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Reconnecting across the Atlantic

By Vaiju Naravane

Does Condoleezza Rice's new, softened tone towards the French indicate a genuine change in the substance of U.S. policy or is it just a tactical response prompted by the difficulties encountered in Iraq?

"OH, SHE was sugar and spice and all things nice, but wait until the outer coating wears off. What will we find underneath, the same American arrogance, the same inability to consider or even listen to views opposed to their own," asked Irene, a doctoral student at the French Institute of Political Science (Science-Po) where U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice extended an olive branch to the French, saying the time had come to open a "new chapter" in transatlantic relations damaged in the wake of the war on Iraq.

In somewhat more measured, ponderous language, Francois Heisbourg, who heads the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research described Dr. Rice's speech as "a very real change in atmospherics." But that, he said, did not mean the Americans and the Europeans had a common project. "There is no point in trading insults. It's better to bury the hatchet. But that does not signify our differences have gone away."

His view was echoed by Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Centre on the United States: "The speech and its tone was very good. But it was not strong on perspective and did not go beyond the usual messianic calls for spreading freedom around the world."

The European media dubbed the simultaneous diplomatic initiative undertaken by Dr. Rice and U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, now in the French Riviera town of Nice for an informal meeting of NATO Defence Ministers, as "operation charm." Dr. Rice trotted out all the required conciliatory phrases, newspapers commented, but did this new, softened tone indicate a genuine change in substance and policy or was it just a tactical response prompted by the difficulties encountered in Iraq?

Dr. Rice's trip was precisely timed and aimed at giving the message that Europe continued to remain a major plank in President George W. Bush's foreign policy. Iraqi elections and the fig leaf of "democracy" in that battered country made it easier for the French to receive her with open arms. The French establishment is ecstatic at this new turnaround in relations. Dr. Rice had wished to "punish" the French for their opposition to the war, and French industry has suffered economically despite stout official denials. The most telling approval of Dr. Rice's visit came from Ernst Antoine Selliere, the chief of the French industrialists' association, who said it was time to forget the past and get on with the essentials — trade and commerce.

Dr. Rice's and Mr. Rumsfeld's European visits also prepared the ground for President Bush's trip to Europe later this month. While there is continued opposition to sending troops to Iraq on the part of NATO member-states that opposed the war, in the face of Washington's softer approach, Germany, France and the UAE have offered to train Iraqi personnel outside Iraq. Their earlier refusal to allow their officers to be deployed in Iraq effectively scuttled a NATO training programme for Iraqi officers agreed upon last year.

Dr. Rice's tough comments on Iran barely hours after she left Paris and Mr. Rumsfeld's renewed demands for more troops, money and equipment however made it clear that this is a need-based turnaround, not a policy change at all.

Dr. Rice chastised the Europeans (represented by France, Britain and Germany) who are conducting negotiations with Teheran, aimed at convincing Iran to accept stricter IAEA controls and eschew its uranium enrichment programme, for not brandishing the United Nations Security Council referral. Although U.S. officials say they support the EU initiative, Washington has resolutely stayed out of the negotiations. And Europeans fear that even if they were to persuade the Iranians to give up their enrichment programme, Washington's real intentions, which are of a belligerent nature, would torpedo their success.

"This is not a process that is going to be solved by the Europeans alone," IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei said. "The United States needs to be engaged. If Washington continues to say they are going to fail, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Differences over Iraq and Iran, environmental and trade issues aside, analysts feel the transatlantic relationship has been so badly damaged that any attempts to paper over the cracks at this late stage are bound to fail. The Europeans (not just those who opposed the Iraq war but members of the Coalition of the Willing as well) are beginning to realise that Washington's policy of pre-emptive war is in reality one of preventive war — without a requirement of warning of an imminent attack. Most Europeans do not share this view and the Coalition of the Willing has since been eroded by the dangers present in the Iraq situation and the fact that no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found. At a deeper level, the U.S. and Europe do not see eye to eye on issues of sovereignty, legitimacy and intervention. They therefore see a unilateral attack by the U.S. against a sovereign state, howsoever repressive in its domestic policies, as illegitimate.

Since the end of the Cold War, the conditions governing the Euro-U.S. alliance (military interdependence, unity in crisis and agreed use of force) have undergone such fundamental changes that it is absurd to talk of "mending" the transatlantic relationship. Europe and America have increasingly divergent foreign policy priorities. The European view is more regionalist and globalist, while Washington's perspective is hegemonist. The immediate consequence of this is that foreign policy is less pivotal in the transatlantic relationship.

The old Euro-Atlantic order has to be transformed taking into account new convergent interests while marginalising divergences. For, all things considered, the core of the relationship, dominated by a commitment to democracy and capitalistic free enterprise, remains intact. The economies of Europe and America are now so intertwined that political differences will perforce have to be dissolved in the higher interest of commerce. Outside NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) a third of all U.S. exports are to Europe, while the EU accounts for over 60 per cent of all direct foreign investment into the U.S.

There is immense frustration within Europe at its inability to develop a strong defence arm and a cohesive foreign policy. Until Europe develops such a capability, it will not be in a position to meet the U.S. as an equal partner. Europeans will have to demonstrate greater willingness to carry the burdens of peacekeeping, not just in Europe but beyond its boundaries. This means Europe will have to extend its strategic vision beyond its own geographic confines. In return, Washington must demonstrate an increased willingness to give Europe a greater, if not equal, voice and show its commitment to international treaties — something the Bush administration has systematically and deliberately ignored.

The Iraq war marked a turning point in transatlantic relations. But differences over the war only hastened a process that had begun with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The real source of transatlantic conflict is America's role as a global hegemon and the accompanying power imbalance between America and Europe. U.S. foreign policy pundits feel that America's hegemony is unlikely to be either curtailed or threatened. Their arguments are familiar: America's power — technologically, militarily, economically and financially — dwarfs everyone else. America continues to instrumentalise NATO to its own big power ends. But it is likely that the disenchantment that has crept into European voices in the wake of the Iraq war (particularly the noises emerging from supporters such as Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy) could lead Europe towards greater efforts at counterbalancing American hegemony.

President Jacques Chirac's renewed calls for an independent defence capability within Europe that fell on deaf or indifferent ears a year ago are receiving greater attention now. Mr. Bush's policies and personal style, the way he puts forth his views, his religious fervour, and his simplistic worldview have aggravated the existing fissures between Europe and the U.S. The U.S. misadventure in Iraq, now largely seen as a failure, and preparations for a distasteful and unwelcome strike against Iran or Syria, have begun to turn the tide against blind adherence to its dictates.

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