An American looking for a little trans-Atlantic support and sympathy would be well advised to book a ticket to “new Europe,” the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe that have emerged as some of Washington’s strongest diplomatic allies.
A continental divide over Iraq in recent weeks has exposed a tectonic shift in the dynamics of European politics, one likely to have huge consequences for the future of American foreign policy, the NATO military alliance and the European Union.
“The new democracies of Central Europe have made no secret we want to be real players in reshaping Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance,” said Andras Simonyi, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States. “We have some new attitudes and maybe a different perspective on Europe and the United States than that of some countries to the west of us.
“There is nothing wrong with that,” he said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s recent contrast between a fading “Old Europe” France and Germany, in particular and a dynamic grouping of countries farther to the east ignited a Europe-wide debate over the continent’s future that shows no signs of slacking.
“If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east, and there are a lot of new members,” Mr. Rumsfeld said late last month.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has consistently ruled out any German role in military action against Iraq. France under President Jacques Chirac has emerged as the biggest hurdle to Washington in trying to secure U.N. Security Council backing for a military strike against Baghdad.
But as Mr. Rumsfeld pointedly noted, France and Germany have found themselves increasingly isolated both in NATO and the European Union.
The foreign ministers of 10 Central European states, consisting of NATO members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, along with NATO candidate-members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, issued a joint endorsement of the U.S. position on Iraq just hours after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Wednesday presented the American case to the U.N. Security Council.
“Our countries understand the dangers posed by tyranny and the special relationship of democracies to defend our shared values,” the statement said. “The trans-Atlantic community, of which we are a part, must stand together to face the threat posed by the nexus of terrorism and dictators with weapons of mass destruction.”
Leaders in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic already had signed on to an earlier joint letter circulated by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar affirming support for the U.S. hard line on Iraq and taking a large, if implied, swipe at France and Germany in the process.
By coincidence, Mr. Rumsfeld leads a senior Pentagon delegation this weekend to the annual international security conference in Munich.
Noting the large number of countries already on record in support of President Bush’s Iraq policy, a senior defense official told reporters late last week that Mr. Rumsfeld did not see the trip as a major lobbying effort.
“I would not characterize it as a hard sell because I don’t think a hard sell is necessary,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Fervent expressions of pro-Americanism considered unfashionable in the cafes of Paris’ Left Bank and on the editorial pages of leftist British newspapers are far more likely to be heard the farther east one travels.
Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana told a Washington gathering last week that U.S. support had been critical in undermining the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu in the 1980s, in assisting Romania’s economic and political transition in the 1990s, and in championing Bucharest’s successful bid last year to join NATO.
“You have helped us achieve the dream of an entire generation, and we will never, never forget it,” Mr. Geoana said.
Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano last week invoked the American soldiers who died in the D-Day invasion of World War II in an attempt to rally European support for U.S. demands to disarm the regime of Saddam Hussein.
“Perhaps it is time for European leaders to pay a visit to Normandy Beach to see for themselves what the United States has been willing to undertake in the name of freedom,” Mr. Nano said.
“Just as America contributed to the liberation of France and Germany and the rest of Europe during World War II, so must the United States and the coalition of the willing liberate the people of Iraq today,” he added.
Fearing the Russian bear
Diplomats and experts say more than simple gratitude drives attitudes in Eastern Europe.
With Russia on their doorstep, Europe’s new democracies have fresh memories of military occupation and a keen appreciation of the need for a powerful patron. With the United States as the globe’s only remaining superpower, small, struggling countries from the Baltics to the Balkans have naturally looked to Washington as a patron.
While a half-century of economic, military and political integration has made a war between the major Western European powers close to unthinkable, the experience in the east has been very different.
The power of the Soviet Red Army and the still-fresh memories of the ethnic bloodshed as Yugoslavia slowly disintegrated in the 1990s have left many East Europeans closer to the Pentagon’s view that military might and defense budgets still matter.
“Romania understands that aggressive dictators cannot be appeased or ignored but must always be opposed,” Romanian President Ion Iliescu said late last month.
Closer to home, the identification with the United States in the East plays into a complicated power game in the expanding European Union. In the view of some diplomats, the link to Washington is the only way to counter the designs of wealthy countries to the West notably France and Germany to dominate the European Union.
When Mr. Bush says that the United States has “no better friend in Europe” than Poland, as he did in a recent Oval Office meeting with visiting Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Polish officials say they can use that to fight for a better deal as they prepare to enter the European Union next year.
“We go as far as to believe that [good relations with the United States] are our trump card in the [European] Union, that they build our position there, that they constitute a lasting achievement of our foreign policy,” Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz told reporters in Warsaw.
The Iraq debate has divided Europe just at the moment when EU leaders in Brussels have begun a concerted push to draft a new constitution for the organization. With 10 mostly Central and Eastern European countries invited to join the EU over the next few years, the 15-nation alliance faces institutional gridlock if it cannot fashion a workable power-sharing agreement acceptable to economies as diverse as Germany and Cyprus, Luxembourg and Bulgaria.
Already, there is substantial grumbling in countries such as Poland about what they see as the ungenerous terms being forced on them as a price for joining the EU, on issues ranging from farm subsidies to restrictions on labor.
Iraq: ‘Dividing Europe’
More generally, the glaring divisions within Europe have called into question grand ambitions, driven largely by Paris, for a unified EU foreign and security policy that transforms the continent into a diplomatic superpower and a counterweight to Washington.
Iraq is “dividing Europe,” complained former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who is heading the commission charged with producing a draft EU constitution by this summer. “This is something we cannot ignore.”
Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner in charge of institutional reforms, told European Voice magazine in a recent interview that the EU hopefuls in Central and Eastern Europe still must develop a “European reflex.”
“The newcomers have to understand that by joining the Union, they are not simply entering a supermarket. They are joining a political union, too,” he said.
“Their big concern has been security,” he added. “The United States has benefited from this and still benefits.”
But John Hulsman, a specialist in European affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said the inability of the Eurpean Union to forge a common position on Iraq has exposed the entire idea of a common European foreign policy as a “fantasy.”
“What you’ve seen in this crisis is the total irrelevancy of the European Union on the single most important foreign policy issue of the era,” he said.
Greece, which currently holds the six-month presidency of the European Union, on Thursday abandoned plans to convene a special summit of EU leaders to try once again to forge a common European position on Iraq.
With the pro-U.S. camp led by Mr. Blair and the skeptics headed by Mr. Chirac and Mr. Schroeder, there was little chance that a meaningful consensus could be reached, Greek officials concluded.
But representatives of the “new Europe” express worries that the divisions over Iraq also will undermine the unity of NATO, in which so many Central and Eastern European countries have invested heavily.
France, Germany and Belgium last week again blocked an effort by NATO ministers to consider a U.S. request to allow military planners for the 19-nation alliance to begin drawing up plans to aid NATO member Turkey in the event of a war in neighboring Iraq.
The holdouts argue that any contingency planning for war would short-circuit diplomatic efforts to end the standoff with Baghdad peacefully.
Pentagon planners largely ignored NATO’s collective offer of help in the campaign in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks, preferring to deal with allies on a bilateral basis.
In the looming military action against Iraq, many in Europe fear the United States will ask for NATO help and will be unable to get a coherent response.
“We want to see NATO be part of any operation that happens,” said Hungary’s Mr. Simonyi. “There are differences on Iraq, and that is OK, but in the end we very much want to find a consensus within NATO.”
Ironically, note some defenders of “old Europe,” it is the supposedly elitist opponents of U.S. policy in Iraq who are winning the political debate on the ground. Polls in Britain, Spain, Poland and other countries whose leaders have aligned with Washington show heavy opposition to a military strike, particularly one done without U.N. authorization.
Linguist Noam Chomsky, an ardent critic of American policy, chided “the willingness of the leaders of the new Europe to prefer Washington to their own populations.”
“When German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder dared to take the position of the overwhelming majority of voters in the last election, that was described as a shocking failure of leadership, a serious problem that Germany must overcome if it wants to be accepted in the civilized world,” Mr. Chomsky noted.
Several French and German officials reacted with anger to Mr. Rumsfeld’s relegation of their countries to “old Europe,” but Mr. Chirac tried to sidestep the dispute during a summit last week with Mr. Blair that failed to bridge Anglo-French differences on Iraq.
“It is very important to stand by one’s principles but also to respect other people and their principles,” Mr. Chirac said at a joint press conference. “So do not expect me to open heaven knows what Pandora’s box or get into an argument with anybody.”
The outspoken Mr. Rumsfeld, for his part, appeared ready to stoke the argument during a Capitol Hill hearing on the defense budget.
Saying the U.S. drive for military action was gaining international support, Mr. Rumsfeld said there were “three or four countries that have said they won’t do anything,” listing them as Libya, Cuba and Germany.