Europe's Abdication of Responsibility
Paris, April 17, 2008 – This must be the nadir of Europe's supposed ambition to play an independent role in the world. The nation that historically has claimed such a role for Europe, if not even for itself, France, now, under Nicolas Sarkozy, is knocking at NATO's membership door. The new French president asks that France be allowed to resume full NATO membership and be rewarded with a prestigious command appointment.
He is rather late. NATO now is an organization that no longer possesses much reason to exist, other than as a furnisher of auxiliaries in the conduct of an American national foreign policy of which the majority of NATO's members disapprove.
Of the faithful band of Atlanticists – Denmark, the Dutch, the British and the Canadians, all are seafaring powers. The British, Danes and Dutch have always felt themselves more a part of an Atlantic community than to the continental Europe to which the Danes and Dutch belong geographically.
This attachment goes far back. The English, after all, once had a Dutch king, William of Orange (in connection with the Glorious Revolution), and something like an economic union with Holland; and much before that they had a Danish King, Canute (1018-1035). The North Americans are actually the latecomers to the association, led by Britain until the waning of British power as a result of the first and second world wars. After that, the United States led.
Thus it is not particularly surprising that the British, Danes, Dutch, and Canadians would willingly follow NATO into its "out of area" adventures in what, in the better days of the Bush administration, was called the Greater Middle East.
It is equally unsurprising that most of the rest of European NATO held back from invading Iraq and taking on the Pathans (or Pushtoons) in Waziristan. The Germans have rebuffed every invitation to intervene in fighting either of America's wars of choice. The French have been in Afghanistan with a limited number of special force soldiers and an air unit, to keep an eye on what is going on.
Nicolas Sarkozy's seeming enthusiasm to send more troops to Afghanistan makes the French general staff in Paris uneasy. It also irritates French foreign policy commentators because they know that it is an illusion for Sarkozy to think that the U.S. and Britain would, in return, cede to France a major NATO command (while French generals might ask, "to command what?").
The British and Americans always mistrust the French, and despite their willingness to be courted and flattered by him (and the charming and well-bred Carla), they think Sarkozy looks even more untrustworthy (mistrustworthy, shall we say) than most -- if not fluky. His conduct in office has now made him unpopular with the French people who elected him, and with his own party's members in the National Assembly.
What Churchill once said of a pudding (dessert, in the American language) that displeased him, one can say of NATO today: "it has no theme." Its expansion works to reassure, possibly less than totally, the expansion countries against the Russian anger which NATO's expansion, and the project of anti-missile facilities in Poland and Czechoslovakia, provokes. There is no net gain.
Its engagement in Afghanistan divides the alliance. As both the Afghan intervention and the Iraq war are certain to fail, or be awkwardly unloaded from American shoulders if a Democrat wins the presidency, or escalated if John McCain is the new American president, the allies will likely find themselves involved in unpleasantness and risks over which they have little influence.
And this happens at a time which the European Union is itself so divided that it is impossible to see any chance of a serious European foreign policy or strategic military project. Europe is leaderless, Angela Merkel crippled by domestic political party divisions, Gordon Brown politically weak and drifting, uninterested in European or foreign policy issues; Silvio Berlusconi a nullity in matters like this; and Sarkozy alarming his fellow-Europeans as the French prepare to take over the European presidency in July.
All this at a moment when the globalized financial system is staggering under the weight of catastrophic mistakes at best, and cynical embezzlement at worst. The Middle Eastern crisis cries out for a European diplomatic and political intervention. There will be nothing useful from Washington until the presidential inauguration in 2009. And in the meantime the possibility exists that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney might decide that, before leaving office, their work is not complete without "taking out" Iran.
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