David Frum January 31st, 2005 at 12:00 am
Over lunch at a Washington think-tank some time ago, a high-ranking German official told the room about his country’s determination to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The reaction? From the Americans present, indifference verging on boredom. For the Europeans, though, it was as if the official had dropped a concrete block on their toes.
It was a fascinating moment of culture clash that demonstrates some ominous truths about American-European relations. The first truth is the traditionalism of American policy elites. Even when the evidence is thrust into American faces, it is hard for them to accept that things have changed in the old alliance. From 1947 until 1991, US-European relations were guided by the rule that America would provide the protection and Europe the deference.
With the collapse of Soviet military power, the deal became obsolete. Yet this large geopolitical change has made little impression on American policy elites. Indeed, John Kerry won the backing of almost all of this elite by running a presidential campaign that promised that the alliance could be restored with just a few sweet words.
So, the colossal fact that Germany is no longer willing to trust the US, Britain or France to represent its interests in the Security Council – that its leaders believe themselves to have achieved a status equal to that of the US, Russia and China – elicits nothing more than a ho-hum from Americans. Despite the confrontation over Iraq, despite German technology sales to Iran, despite the enthusiasm of Germans for the conspiracy theories of Michael Moore and Andreas von Bulow (polls show that one out of three Germans under 30 believe the US government staged the attacks of September 11 2001), Americans continue to believe that the Europe and the Germany of 2005 are the same as those of 1985.
The second truth revealed by the think-tank anecdote: the cracking faultlines within Europe. Non-German Europeans understandably regard the German pursuit of a Security Council seat as a betrayal of the European ideal. The British and French seats might be shrugged off as remnants of an earlier era, to be subsumed in time into a European seat. But for the biggest state in Europe to demand representation in its own name raises serious questions about the role of the EU and its other members.
This was another of the lessons of the Iraq confrontation: the big European states, and especially France and Germany, do not truly regard the others as their equals. Jacques Chirac, the French president, clearly expressed this view in his famous reply to the 13 European states that signed a pro-American declaration in February 2003: they missed a good opportunity to keep quiet. Thus far, the Germans have been more tactful. But their pursuit of an independent Security Council seat declares their true feelings as plainly as if Gerhard Schroder, the chancellor, had repeated Chirac’s words verbatim.
So where do we go from here? It would seem at a minimum that the smaller states of Europe need to think about the differences between the Europe they were promised and the one they are getting. Americans, meanwhile, face first a painful task and then an interesting one. The painful task is to accept the reality that Europe is drifting away. The sometimes hysterical aversion of many in Europe to George W. Bush is not the cause of this drift. It is a manifestation of the drift, and maybe even a way to silence any guilt that Europeans feel about abandoning an old relationship from which they benefited so much.
There is a tendency to assume that everything that happens in the transatlantic relationship happens because of America: that it is always America that acts and Europe that reacts. This assumption no longer holds in the post-cold war world. It is European leaders, not American ones, who are loosening transatlantic ties, and as much as this saddens Americans, there is little they can do about it.
The interesting task that follows the painful one is to devise new policies in response to this new reality. A cynical American might demand that any German application to the Security Council should be considered at the same time as applications from Japan (the world’s second-largest aid donor), India, Brazil and probably also from an African and a Muslim-majority country. The council would then expand from five to 10, or maybe a dozen members. But the bigger it grows, the more useless it will become, and the less of a restraint on great military powers. Since there is only one such power at the moment, Germany’s application translates into greater US freedom of action.
Alternatively, the US could consider a more idealistic approach. Maybe the German government feels little regard for the interests of the smaller states of Europe. That could be an opportunity for the US to demonstrate more regard. Perhaps the US could form, outside the UN, an informal caucus of democratic states, not only European but also Asian and Latin American. In this caucus, issues could be debated with less posturing and fakery than at the UN. This forum could reassure democracies without a Security Council seat that their interests will be championed by the one country with the power and the breadth of vision to speak up for something other than its own immediate interests.
Whatever course America takes, the world has arrived at a turning point. Everybody else seems to realise it. It is time for Americans to notice it too.