How should we assess the state of transatlantic relations nowadays? With a nod to Wall Street, we can say that the alliance is up, Europe is flat, and the United States is clearly down.
The alliance is “up” for one key reason: the warming of France’s relations with the US following Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as French president. For the first time since Charles de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic, France’s priority is no longer to live in opposition to the US.
The signs of this shift are profound, even spectacular. From a toughening of France’s position on Iran to a real warming of relations with Israel, not to mention symbolic gestures like Sarkozy’s summer vacation in America, or Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s arrival in Baghdad, this is a New France, one seriously considering a return to NATO’s integrated military structure.
France’s shift is the result of both political calculus and deeply felt emotion. For Sarkozy, the French are not anti-Americans, but simply anti-Bush. In his willingness to break with the past – in particular with Jacques Chirac’s legacy – and in adding a global spin to his “mandate for change,” Sarkozy is paving the way for the post-Bush America that will soon be here.
He knows that the “return of France” as an influential actor in Europe presupposes a France that is closer to America, which will automatically bring France closer to Germany and Great-Britain, not to mention Poland and Italy. Emotionally, too, “Sarkozy the American, Sarkozy the doer,” who wants to be judged by his actions, tends to see himself as a Gallic incarnation of the American dream. He is the son of immigrants, the outsider whose rise to the top is living proof of French openness.
In the US, too, the attitude towards the alliance with Europe has changed mightily. The failure in Iraq, the risk of an “Iraqization” of Afghanistan, and Russia’s newfound assertiveness have moved America from the arrogant diffidence that characterized most of Bush’s presidency to a rediscovery of the alliance’s value.
America needs allies, and is not preoccupied by their potential independent strength. As one top American diplomat put it, “The last worry I have when I wake up at three in the morning is that Europe is becoming too strong.”
But rapprochement between France and the US should not hide other realities. First, in Afghanistan, NATO is in danger of suffering its first military defeat. Where will the new troops that are needed come from? And a key member of the alliance, Turkey, may be about to embark in a dangerous military adventure in Kurdish northern Iraq.
Second, one cannot speak of NATO without noting that the alliance’s twin pillars – Europe and the US – are not in great shape. If Europe is “flat,” one reason is Sarkozy. He may be encouraging news for the alliance, his European policy is a source of worry for Europe. While Sarkozy claims that Europe is his priority, his methods seem to contradict his intentions.
The difficult personal chemistry he has with German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reinforced by his constant attacks on the European Central Bank and its president, Jean-Claude Trichet. One cannot simultaneously defend the alliance in the name of Europe and weaken Europe with fits of populism and economic nationalism.
Europe’s three key new leaders – Britain’s Gordon Brown, Merkel, and Sarkozy – all belong to a generation that is no longer emotionally moved by the project of European integration. Their links with Europe – if they exist at all – are at best rational, not emotional. But will cool rationality be enough to create a European security pillar within the context of the alliance?
As for America, it is “down” in terms of both “soft” ideological power and “hard” military power. The US remains by far the world’s strongest country, particularly in military terms, but it is confronted with fundamental questions about the use and utility of force at a time when power is relative. Today, Americans and Europeans alike must demonstrate modesty. Unlike when the Alliance was created, a multi-polar world system has taken shape, in which the West’s demographic and economic share has fallen, and in which it must now compete with successful authoritarian models such as China or even Russia.
In this new context, solidarity is as crucial as ever. Opinion about the US remains largely negative in Europe, and will remain so at least until the US presidential election in 2008. Likewise, US perceptions of France and of Europe are only slowly improving.
It is only by respecting our common values and not exacerbating our differences that the West will be able to reinvent itself. The alliance may be “up,” but its outlook remains uncertain.