September 21, 2006

September 21, 2006 | Commentary on Europe

European role reversal?

Much as the Bush administration has been criticized for unilateralism, the fact is that alliances remain. There is simply no way to fight a global war on terror in the absence of an extensive network of allies - and equally to the point, allies that accept the premise of American leadership. 

In Europe, the most important source of allies for the United States, 57 percent now consider American leadership undesirable, and a mere 18 percent approve of the leadership of President Bush, this according to the poll "Transatlantic Trends 2006" released in September by the German Marshall Fund. 

This is why the impending exit of British Prime Minister Tony Blair is an event that could have major implications for U.S. foreign policy. And equally so, actually, could the election of a new French president next spring. Presidential contender and Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy was in Washington last week, and judging by his remarks, France could replace Britain as a major European ally in the future, which would be a surpassingly strange turn of events. 

Mr. Blair will be sorely missed in Washington. The range of issues on which he and Mr. Bush have been in tune over the past six years include support for missile defense and fighting Libya's quest for weapons of mass destruction as well as troop commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among Mr. Blair's Labor Party colleagues, this steadfast support for U.S. policy has not gone over well, though it has been tolerated because Mr. Blair has shown a remarkable talent for sustaining high polling numbers. 

With the arrival of Conservative leader David Cameron last year, however, Mr. Blair's fortunes started to change. Mr. Cameron has been on a quest to move the Tories toward the middle, or as some might see it past the middle, of British politics, which has given the Tories a substantial lead over Labor in opinion polls. 

The corrosive effect on Mr. Blair's Teflon coating has been dramatic, culminating in the revolt of the left wing of the Labor Party over Mr. Blair's support for the U.S. position on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In a letter, Labor MPs demanded Mr. Blair's resignation, causing the prime minister to declare that he would step down sometime in the coming year. The assumption has been for years that his successor would be Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, of whose views on foreign policy very little is known. 

Mr. Cameron, who might well be British prime minister in two or three years time, on the other hand, has tried to carve out a position distinct both from his Tory predecessors and from that of Mr. Blair as relates to the United States. 

In a speech given on September 11 Mr. Cameron said, "Britain does not need to establish her identity by recklessly poking the United States in the eye, as some like to do. But we will serve neither our own, nor America's, nor the world's interests if we are seen as America's unconditional associate in every endeavor. Our duty is to our own citizens, and to our own conception of what is right for the world." And then the sentence that got him the most attention, "We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America." 

Interestingly enough, Mr. Cameron's remarks almost coincided with a visit to Washington by Mr. Sarkozy, who spoke at the French-American Foundation on September 12 about "the friendship between our two peoples." He talked in glowing terms about the heroes of September 11, about America's success as an immigration country and as a world leader and its leadership in the arts and sciences. And he spoke of the virulent anti-American sentiment in the French media and among "a portion of the French elites" as arising from envy.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Sarkozy has come under severe attack from President Jacques Chirac, who has denounced the speech as "lamentable." Other French politicians are predicting that he will become Mr. Bush's "next poodle." How Mr. Sarkozy's approach goes down with French voters remains to be seen. Furthermore, however you want to describe the French-U.S. relationship, it is unlikely that "poodle" will be a very accurate term, given the deep cultural differences between France and the United States. 

Yet, wouldn't it be ironic if, at a time when Britain may be staking out a different path, we found ourselves looking again to "America's oldest ally"? In the world we live in, strange bedfellows are better than none.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times