATO partner) have over 26,000 troops fighting in the NATO mission (over 60 percent of the total), and are actively engaged in military operations against the Taliban. The British, whose 8,000-strong troop deployment is almost as big as that of France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined, even sent their third in line to the throne, Prince Harry, to serve in extremely dangerous conditions on the frontline in Helmand Province. As of February 2008, the English-speaking countries had lost nearly 650 troops in Afghanistan since 2001, or 85 percent of the more than 760 ISAF soldiers killed. The rest of the Coalition has lost 115 men.
As the Afghanistan mission has shown, NATO has become a two-tier body, with a small group of Anglosphere countries carrying the bulk of the military and financial burden, with most of Europe's big players (the Dutch and Poles aside) looking on without pulling their weight. At the same time, they are opposing a further expansion that would strengthen the association and constrain Russian bullying in Europe. It is a half-hearted approach that is undermining the alliance and could ultimately destroy it. The Bucharest Summit, far from healing wounds, may actually exacerbate them, exposing the deep fault lines that divide what has until now been the most effective international organization of our time. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that Germany and France, or what was once dubbed "Old Europe," have the vision or commitment to help keep the alliance alive.
Nile Gardiner is the Director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Weekly Standard