Commentary

Euro Thaw Not What It Seems

Against the backdrop of the warm welcome bestowed by President Bush upon German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy during their recent U.S. visits, American pundits have been celebrating what they describe as a thaw in relations with the two European allies.

Both Merkel and Sarkozy have been contrasted with their predecessors, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, who were leading critics of the Iraq War. They have been feted as “pro-American” European leaders who not only admire America’s free-market orientation but are also willing to accept U.S. leadership of a revitalized trans-Atlantic alliance.

There is no doubt that both Merkel and Sarkozy recognize that their countries will be left behind in global economic competition unless they take significant steps to reform their labor markets and tax systems. But in fact, their predecessors were also supportive of these goals — though their efforts were hindered by strong domestic political opposition. And it’s not clear whether the two new leaders will succeed in overcoming this resistance from labor unions and other opponents of change in France and Germany.

Moreover, it would be quite misleading to depict Merkel and Sarkozy as American-style free marketers. Sarkozy’s reformist approach fits very much with his stance as an economic nationalist who has also pledged to protect “strategic” French companies from international competition.

Similarly, in calling for restrictions on immigration from Muslim countries and for blocking the entry of Turkey into the European Union, the French and German leaders are reflecting what in the context of American politics would be described as nationalist positions. At the same time, their respective agendas on global warming are not very different from that of Al Gore and his allies in the environmentalist movement.

There is also an element of wishful thinking in the prevailing spin in American neoconservative circles — mirror-imaged in the views of European left-wing critics of Sarkozy and Merkel — according to which the two are about to lead their respective governments straight into President Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in dealing with Iraq and follow the U.S. administration in a military attack against Iran.

In this faith-based interpretation, the French and the Germans are acknowledging the errors they had supposedly made in Iraq and are now ready to share in the burden of maintaining U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.

But after applying a reality-based analysis, it becomes clear that Sarkozy and Merkel, reflecting the views of the wider public as well as the political elites in France and Germany, concluded a long time ago that Chirac and Schroeder were right to predict that the use of military force to oust Saddam Hussein from power would produce chaos in Iraq, destabilize the Middle East and make it more difficult to win the war against terrorists like Osama bin Laden.

There is no sign that either the Germans or the French are willing to even consider the idea of deploying troops into Iraq to assist the government in Baghdad and its American protectors.

In a way, when it comes to Iraq, the main difference between the Sarkozy-Merkel duo and the Chirac-Schroeder pair is that the former were trying to mobilize European diplomatic power first to prevent the U.S. from invading Iraq and then to press Washington to get out of there; the latter are adopting a benign-neglect approach while the Americans continue to invest more of their overstretched military and economic power in the quagmire.

When it comes to Iran, France and Germany are trying to use their diplomatic influence in the hope that the threat of U.S. military action will persuade Iran to place its nuclear military program on hold — while at the same time refraining from making any commitment to use their military power against Iran if it rejects their diplomatic pressure.

Some analysts have suggested that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq would wreak havoc in the Middle East in a way that could threaten European strategic interests. And Bush has emphasized the need “to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat.” But if that is the case, why aren’t the Europeans spending more of their economic resources on building their military power to protect themselves against these threats in the Middle East, a region that is, after all, geographically closer to Europe than America?

The answer is that the current U.S. policy is providing France, Germany and the rest of the EU with incentives not to spend more on defense and to continue building up their welfare states.

For Sarkozy and Merkel, the current American military intervention in the Middle East is compatible with their short- and mid-term strategic and economic interests. Let the Americans pay the costs of stabilizing the government in Baghdad and juggle the many contradictory commitments to Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities there while at the same time trying to contain the rise of Iran. Let them handle the Middle East mess their policies helped to produce. If and when the Americans fail in their mission, stronger and more assertive Europeans would be ready to pick up the pieces.

From that perspective, Sarkozy and Merkel are not promoting a “pro-American” policy — but one that is easily compatible with French and German interests.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.