European Union

Europopped

What does the New Europe letter mean for France, Germany and the United States?

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Tony Blair arrives in Washington today, having just delivered what even Le Monde calls "un joli coup." The paper of record for the Parisian left thus salutes Blair's role in producing Thursday's open letter from eight European governments, a statement published in 12 newspapers around the world including The Wall Street Journal.

The letter was indeed a deft blow, suddenly changing what had been a building news narrative of an isolated, bellicose America into a very different story, one about a French-German axis of appeasement that had overplayed its diplomatic hand. French TV actually buried the story Thursday; France2's evening news reported it midway through a broadcast whose lead story concerned a local snowstorm that had failed to materialize.

"Thanks in large part to American bravery, generosity and farsightedness," the letter reads, "Europe was set free from the two forms of tyranny that devastated our continent in the 20th century: Nazism and communism." According to Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, "The trans-Atlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime's persistent attempts to threaten world security."

As if that were not outspoken enough, Poland's former deputy defense minister and deputy foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, appeared on PBS's Newshour to make the letter's meaning plainer yet. "We remember a previous leader who was denounced by Europe's chattering classes," he said. "That was Ronald Reagan, and he was vindicated and he helped to bring about our freedom, our liberation from communism, so we feel instinctive sympathy with America."

"We may have our doubts" about U.S. policy in the Middle East, added Sikorski, currently with the American Enterprise Institute's Atlantic Initiative. "But we are comfortable with American leadership of the free world. You need friends in need. And America needs our help now."

Thus has France lost its bet—for now at any rate—that it could outflank American influence by attaching itself to Germany. That wager has been a long-term strategy, dating back nearly half a century. Writing earlier this week in Britain's Independent (link via Glenn Reynolds), Bruce Anderson offered an insightful analysis of both British and French diplomacy in the wake of WWII, when "both nations had to devise strategies to deal with imperial decline."

According to Anderson, the two former empires have pursued differing strategies since the 1956 Suez crisis. "After that humiliation," he argues, "the two countries drew different conclusions. We decided we would never again find ourselves on the wrong side of America." As for the French, "They hoped to obtain a surrogate for empire in the EU, by harnessing its economic power to French purposes: a French jockey on a German horse."

It hasn't worked because history appears to have outpaced the strategy: Europe has changed profoundly, largely thanks to the U.S. Nor was it lost on the emerging nations of eastern Europe that American-dominated NATO was more welcoming to them than was the European Union. While some western European signatories to Thursday's open letter have signed on despite widespread anti-American feeling among their citizens (Italy stands out as such a case), eastern Europeans appear to feel quite positively toward the U.S. As Sikorski put it, "The Polish public is the most pro-American in Europe."

But there may be an even more striking reason for the failure of France's strategy. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's "New Europe" (as opposed to the presumably decrepit "Old Europe" Rumsfeld dismissed) may actually exist. In a prescient essay published before the release of the open letter, Anne Applebaum cited the support of seven European countries (all of whom were to sign the letter) for U.S. Mideast policy.

"Perhaps not coincidentally," she wrote, "these are all countries that have recently undergone (or are undergoing) economic liberalization, privatization and labor-market reforms that have brought their economies at least marginally closer to ours. These are also countries that have, over the years, felt resentful of French and especially German domination of the European continent."

Applebaum notes that in the 1950s, France and Germany really did dominate Europe's continental politics. By next year, however, the European Union will contain 25 member states, and the two former giants can be easily outvoted. "Sometimes," concludes Applebaum, "strident language is a sign of waning influence, not growing strength."